UNLV is a year into the head coach Bobby Hauck rebuilding project; the show began with a rash of injuries in spring—as many as 17 out of one practice at a time. That did not happen this year—perhaps the first sign of progress.
Hauck credited the players' work in the weightroom for their improved health. "Now we're probably lucky to a degree, but we're also in better shape," Hauck said. Similarly, after a long scrimmage: "You'd love to go out and all spring have hundreds and hundreds of plays, but you can't hold up physically. We held up physically, which is probably a byproduct of the weight room, being 15 months into the plan here."
The second sign is the green shoots of consistency that have begun to appear in Las Vegas. Hauck said it was first time since he's been at UNLV that the Rebels have put together four quality practices in a row. "One of the things I liked was the fact that our players were pushing each other and demanding a lot from each other."
Probably, however, the Rebels' youth still will show between the hash marks this fall. Fourteen true freshmen played for UNLV in 2010, with predictable results: the Rebels fell from the 78th ranked offense to 118th, from the 103rd scoring defense to 116th. (In total defense, the group actually improved from 115th to 109th.) The team remains very young. Only four players on the Rebels' defensive two-deep chart are seniors, and over half of the rest are freshmen and sophomores. "We might be the youngest team in college football," head coach Bobby Hauck said this spring.
What will the improved, if not so new, Rebels look like in 2011? At runningback, look for a lot of the same faces, sometimes running a new play: the Pistol. "We'll have to see after spring ball how we like it," Hauck said. "It doesn't change the run game a whole bunch, but it changes some of the angles and some of the tempo. The people that are doing it are having great success in the run games."
Tim Cornett was the first freshman in school history to lead the squad in rushing (546 yards); he also tied the freshman school record for touchdowns in a season with eight (six rushing, two receiving). Cornett is trying to hold off three veterans, Bradley Randle, Deante Purvis and Omari Thompson, a newly enrolled grayshirt, Dionza Bradford, and a JUCO transfer all-purpose back, Eric Johnson. UNLV couldn't keep running back Bradley Randle off the practice field last August in Ely, no matter how hurt he was. Randle not only paid the price that month, he never got fully healthy during his freshman season. If healthy, Randle said he believes he would've had "way more carries. I think they probably would've fit me in to certain plays where I could get in and do my thing. I was banged up, but I tried to be as tough as I could... I've got a lot to prove," Randle said. "A lot of people have been waiting to see what I can do, so I'm ready to show them."
Not in that group is C.J. Cox, a favorite after spring ball a year ago; Cox has moved to linebacker. "The running backs have had a strong spring," Hauck said. A strong performance on the ground this season is key to general improvement in Las Vegas; it has ever been so, but has not been realized in many years.
Hauck is less enthusiastic about his receiving corps. Senior Michael Johnson and sophomore Brandon Babineaux were indefinitely suspended for what were believed to be academic issues. New slot receivers have gotten a lot of attention: Taylor Spencer, formerly a safety, and newcomer Eric Johnson. "We messed around a little bit with [Spencer at receiver] in the fall," Hauck said. "We'll have to see. He did some decent things in the back end on defense last fall, but he looks a little more natural right now at receiver.
All told, they're a young bunch. "The young wide receivers still are trying to figure out their route reading, but it's coming," Hauck said. Phillip Payne is the veteran, and played like it. Mark Barefield, not even a year into his college career, was steady.
On the line, three starters are gone from a line that allowed 36 sacks. Hauck hopes new blood will prompt improved production on the line. "One of the things we didn't do well enough was make our offensive line competitive enough with the starting spots," Hauck said. "We let the guys settle in." Alex Novosel grayshirted last season as enrolled for spring; several players who redshirted last season now compete for PT on the line. The Wimple doesn't know (gasp!) what the front five taking snaps for the first team were this spring, and won't burden readers with a guess.
But the Wimple does know that Caleb Herring is in the lead to start for UNLV at quarterback. Bobby Hauck isn't through giving JUCO transfer Sean Reilly another set of practices to oust the starter-presumptive. "At quarterback, Caleb's ahead right now, but that should be expected, as he's had a year in the system," Hauck said. "We'll certainly give both guys a chance to compete for it in fall camp and we'll see where it goes."
Herring isn't so sure. Reilly’s enrollment "lights a fire under me," Herring said. "Nothing is going to be handed to me in this program." Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rob Phenicie lauds the sophomore. "When I talk about being a leader and jumping into the offense, [Caleb Herring] did that last year. He wasn't perfect. But he exhibited a little bit of maturity and leadership." Herring played in eight games and passed for 365 yards and four touchdowns (three picks) in a reserve role last season. Three times he threw the only touchdown the Rebels scored.
This spring, Herring sees improvement in the whole offense. "The mistakes were minimal. We definitely improved from day one in spring until now. That was a goal, so we're on the right track."
