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UNLV football has grown steadily under Tony Sanchez. Time for a 2018 bowl breakthrough.

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UNLV has improved by one win in each of Sanchez’s three years. Can a dynamic offense and semi-competent defense continue that trend?

NCAA Football: Hawaii at UNLV Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

5-7 can be a pretty boring record. It means you were good enough to threaten bowl eligibility, and it means you beat some pretty bad teams over the course of three months. But it means your fatal flaws stopped you quite a few times. You didn’t have many memorable wins, so there’s a chance that you didn’t have many memorable losses either.

One thing we can say about UNLV’s 5-7 campaign in 2017, however: it was not boring.

Through the course of 12 games, Sanchez’s Rebels managed to:

  • suffer what was, per the Vegas line, maybe the largest upset on record in losing to Howard in Week 1,
  • beat eventual MWC West champion Fresno State by 10 on the road,
  • win three of four games to get to the precipice of bowl eligibility,
  • and lose at a bad Nevada to fall short after all.

They did all this while losing their starting quarterback for most of three games, losing a trio of exciting sophomore skill guys (running back Charles Williams and receivers Mekhi Stevenson and Elijah Trosclair) to injury, and losing four regulars in the defensive back seven for at least half the season. UNLV’s depth was tested constantly. The Rebels only sometimes passed.

Through all this came some strange stability:

  1. Sanchez inherited a team that went 2-11 in 2014.
  2. He went 3-9 in 2015.
  3. He went 4-8 in 2016.
  4. He went 5-7 in 2017.

I thought more was possible, but the “offense rises while defense holds it back for at least one more season” vibe of last year’s preview ended up dead on. And despite all the shuffling, the brief highs and surprising lows, the Rebels were projected to win 4.9 games and won five.

They’re projected to win six this year. That feels linear and logical. It also puts a lot of pressure on a defense that hasn’t even slightly come around yet.

The offense? Growing by leaps and bounds. After improving in Sanchez’s first two seasons, the Rebels handed the reins to redshirt freshman quarterback Armani Rogers and surged from 87th to 49th in Off. S&P+ despite missing a couple of weapons.

With Rogers, a pair of exciting backs (Williams and senior Lexington Thomas, who ripped off a 1,300-yard season in Williams’ absence), four of last year’s top five receivers (plus Stevenson and Trosclair), and five offensive linemen with starting experience, there’s reason to think that UNLV can grow even further. With a full 12 games, Rogers would have come close to a 2,000/1,000 season (in passing and rushing yards), and with reasonable injuries luck, he’ll have all the weapons he needs.

The defense, though, has shown remarkable stability, and not the good kind. The Rebels ranked 116th in Def. S&P+ in Bobby Hauck’s final season and 114th, 116th, and 114th under Sanchez. He’s brought in a new coordinator and returns most of last year’s two-deep, so if a leap is going to come, it’s probably going to happen this fall.

S&P+ sees a schedule with two sure wins (well, after last year, nothing is sure), five likely losses, and five extremely winnable tossups. That’s a clear path to bowl eligibility and little margin for error.

Offense

2017 UNLV offensive radar

When Sanchez was just five years old, Barney Cotton was selected in the third round of the NFL draft. The former All-Big 8 offensive lineman played for three seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals and St. Louis Cardinals before knee troubles eventually led him into coaching.

Cotton is 17 years Sanchez’s senior and has coached everywhere from St. Cloud State to Ames (Ia.) High School to his alma mater. He led Hastings College to the NAIA playoffs and served as Nebraska’s head coach for a single game as interim after Bo Pelini’s firing. He’s lived a hell of a coaching life, and if this stint as UNLV OC is his final act, it’s a solid one.

UNLV averaged 6.2 yards per play in 2017; best I can tell, that’s the Rebels’ best average since 1981, when their backup quarterback was Kenny Mayne and future star QB Randall Cunningham was a senior at Santa Barbara (Cal.) High School. Perhaps fittingly, that ‘81 team finished just 6-6, also held back by its defense. The Rebels won at No. 8 BYU that fall, with QB Sam King out-dueling Steve Young, then gave up 206 points in its next four games, all losses.

