UNLV has made incremental improvement under head coach Tony Sanchez, as the Rebels went from three wins in 2015 to four last season. So are five victories (or more) realistic this fall? Sanchez has eight starters returning from an offense that was among the best in the nation in running the football in 2016. If a reliable quarterback emerges, this offense could give defenses plenty of trouble. UNLV's defense, however, is another story as just two starters return from a unit that gave up 37 points per game last season. The Rebels get a break on the scheduling front as it relates to Mountain West crossover games, so it’s just a matter of taking advantage of that and maximizing their offensive potential in hopes of taking yet another step forward under Sanchez.
Previewing UNLV Football’s Offense for 2017
All eyes will be on redshirt freshman quarterback Armani Rogers, the top recruit during Tony Sanchez’s three years on campus. The 6'5", 225-pound Rogers, the son of 10-year NFL linebacker Sam Rogers, originally committed to Cal while starring at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles before switching to the Rebels. He took the majority of the first-team snaps in spring practice and displayed a strong arm to go along with a punishing running style. Senior Johnny Stanton, a former first-team junior college All-American who began his career at Nebraska, and senior Kurt Palandech, an explosive runner who came off the bench to lead UNLV to a memorable Fremont Cannon victory at Nevada as a sophomore, provide excellent depth.
Sophomore Charles Williams and juniors Lexington Thomas and Xzaviar Campbell return to lead a deep running back corps that produced an average of 241.5 rushing yards per game, ranking 15th nationally. They’ll be running behind an offensive line that returns four starters, including honorable mention All-Mountain West tackle Nathan Jacobson and sophomore guard Justin Polu. However, the one loss on the line, center Will Kreitler, was key, and junior college transfer Sid Acosta, expected to take over for Kreitler, tore his ACL in spring practice and will miss the season.
The wide receiver unit, which was ravaged by injuries last fall, could be the strength of the offense. Senior Devonte Boyd — a preseason first-team All-Mountain West pick as a junior who has 164 career receptions — was slowed by an arm injury, while junior Kendal Keys and sophomores Brandon Presley, one of the stars of spring drills, and Darren Woods Jr. also return from injuries. They’ll be joined by standout freshman Drew Tejchman.
Previewing UNLV Football’s Defense for 2017
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Only two starters return on a defense that allowed an average of 36.8 points and 430.1 yards per game and faded badly down the stretch, giving up 42 or more points in four of its final five contests.
The big loss was at linebacker, where Tau Lotulelei, a second-team All-Mountain West pick who led the team in tackles (117) and tackles for a loss (16.5), departs along with underrated Ryan McAleenan. Gabe McCoy drew high marks for his play in the spring, but depth is a big concern.
The line, which wore down as the season progressed, should be improved and is anchored by tackles Mike Hughes Jr. and Salanoa-Alo Wily.
The secondary, prone to giving up big plays (23 TD passes allowed), doesn’t return any starters following the departure of junior corner Darius Mouton after spring practice. Syracuse graduate transfer Chauncey Scissum should provide immediate help on the back end.
Previewing UNLV Football’s Specialists for 2017
Junior Evan Pantels returns to handle both the punting and placekicking duties and is a solid all-conference candidate. He averaged 41.7 yards on 64 punts, including eight of 50 yards or more, and connected on 13-of-14 field goal attempts. Williams and Presley are expected to help boost a return game that was pitiful, ranking 127th in punt returns and 105th in kickoff returns.
The Rebels have improved their win total by one game in each of Sanchez’s first two years as head coach, which was good enough to earn the former prep national championship coach at nearby Bishop Gorman High School a three-year contract extension through 2021 and a $100,000 per year raise. With Mountain Division heavyweights Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming all coming off the schedule rotation this year and a deeper squad to work with, UNLV will have an opportunity to take another step foward in 2017. The Rebels should field one of the conference’s top scoring offenses this year. The question is: Will they be able to slow opponents down enough to parlay that into the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility?
National Ranking: 105
MW West Prediction:3
(Devonte Boyd photo courtesy of Getty Images)