On the defense, UNLV has to up its power to disrupt up front. Its 2010 line recorded only 12 sacks. End B.J. Bell is the lone returning starter, with only 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last season. The former junior college All-American must improve, and appears to be doing that. "He's doing a great job," Hauck said. "It's kind of like what I said about (running back) Bradley Randle, he's got his nose to the grindstone. He's not talking about it, he's just coming to work every day, which is what he needs to do."
Opposite Bell, JUCO transfer Trent Allmang-Wilder – one of eight junior college players signed by UNLV –enrolled last month. "Trent is the type of player we were lacking -- a big, physical presence at defensive end," Hauck said. At 6-6, 280, he certainly is a big presence. 1A ball is a big presence in his life, too. "It's completely different than on a junior college level," he said. "They're pushing me to where my legs don't even work anymore. I'm ready for it. I'm ready to keep working hard and hopefully get in shape and work my way to that top spot and be starting out here." Hauck said it was too early to project how Allmang-Wilder will perform but added, "I hope big things."
Inside, transfer Desmond Tautofi is pushing Tyler Gaston, backup tackle in 2010, for first team snaps. While playing in a Hawaii school, Tautofi started an on-field brawl before the 2009 season, and was kicked off the team. After a stint at another Hawaii school, then realized what he needed most was to leave the Islands. "I thought to myself, 'If I stay here, I can never get out of this dump,' " Tautofi said.
In a Vegas prep school, salvaging his academics and not playing football, most college recruiters either forgot about Tautofi or lost track of him. Tautofi earned an A average, and Bobby Hauck signed him last year as part of his first recruiting class at UNLV. He grayshirted last season, and is now on the field for the first time in two years. This spring, Tautofi from his assigned gap and tackled the running back, risking a big gain, but guessing right. "I've seen him do three or four of those," defensive tackles coach Michael Gray said. "I like that. I can work with that. We can challenge him."
UNLV would rather have redshirted Gaston in 2010, but the Rebels were thin at DT and Gaston began playing with the twos in October, at West Virginia. "That's a tough game to get thrown into, but he battled through it," defensive line coach Gray said. "He saw what it takes to go on the road and focus." Gaston ended the season with three TFLs, tied for sixth on the team.
There is even more renewal behind the line, where the linebacking corps must be rebuilt. All three starting linebackers are gone, making senior C.J. Cox moving from running back to linebacker even more important. Sophomore Tani Maka, who played in all 13 games and started one, must emerge.
Cox, 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back had only carried the ball 21 times for 64 yards on the year and hadn’t received a carry since the second week of the season. "I’ve always been defensive-minded," Cox said. "I don’t know much that is going on out here (at linebacker), but I am going as fast as I can and trying to hit someone."
"The first couple of days here, he’s shown an aptitude for it," Hauck said. "Hopefully he can keep it going, because we need some help here on defense." Of his new linebackers generally, Hauck said, "we're inexperienced, but I think we've got a real shot to be decent there. It seems like it's a different one in that group every day doing some good things. We've got to build consistency, but the ability is going to be there." In August, JUCO transfer Princeton Jackson arrives, and is expected to contribute.
Hauck is not as optimistic about his secondary. "The corners, I think, have come on. The safeties are up and down a little bit." Of those corners, the return of senior Quinton Pointer from injury and sophomores Sidney Hodge are highlights.
Sophomore safety Eric Tuiloma became a starter late in the season. Look for Air Force transfer Corbin Brown with the ones this fall. Brown is eligible to play this year, and has looked good on the scout team. The safety hits hard, despite his 6-foot, 175-pound frame. both loom large in the plans. Senior Chris Jones moved to safety from linebacker.
Safety Mike Clausen was indefinitely suspended for academics.
Two roadies open 2011 for UNLV: in Madison, Wisconsin, facing the Badgers on a Thursday, then in Pullman, Washington, facing the Cougars. Hawaii and Southern Utah come to Las Vegas, before a bye, the annual grudge match with Nevada. It will be easy to tell if UNLV has improved much over 2010 by Columbus Day, because last year's Rebels would have been 1-4, having beaten only the 2A team it faces at home. Any more wins than that will mean Hauck's system and players are beginning to mesh.
Conference play begins in the middle of October at Wyoming, after which the Rebels take their second bye in four weeks. Colorado State and Boise come to Vegas. Three of the last four are on the road-- at New Mexico, at Air Force, and at TCU. San Diego State travels to UNLV. Predicting wins and losses is a wild guess with this team; the transformation of the Rebels from an ineffective spread offense to a ground-oriented offense has been traumatic, and until the progress of that change is trackable, UNLV remains a wildcard. Its upside is not as defined as Colorado State's or TCU's; its dimensions are almost entirely hidden behind youth and inexperience. Two wins in 2010 was forgivable only because everybody knew the metamorphosis would be a painful one. Probably four is the floor this season, and if the shape of future wins remains so vague, Bobby Hauck's seat will begin to heat considerably for the '12 campaign, when it will be bowl or bust.