UNLV had a senior QB that fall, though. It had a freshman in 2017. That’s a pretty thrilling realization.

Rogers’ first season packed in all the ups and downs one would expect from a redshirt freshman. He threw two picks in a 33-point loss to Ohio State, and his passer rating oscillated from 216.6 against SJSU to 82.1 against Air Force and back to 136.1 against New Mexico, and his rushing yardage went from 148 against Air Force and 193 against New Mexico to just 49 in the loss to Nevada.

He suffered a concussion against Utah State, which kept him out for most of the next month, and senior backup (and former starter) Johnny Stanton held the fort reasonably well. If he gets hurt again this time around — always a possibility for a guy who’s throwing more than 20 times per game and rushing 10 to 15 times — the backups won’t be quite as battle-tested. But there will still be upside: the 6’5, 225-pound Rogers is one of four former three-star quarterbacks Cotton has at his disposal.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Air Force
Armani Rogers
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Rogers averaged 7.4 yards per non-sack carry, a major factor in a run game that ranked 21st in rushing success rate and 33rd in overall Rushing S&P+. The line must replace left tackle Kyle Saxelid (an honorable mention all-conference performer) and center J’Ondray Sanders, but the interior line remains experienced and enormous — four returning guards/centers with starting experience average 6’4, 320.

That helps when it comes to clearing space for some mighty-mite backs. Lexington Thomas is 5’9, 170, and Charles Williams is 5’9, 185. Williams had four games at 6 yards per carry or greater as a freshman in 2016 and averaged 7.8 per carry in the opener before his season was done in by an ankle injury. In his absence, Thomas averaged 6.3. Throw in 225-pound senior Xzaviar Campbell for some extra beef, and you’ve got one hell of a running game, perhaps one of the best in the Group of 5.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at UNLV
Lexington Thomas
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The receiving corps does have to replace Devonte Boyd, who spent years occupying No. 1 cornerbacks and finished his career with 3,242 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. But Boyd was one of four Rebels to finish 2017 with between 27 and 34 catches, and while he faced perhaps better corners, he was the least efficient of the four. In senior Kendal Keys and juniors Brandon Presley and Darren Woods Jr., Rogers has nice efficiency weapons.

Presley’s got some pop, too. His marginal explosiveness of plus-0.44 points per successful play was the best of any primary target, and he was particularly explosive down the stretch, catching 14 balls for 274 yards and two touchdowns in November.

Add Stevenson (14 catches for 171 yards in 2016) and Trosclair (two for 69), and maybe throw a few more targets Drew Tejchman’s way (the sophomore had seven catches for 138 yards), and you’ve got more than enough in a run-first, and perhaps run-second, attack. And I haven’t even mentioned the five other former three-star recruits who haven’t yet had a chance to carve out a niche — sophomore Andre Collins Jr., freshmen Tyleek Collins and Patrick Ballard, and tight ends Giovanni Fauolo (sophomore) and Noah Bean (redshirt freshman).

This offense is going to be a thrill to watch.

Defense

2017 UNLV defensive radar

The offense’s success will put even more pressure on the defense to carry its own weight. The Rebels managed a defensive performance higher than the 50th percentile just four times in 2017 (all wins, naturally) and hit the 20th percentile or lower five times (all losses). The bar isn’t high, but UNLV still failed to clear it most of the year.

Enter Tim Skipper. A Fresno State alum and member of the Pat Hill coaching tree, Skipper coached at Fresno State from 2006-11, then joined Jim McElwain’s staff at both Colorado State (2012-14) and Florida (2015-17).

Sanchez was looking for a “more attack-minded play-caller,” and Skipper is tasked with bringing a little more havoc. There was almost none last year. UNLV ranked 111th in FBS in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 126th in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays), and 130th, dead last, in Adj. Sack Rate.

