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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 115: U.N.L.V.

U.N.L.V. hasn’t had a winning season since 2000, back-to-back winning seasons since 1983-84 and three straight winning seasons since 1978-80. Since 2004, the program’s final season under John Robinson, the Rebels are 22-73. Over this eight-year span, U.N.L.V. has been outscored by an even 1,300 points — by 555 points over the last two seasons. It’s not a stretch to call U.N.L.V. the most disappointing program in college football since 2004. See, Las Vegas was born from dirt, sand, tumbleweeds and the wholly American idea that if you build it, people will come. U.N.L.V. football has roots in the same idea: Las Vegas, America’s boomtown, surely has the backing, wherewithal and wall-to-wall moxie to house a thriving football program — and for the program’s first generation, this was undoubtedly the case. Given the last eight years, however, the idea that U.N.L.V. should win has been replaced by a question: Does U.N.L.V. have what it takes to ever win again?

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Las Vegas

Nickname
Rebels

Returning starters
13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 116

2011 record
(2-10, 1-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 114

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    Minnesota
  • Sept. 8
    Northern Arizona
  • Sept. 15
    Washington St.
  • Sept. 22
    Air Force
  • Sept. 29
    at Utah St.
  • Oct. 6
    at Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 13
    Nevada
  • Oct. 20
    at Boise St.
  • Oct. 27
    at S.D.S.U.
  • Nov. 3
    New Mexico
  • Nov. 10
    at Colorado St.
  • Nov. 17
    Wyoming
  • Nov. 24
    at Hawaii

Last year’s prediction

Combining this inexperience with another deadly schedule leads me to think that U.N.L.V. will struggle again this fall. Instead of measuring success in the win column, therefore, measure U.N.L.V.’s development in Hauck’s second season by what we see on the field. In a perfect world, we’d see more consistency on offense, which would include better play from the line and more explosiveness in the passing game. We’d see better play on third down from the defense, as well as more forced turnovers, fewer big plays allowed and, simply put, an improved statistical effort. This year might not be pretty, but it will hopefully find an improved U.N.L.V. team in all the categories that matter outside the win column.

2011 recap

In a nutshell All you need to know about last season in six words: the Rebels lost to New Mexico. A postscript, in seven words: the Rebels also lost to Southern Utah. One day, perhaps, last season will be viewed as the year a young team began to learn the ropes on the F.B.S. level. This will happen if U.N.L.V., at some point in the future, wins games — like, seven or eight games — under Bobby Hauck. If U.N.L.V. doesn’t turn the corner under Hauck, last year’s team will be remembered only as one of the worst in school history, joining U.N.L.V. teams from 1995, 1996, 1998 and, sadly, 2010.

High point A 40-20 win over Hawaii on Sept. 17. Surprising, given the juxtaposition in talent level between the two teams, but U.N.L.V. does own the Warriors in Las Vegas. The win makes four in five tries over Hawaii in Sam Boyd Stadium, and the first of the four by more than 11 points. U.N.L.V.’s other win, a 38-35 decision over Colorado State, came via an uncharacteristic late-game defensive stand.

Low point The Rebels lost to New Mexico and Southern Utah. The less said the better. One thing: Southern Utah returned three interceptions for touchdowns in its 41-16 win.

Tidbit U.N.L.V. was one of seven teams to not start at least one senior on the offensive line in last year’s season opener. The Rebels were joined by Arizona, Stanford, U.S.C., Texas A&M, Tennessee and Georgia Tech. U.N.L.V., Arizona and Tennessee missed bowl play altogether. The remaining four teams, on the other hand, combined for 36 wins: Stanford won 11 games, U.S.C. won 10, the Yellow Jackets won 8 and the Aggies won 7.

Tidbit (youth edition) In total, U.N.L.V.’s roster includes only 11 seniors on scholarship — 13 altogether, but two are former walk-ons. The Rebels’ most recent depth chart includes only six seniors out of a possible 44 spots. Hauck returns only two senior starters. Young? You better believe it.

