UNLV Rebels 2016 Preview and Prediction


#106 UNLV Rebels





HEAD COACH: Tony Sanchez, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Barney Cotton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kent Baer

While UNLV only won three games in former Las Vegas prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman head coach Tony Sanchez' first season, it's possible that these Rebels take a major step forward in Year 2. The head coach and his players both have a year of experience working together and the roster has been bolstered thanks to one of the strongest recruiting classes in program history. But will the pieces all come together in a way that results in the Rebels winning enough games to become bowl eligible?

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Previewing UNLV’s Offense for 2016 

Sanchez has plenty of talented options to replace Blake Decker, who started the majority of the past two seasons at quarterback. Junior Kurt Palandech returns after passing for nine touchdowns and running for 293 yards and four more scores as Decker’s backup. He will enter the fall in a stiff battle with Johnny Stanton, a first-team junior-college All-American who began his career at Nebraska, where he played for Rebel offensive coordinator Barney Cotton. And Sanchez says he will also give four-star recruit Armani Rogers, who switched to UNLV after initially committing to Cal prior to his senior year, a strong look in fall camp as well.

Whoever earns the starting nod at quarterback will have a solid group of skill players with which to work led by explosive sophomore running back Lexington Thomas. A deep group of wide receivers is led by juniors Devonte Boyd and 6'4" Kendal Keys, one of the stars of spring practice, along with redshirt freshman Darren Woods Jr. and sophomore Brandon Presley. And tight end, once a glaring weakness, now is a potential strength thanks to the development of senior Andrew Price and the addition of two junior-college standouts.

The offensive line, which allowed 33 sacks, returns three starters and is led by senior center Will Kreitler and junior left tackle Kyle Saxelid, who has added 25 much-needed pounds to his wiry 6'7" frame.

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Previewing UNLV’s Defense for 2016  

The line, led by senior end Jeremiah Valoaga and junior tackle Mike Hughes, appeared to be much-improved in spring practice but still must be considered a major question mark for the base 4-3 defense. Sanchez is hoping another year in the weight room combined with a solid recruiting class will improve a unit that was simply overpowered at times, allowing an astonishing 800 yards after first contact and an average of 5.7 yards per carry.

All three linebackers return, including seniors Tau Lotulelei and Ryan McAleenan, both of whom sparkled at times last season. And Sanchez expects Illinois transfer LaKeith Walls, a fifth-year senior who had 16 tackles in 11 games last season, and junior college transfer Brian Keyes to both become impact players.

The secondary has the potential to be the strength of the defense. Starting corners Torry McTyer and Tim Hough both return and will be joined by highly touted junior college transfer Robert Jackson. The Rebels must replace four-year starter Peni Vea at safety, but seniors Kenny Keys and Troy Hawthorne provide experience.

Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing UNLV’s Specialists for 2016  

Senior Nicolai Bornand, who has twice earned Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week honors in his career and kicked a school-record-tying 54-yarder, returns to handle placekicking duties. The Rebels must replace steady three-year starter Logan Yunker at punter. Sophomore Evan Pantels averaged 39.3 yards last season at Georgia Military Academy. The former Georgia State signee will focus on punting duties in the fall and but can also handle placekicking and kickoff duties if needed.

Final Analysis

Sanchez brought some much-needed enthusiasm and discipline to the program in his first year after directing nearby Bishop Gorman High School to its first mythical national prep championship. A 3–9 finish might not seem like much to get excited about, but it marked just the fourth time in 12 seasons that UNLV topped the two-win mark in a season. Sanchez is hopeful that one of the top-ranked recruiting classes in school history, which included seven midyear juco signees and a program-record 10 recruits rated three stars or better, will be enough to get the team over the hump and back to a bowl game for just the second time since 2000.