Skipper inherits a pretty experienced unit, at least. Four of last year’s top six defensive linemen, four of five linebackers, and six of nine defensive backs all return. Plus, Sanchez spent a good portion of his available 2018 scholarships on JUCO help — three tackles and two DBs.

NCAA Football: Jackson State at UNLV
Nick Dehdashtian
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As with the offense, size is not an issue up front. The top two returning tackles (Nick Dehdashtian and Salanoa-Alo Wily) are each listed at 290 pounds or bigger, and the three JUCOs average 6’3, 312. Dehdashtian even flashed some play-making ability last year, with 6.5 of his 14 tackles coming behind the line.

Beef is important, but there’s no obvious answer to last year’s pass rush issues. Dehdashtian and end Jameer Outsey are UNLV’s leading returning pass rushers ... and they had two sacks each last year. Maybe new coaching will unlock the attacking potential of sophomore end Jamal Holloway, a former star recruit who hasn’t yet made an impact.

Or maybe an improvement in run defense will force more passing. That’s certainly an area where beef and depth at tackle can help, and three returning linebackers — Gabe McCoy, Bailey Laolagi (who missed five games), and Javin White — each had at least three non-sack tackles for loss last year. You have to squint to see the potential, but it could be there.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Boise State
Jericho Flowers
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, the secondary was bereft of play-making. Lord knows the front seven’s porous nature didn’t help. But the Rebels have at least one star in the back. Corner Jericho Flowers led the team with 12 havoc plays last year — five tackles for loss, five passes defensed (including two picks), and two forced fumbles. Corner Jocquez Kalili had five havoc plays in seven games as well.

While attacking was the name of the game, UNLV was decent at big-play prevention. Considering the issues up front, that suggests safeties like senior Dalton Baker and sophomore Greg Francis did their jobs. We’ll see how many fires they are asked to put out as the Rebels get more aggressive.

Special Teams

UNLV unearthed two reliable kickers in 2017; that’s a rarity. Evan Pantels was 11-for-11 on field goals under 40 yards and 6-for-11 over 40, and when he was dealing with a late-season leg injury, freshman and kickoffs guy Daniel Gutierrez went 5-for-6 himself. Pantels out-punted since-departed Riley Erickson, too. So it appears UNLV’s set, as far as legs go.

Between Flowers, Woods, Presley, and 2016 return men Williams and Stevenson, there are at least options in the return game.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at USC 15 -24.9 8%
8-Sep UTEP 130 14.5 80%
15-Sep Prairie View A&M NR 23.9 92%
22-Sep at Arkansas State 66 -12.3 24%
6-Oct New Mexico 111 4.3 60%
13-Oct at Utah State 77 -9.8 29%
20-Oct Air Force 112 4.3 60%
27-Oct at San Jose State 129 8.2 68%
3-Nov Fresno State 44 -10.8 27%
10-Nov at San Diego State 55 -13.4 22%
17-Nov at Hawaii 122 3.4 58%
24-Nov Nevada 101 1.8 54%
Projected S&P+ Rk 105
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 72 / 119
Projected wins 5.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -9.2 (110)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 104 / 99
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 0.9
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 68% (70%, 66%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.1 (-0.1)

Sanchez has signed at least 10 three-star prospects in two of his last three classes. He has brought some needed coaching energy to his defense. He has improved UNLV’s win total in each of the last three seasons. And his Rebels are inching closer toward their NFL stadium move-in date. You could say everything is going according to plan.

That plan requires a 2018 bowl breakthrough, though. UNLV has improved each year despite a couple years of bad injuries luck, but to stay on the path, some further proof of concept would be nice.

S&P+ has UNLV favored in seven games this year, though four are projected within four points. If Skipper’s philosophy takes root, then all but maybe a couple of games (at USC, at SDSU) are winnable.

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