Tidbit (eight-year lull edition) I’m going to choose three teams ranked by most as among the worst in college football: Tulane, Rice and Eastern Michigan. Again, a random selection. Tulane is 26-69 since 2004, with one five-win season and three four-win seasons. Over the same time, Rice is 34-62, with two bowl trips and one double-digit win season. Eastern Michigan is 24-70 with three four-win seasons and, last fall, a six-win season. Over the last eight years, as noted above, U.N.L.V. is 22-73, with two five-win seasons and four years of 10 or more losses.

Tidbit (road woes edition) U.N.L.V. has won only two games on the road since the second game of the 2007 season. On Sept. 13, 2008, the Rebels upset heavily-favored Arizona State, 23-20, in Tempe — blocking a late field goal, if I remember correctly. The following October, the Rebels doubled up New Mexico, 34-17, in Albuquerque. Since Sept. 6, 2007, U.N.L.V. is 2-27 outside of Sam Boyd Stadium. U.N.L.V. has pitched only one shutout on the road in program history: On Nov. 12, 1983, the Rebels blanked Cal State Fullerton, 13-0.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 DT Isaako Aaitui (Miami), OG Joe Hawley (Atlanta), OG Matt Murphy (Indianapolis), DT Martin Tevaseu (New York Jets), CB Eric Wright (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Coaching moves made prior to the 2010 season
1. Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky.
2. Lane Kiffin, U.S.C.
3. Charlie Strong, Louisville.
4. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State.
5. Mike London, Virginia.

Coaching

Bobby Hauck (Montana ’88), 4-21 after two seasons in Las Vegas. No, it hasn’t been a terribly auspicious start for Hauck with the Rebels. He remains the most successful F.C.S. coach of this generation, having led his alma mater, Montana, to an 80-17 record from 2003 through 2009. His seven seasons with the Grizzlies saw the program land seven Big Sky championships and three appearances in the F.C.S. championship game, though his team lost in all three title games. While his first three seasons at Montana were impressive enough — 29-11, 16-5 in conference play — he took the Grizzlies to another level over his last four seasons: 51-6 overall and 31-1 in Big Sky action. Prior to taking over at his alma mater, Hauck spent four seasons as an assistant at Washington. From 1999-2001, Hauck served as the safeties coach and special teams coordinator; in 2002 he coached all the defensive backs. He held similar duties at Colorado from 1995-98, adding the title of recruiting coordinator for some of the finest teams in program history. His recruiting acumen is an oft-overlooked aspect of Hauck’s draw. Another factor that initially elated the U.N.L.V. fan base, despite knowing the potential for a slow start: Hauck is a winner, pure and simple. He’s been an assistant on teams that have won 11 games and nearly played for a national championship; teams that have spent weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation; and played for national championships on the F.C.S. level. Heading into last fall, no other second-year coach coming off a poor debut campaign had a longer leash. After four wins over two years, however, Hauck desperately needs to show some progress in 2012.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The only new member of Hauck’s staff is linebackers coach Tim Hundley, who replaces Robin Ross, who left to take the same position at Wyoming. Hundley spent the last three seasons as the defensive backs coach at U.C.L.A., which was his second stint with the Bruins, joining his six-year turn as the linebackers coach and special teams coordinator from 1990-95. Hundley will be the program’s sixth linebacker coach in five years. Dennis Therrell held that spot in 2008, as well as coordinator duties. He moved to the secondary in 2009, when he was replaced by Jed Stugart. U.N.L.V. had two linebacker coaches in 2010: Ty Gregorak, one of Hauck’s assistants at Montana, was fired five months after his arrival following an altercation at a strip club; he was replaced by former Utah State head coach Brent Guy. Last fall, Ross replaced Guy, who joined Bill Blankenship at Tulsa. And Hundley, the new guy, makes six.

