UNLV made arguably one of the biggest coaching gambles of the offseason when it hired the wildly successful Tony Sanchez from Bishop Gorman. The high school ranks have been a good place to grab assistants (Chad Morris, Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze) but not necessarily head coaches (Todd Dodge). Former coach Bobby Hauck brought one bowl season and four 10-loss seasons in four years, so clearly UNLV is rolling the dice that the Sanchez move will inject some life into one of college football’s worst programs.
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Previewing UNLV’s Offense for 2015
First-year coach Tony Sanchez won a mythical national high school championship at nearby Bishop Gorman in 2014 with a run-first philosophy. He and veteran offensive coordinator Barney Cotton, who spent the past eight years as associate head coach and run game coordinator at Nebraska, share similar philosophies and will try to add some muscle to a Rebel offense that ranked 104th nationally in scoring (21.9 ppg).
Senior Blake Decker, who finished fourth in the Mountain West in total offense but threw more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (15), returns at quarterback but was pushed strongly by junior college transfer Kurt Palandech in spring practice.
The strength of the offense will be wide receiver, where Devonte Boyd, who grabbed a team-best 65 passes for 980 yards and four touchdowns, returns after earning Freshman All-America honors. Kendal Keys also impressed while catching 24 passes as a freshman, and Sanchez also expects big things from highly touted incoming freshmen Brandon Presley and Darren Woods Jr.
The offensive line must be rebuilt after losing a pair of four-year starters in tackle Brett Boyko and center Robert Waterman. Will Kreitler, a second team NJCAA All-American, was impressive in spring drills and is expected to be the anchor along with Kyle Saxelid, who made five starts as a true freshman at left tackle.
Junior Keith Whitely, who ran for 504 yards and scored two touchdowns, is the team’s top returning rusher, but he is expected to be pushed by talented incoming freshmen Xzaviar Campbell and Lexington Thomas in the fall.
Previewing UNLV’s Defense for 2015
Kent Baer, who has been a defensive coordinator at 10 FBS schools, including Notre Dame, Arizona State and Stanford, comes over from Colorado. He will have his hands full trying to turn around a defense that allowed 38.5 points and 293.8 yards rushing per game a year ago.
The Rebels do have a couple of talented pieces to build around in junior linebacker Tau Lotulelei and senior free safety Peni Vea, who combined for 188 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Lotulelei is one of three returning starters on an athletic unit that has good depth and is expected to be the strength of the defense. Vea, who tied for second in the Mountain West in tackles by defensive backs, is the lone returning starter in a secondary that yielded 25 touchdowns while coming up with just seven interceptions. That unit should get a boost from touted junior college corner Jay’Onn Myles, who turned down Arizona and Baylor to sign with the Rebels.
The key will be the development of a young defensive line that returns just one starter in senior end Sonny Sanitoa. Sanchez was impressed by tackles Tuli Fakauho and Mike Hughes during the spring and believes junior college transfer Mark Finau and true freshman Salanoa-Alo Wily will be key additions in the fall.
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Previewing UNLV’s Specialists for 2015
Senior Logan Yunker returns after placing 30 kicks inside the 20 and adding 14 punts of 50 yards or more last season. Nicolai Bornand and Jonathan Leiva both return after sharing placekicking duties. Whitley will be among those battling for return duties in the fall.
The energetic Sanchez, who won six straight state titles at Bishop Gorman and has strong backing from the Las Vegas community, now tries to make the big jump to Division-I football. He takes over a sputtering UNLV program that has lost 10 or more games in six of the last nine seasons and faces a daunting schedule that includes non-conference games against UCLA, Michigan and Northern Illinois. Avoiding double digits in losses again this season would be a major accomplishment.