NCAA Football Preview - UNLV Rebels

It had been more than a decade since the Rebels finished with a record above .500 and there was little indication to show it could happen again last season, but that's exactly what happened to the team as it saddled up in the reformatted Mountain West Conference.

Right out of the gate it seemed like just another year in Las Vegas as the team began with setbacks versus Minnesota and Arizona, but then the squad broke through with a 31-21 victory against visiting Central Michigan and the pieces all started to fall into place.

The Rebels added wins over Western Illinois, New Mexico and Hawaii to match their best start (4-2) after six games since 2003. Unfortunately, the team was next matched up against 17th-ranked Fresno State on the road and was crushed in a 38-14 final.

The loss to the Bulldogs would have squashed the excitement in Sin City practically any other year, but the Rebels turned around a week later and knocked off in-state rival Nevada, 27-22, in Reno in the Battle for the Fremont Cannon, the first win for UNLV in the series since 2004.

Despite having momentum on their side, the Rebels took a few steps backwards in early November when losing to San Jose State and Utah State in consecutive weeks at Sam Boyd Stadium, but they regained their balance with sizeable decisions over Air Force (41-21) and San Diego State (45-19), victories that lifted the team to an even 6-6 on the season and 5-3 in conference play.

Thanks to their strong effort over the course of a long and arduous season, the Rebels earned a postseason bowl invitation for the first time since 2000 (win over Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl). Unfortunately, this time around coach Hauck and his crew had to travel to the Lone Star State to clash with the North Texas Mean Green in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, a meeting which resulted in a 36-14 defeat.

"This group I'm really proud of," Hauck said after the loss to UNT. "It was fun for me watching them go out there and compete, celebrating with them. As I told them, it's tough not to look at the last three hours, but as we move forward into next week, I'm hoping we focus on what we've accomplished, and that's a lot."

For Hauck, who coached a dynasty at Montana at the Football Championship Subdivision level before moving to UNLV, his postseason run resulted in a contract extension through at least 2016.


OFFENSE: Last season, the Rebels thought they had their quarterback in Nick Sherry, a starter in the first three games, but he had his struggles and was subsequently removed in favor of Caleb Herring. Herring completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 24 touchdowns and just five interceptions on 405 attempts, while Sherry had just as many picks on only 75 passes.

With Herring out of the picture for 2014, the quarterback job was Sherry's to lose and apparently that's exactly what happened as coach Hauck decided to go with junior college transfer Blake Decker instead of Sherry as the third week of August began.

"He just played the best in camp and separated so it was time to do it," Hauck said. "We didn't want to have a freshman as our No. 2 quarterback so we brought Blake in from JC and this is just the beginning for him."

A NJCAA Second-Team All-American at Scottsdale Community College last season, Decker threw for 4,241 yards and 47 touchdowns as a member of the Fighting Artichokes.

Decker will have the luxury of throwing to senior wide receiver Devante Davis, a member of the 2014 preseason Biletnikoff Award Watch List. Also a preseason All-MWC selection who is up for Maxwell Award as well, Davis turned 87 catches into 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago, and became the first player in program history to have at least 2,000 yards receiving over a two-year span.

Although he appeared in just nine games in 2013, Marcus Sullivan is also back and should help spread the field after notching 45 grabs for 505 yards and five TDs.

The bulk of the returning starters on the offensive side all appear along the line, giving the Rebels plenty of experience and familiarity in an area that is often overlooked.

Speaking of overlooked, UNLV cannot avoid filling the hole left by Tim Cornett at running back, one of the most successful players at the position in school history. Unfortunately, there are a lot of new faces lining up to take hand- offs, whether they be freshmen or transfers, which could put a damper on the progress of the offense as a whole. Keith Whitely and George Naufahu appear as likely candidates to assume some of the risk, along with David Greene.

DEFENSE: Having a member of the secondary lead your team in total tackles is generally not the way you draw it up in the game plan, but that's how the chips fell for the Rebels a year ago as free safety Peni Vea led the way with 108 stops in 13 games. Vea, who had three tackles for loss and a couple of interceptions, will reprise his role for the Rebels, as will five other returning starters on the defensive side of the ball.

Cornerback Kenneth Penny may not have had nearly as many tackles as Vea, finishing with 32, but where he did excel was in covering men down the field, resulting in a team-best 18 pass breakups. Tajh Hasson (49 tackles) also has a knack for playing the ball (11 breakups), as well as creating something out of nothing with four forced fumbles.

With the loss of Tyler Gaston (7.0 tackle for loss, 5.5 sacks), the Rebels have to replace their leader in both of those departments. The squad doesn't have a single returning player who had more than two sacks a year ago, and that could be a huge concern unless someone steps up and becomes more of a heavy hitter further up the field.

One aspect of the game that the defense will have to focus more on is stopping opponents on third down. A year ago the team ranked 117th in the country in allowing foes to convert at a rate of 47.6 percent.

SPECIAL TEAMS: It is not often that a program has to find a replacement for one of the best kickers in school history, but that seems to be the case for the Rebels here in 2014. All-time leading scorer Nolan Kohorst, who generated 247 points in four seasons, has graduated, which means UNLV will have to find a suitable replacement.

Jonathan Leiva, a junior college transfer, appears to have the inside track and was brought in by Hauck to fill the void, but without committing straight out to Leiva that means the door is still open for Nico Bornand, who also happens to play linebacker for the Rebels.

A solid contributor last year, Logan Yunker figures to have the punting position locked down once again after averaging 41.8 yards per kick in 2013 when he helped the UNLV offense dig out of some serious holes.

Another major concern had the Rebels averaging a pitiful 3.25 yards per punt return (118th nationally) last year, something that needs a major boost in order to at least indicate there may be a threat in that area from time to time.

OUTLOOK: The Rebels don't have a favorable schedule by any stretch this season. They starts off against an Arizona team which whipped up on them last season (58-13), but then does catch a break with hosting gigs against Northern Colorado and Northern Illinois, but those are only easier tasks if the transition to a new quarterback has gone smoothly.

Unfortunately, the middle of the slate will cause more than a few headaches as the Rebels deal with a three-game road trip that includes stops at Houston, San Diego State and San Jose State, with a home date versus Fresno State to snap the run. UNLV also has travel plans for Utah State, BYU and Hawaii, none of which are ever easy outings, but at least there should be a couple of wins awaiting the team at Sam Boyd Stadium versus New Mexico and Air Force in early November.

The big question is where will the Rebels be when they close out the regular season versus rival Nevada? Will the team be in contention for another postseason bid, or just trying to cover up and get through the season without any more embarrassment.

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