Players to watch

The offense will have a new coordinator, though Hauck didn’t stray too far in his search. Former tight ends coach Brent Myers will replace Rob Phenicie, who will work solely with the quarterbacks after leading an offense that ranked 113th nationally in scoring a season ago. Myers, like Phenicie, will streamline a system to fit U.N.L.V.’s personnel: quarterbacks are few, receivers fewer, so the Rebels will lean heavily on a promising and productive running game.

One year after experiencing a wholesale transition from one group to another, U.N.L.V. brings back one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Mountain West. Last fall, the Rebels broke in five new starters; this fall, U.N.L.V. returns five linemen who combined to make 55 starts last fall, including four who started all 12 of the team’s games. With major concerns over the Rebels’ ability to throw the football — who’s going to toss it and who’s to going to catch it, for example — having a sturdy and tested offensive front may be this team’s saving grace on the offensive side of the ball.

The line’s best is sophomore left tackle Brett Boyko, a freshman all-American last fall. Despite Boyko’s presence on the blind side, the Rebels still ranked among the bottom 20 nationally in sacks allowed — giving up 35 despite ranking 113th in attempts. Boyko was one of three freshmen to start up front last fall, joining left guard Cameron Jefferson and center Robert Waterman. Jefferson moved into the starting lineup for the final seven games of last season, replacing Sean Tesoro. The Rebels will have seniors on the strong side, with tackle Yusef Rodgers — undersized but quick — joining guard Doug Zismann. For depth, U.N.L.V. has former JUCO transfer Allen Carroll as a swing guard and a slew of underclassmen, like Andre Oberg, Brian Roth and Nick White, waiting in reserve. It’s a very solid group.

And it should be better in 2012, thanks to last year’s experience. Where the line really needs to improve is in protecting the quarterback, which was an issue last fall, as noted. What the line can do — with last year as evidence — is open holes in the running game. U.N.L.V. rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 of 12 games last fall, highlighted by a four-game stretch in conference play when it averaged 230.3 yards per game. Three players rushed for at least 489 yards, though the team’s second-leading rusher, would-be sophomore Dionza Bradford (615 yards) left the team in March.

The onus really isn’t on junior Tim Cornett (671 yards, 7 scores), the Rebels’ leading rusher in each of the last two seasons. U.N.L.V. knows that Cornett can produce: he cracked the 100-yard mark three times last fall, led by a season-high 136 yards against San Diego State. What Bradford’s departure does is place a spotlight on junior Bradley Randle (489 yards), who must transition from being a change-of-pace back into a more substantial role. While he can be an effective reserve, the Rebels’ running game would take a step back if Cornett suffers an injury and Randle proves himself unable to handle the job as U.N.L.V.’s every-down back.

The receiver corps is completely devoid of anything resembling experience. What you see here is an unfortunate convergence of personnel woes: U.N.L.V. has no quarterback, which is one thing, but neither does Hauck have a proven receiver, which is another. Come September, the Rebels may go young at quarterback; the team has no choice but to turn to youth at receiver, where the top four at the position are either sophomores or redshirt freshmen.

There are two seniors in the mix: Trey Mays leads all returning receivers with 12 career receptions, while former JUCO transfer Eric Johnson is eligible for action after sitting out last season due to academic issues. While both should earn a spot in the rotation, the starting roles are currently held by sophomores Marcus Sullivan and Devante Davis (4 receptions for 42 yards). Sullivan’s going to be the team’s breakout receiver: An academic casualty last fall, like Johnson, he was a big-play receiver — 6 grabs for 102 yards and 2 scores — and a prolific return man as a freshman in 2010. With Sullivan teaming with Johnson, another target with deep capabilities, what U.N.L.V. needs is an intermediate threat. What good is a speedster on the outside if there’s no quarterback who can hit him deep?

Guess what: U.N.L.V. will also have a new defensive coordinator. And as on the offensive side of the ball, Hauck promoted from within his own staff. J.D. Williams, who will retain his role as the defensive backs coach, replaced Kraig Paulson, who will work with the Rebels’ outside linebackers while adding the tag of assistant head coach. What Williams inherits — in a way, seeing that he was in Las Vegas already — is an equal-opportunity defense, one that gives up yards through the air just as easily as it allows long, untouched scampers on the ground.

Let’s begin with the good news. The linebacker corps return three players with starting experience, not to mention a few of last season’s leading reserves. With a defensive line and secondary in need of retooling, U.N.L.V. will rely heavily on the experience and production these returning contributors bring to the table. Last year’s starter on the weak side, junior Tani Maka (54 tackles, 2 interceptions), moves inside, where he’ll replace Nate Carter — last year’s leading tackler. His position change opens up the weak side to senior John Lotulelei (60 tackles), who started four of the final five games of last season in this spot. The strong side will again belong to one of Tim Hasson (46 tackles) or Princeton Jackson (39 tackles, 2.0 sacks); this pair shared time in the starting lineup over the second half of 2011. It’s a fairly strong group that looks even stronger when held against their counterparts up front and in the secondary.

The bad news begins in the secondary, where the Rebels are poised to start a redshirt freshman at free safety and sophomores at strong safety and one cornerback spot. The lone holdover from last season is junior cornerback Sidney Hodge, who’s a good one. Hodge provided some much-needed consistency at cornerback last fall; while the Rebels seemed to alternate starters on the other side on a weekly basis last fall, Hodge came to play every week, often going up against the opposing team’s best option. He’ll need to continue improving in 2012 to help the fresh faces slide into beefed-up roles.

All that we know about new safeties Tajh Hasson and Peni Vea — Hasson at strong, Vea at free — is that each isn’t afraid of contact, which is always a good thing. It’s time for U.N.L.V. to set a tone over the middle of the field, where opposing teams always seem to land a high measure of success. While untested, Hasson — who started against Washington State in September — showed himself to be an intimidating presence at strong safety during the spring. Sophomore Kenneth Penny, who played in five games as a freshman, will open the season as Hodge’s partner at cornerback. If Hodge suffers an injury, this secondary will become the Mountain West’s worst. As is, it’s clearly among the bottom third in the conference.

The Rebels return most of last season’s interior rotation, though the middle of the line barely showed a pulse from the first week of October through the end of last season. From Nevada through T.C.U., a two-month stretch, U.N.L.V. allowed an average of 233.3 yards per game. That must improve, obviously. Hopefully, the added year of experience will work wonders for a tackle rotation that includes Alex Klorman (21 tackles, 2.5 for loss), Trent Allmang-Wilder (19 tackles), Nate Holloway (13 tackles, 3.5 for loss) and Tyler Gaston (21 tackles, 3.5 for loss). At 360 pounds, Holloway has the size to eat up blockers. Holloway, Klorman, Allmang-Wilder and Gaston started all 24 possible games for U.N.L.V. last fall, so interior line play begins and ends with this group.

While there’s experience at end, the Rebels are starting from scratch at end. Gone are starters Matt Kravetz, B.J. Bell and, most painful of all, James Dunlap; in are new faces like Jordan Sparkman, Sonny Sanitoa, Desmond Tuatofi and Parker Holloway. The latter, a JUCO transfer, is listed as the co-starter with Tuatofi, a sophomore, at one end spot. Tuatofi was part of the rotation last fall, so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t grab the starting role come September. He’s also big enough to move inside on certain downs, which would leave a spot for quicker ends like Holloway or Sanitoa in clear passing situations.

The big-picture view of this defense: U.N.L.V. is stronger at linebacker than in the secondary or along the defensive line. But both the line and the backfield have enough young potential to take a step forward as the year progresses. The biggest issue is the questionable interior of the line, which brings back the same contributors who were guilty for last year’s woeful performance against the run. Even if the young ends ramp up the pass rush, and if the secondary is better than most believe it will be, teams might be able to simply run the ball at will for 60 minutes.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback The Rebels began the offseason with four players working at quarterback, but two, JUCO transfer James Boyd and senior Sean Reilly, drifted out of the competition as U.N.L.V. worked through spring drills. Boyd, who began his career at U.S.C., went to the JUCO ranks in order to show his ability to play quarterback on the F.B.S. level; U.N.L.V. recruited Boyd at that position, but it wasn’t surprising to see him suited up at end as the Rebels capped the spring. Reilly, a former JUCO transfer in his own right, started twice for U.N.L.V. last fall, completing 19 of 39 attempts for 186 yards and 3 interceptions in limited duty.

Reilly and sophomore Taylor Barnhill, who has since be moved to linebacker, backed up senior Caleb Herring, who led the team with 1,004 yards passing — the program’s lowest team-leading total since 1998. Only once in eight starts did Herring throw for more than 178 yards; only twice did he throw for more than 146 yards. Obviously, Herring’s lack of production left Hauck and his staff looking for more, which in turn opened the door to redshirt freshman Nick Sherry. This duo battled for the starting role during the spring, with each splitting snaps with the first-team offense nearly down the line. What Herring has on Sherry is experience, even if Herring’s time in the starting lineup has been less than impressive. However, if U.N.L.V. was ever going to toss the reins to a raw and unproven freshman, this would be the year. Even if Herring wins out, returning to the starting lineup, look for Sherry to gain valuable experience as Hauck prepares for 2013 and beyond.

Game(s) to watch

The last time U.N.L.V. opened with four straight games at home, Ron Meyer led the Rebels to a seven-win improvement over the previous season — from 1-10 in 1972 to 8-3 in 1973. Don’t expect that sort of turnaround, but the slate of home games to start the year might help the Rebels through what should be a tough learning curve. By and large, however, this is a very demanding schedule. The Rebels do get six F.B.S. teams at home, but three are coming off bowl berths, two are from a B.C.S. conference and one, lowly New Mexico, beat U.N.L.V. a season ago.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Let’s discuss what U.N.L.V. does well. The Rebels’ offensive line will be much improved. The running game is pretty good, even if there’s some question how it would fare if Cornett misses an extended period of time. The linebacker corps, despite losing last year’s leading tackler, has starting experience and solid depth. And that’s all — we’re done. What U.N.L.V. is missing, in short: a pass rush, run defense, a capable secondary, a quarterback and a go-to receiver. For a team slated to take on two B.C.S. conference teams in September, another two reigning bowl teams in non-conference play and at least four bowl teams in the Mountain West, the lack of proven talent at these key spots spells doom for a program rapidly spiraling into irrelevance. What does U.N.L.V. have to look forward to? Not wins, nor a surprise bowl trip — there are simply too many roadblocks in this team’s way to win seven games, which it would need to do to earn a bowl berth. Instead, what the Rebels can look for is further growth from, once again, one of the youngest rosters in college football. Maybe 2013 is the program’s year.

Dream season Hauck works wonders, leading this under-the-radar team to eight wins in the regular season: Minnesota, Northern Arizona, Air Force, Utah State, New Mexico, Colorado State, Wyoming and Hawaii.

Nightmare season The only win comes over Northern Arizona. New Mexico beats U.N.L.V. by 14 points; new-look Washington State wins by 40; Louisiana Tech by 49; and Boise State, using only third-string players in the second half, wins by 63.

In case you were wondering

Where do U.N.L.V. fans congregate? Only a few options out there for the interested U.N.L.V. fan. Send me your message boards, your forums, your blogs yearning to be posted! You can try out Rebel Net for message board chatter and the Web sites of the Las Vegas Sun and the Las Vegas Review-Journal for daily coverage.

U.N.L.V.’s all-name nominee CB Justice Sarcedo.

Word Count

Through 10 teams 32,022.

Up Next

Who is No. 114? The head coach at tomorrow’s university, once a starter at a B.C.S. conference school, played his entire senior season with a torn A.C.L.

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Comments

  1. Alexander Payne says:

    Middle Tennessee State’s Rick Stockstill?

  2. Steve says:

    Ron English and EMU

  3. Steve says:

    I’m changing mine to Dan McCarney and UNT

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    Will guess Walker at NMSU.

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