When Tony Sanchez entered his second season at UNLV, he probably thought he could lead the Rebels to at least six wins and a bowl appearance. A 3-9 record in his 2015 debut season was understandable, as he formulated his coaching staff and began recruiting talent to Sin City.
Well, things don't always work out the way any of us think they will.
While Sanchez's team "improved" to 4-8 in 2016, a rash of injuries absolutely decimated depth on a roster that lacked it. We'll get into more of this shortly but perhaps the most striking note about the Rebels from a year ago is that by season's end, Sanchez had to start players that were recruited to play quarterback and cornerback at wide receiver. Yeah.
Different circumstances inflict themselves upon any and every coach in all sports, so those in Las Vegas that care about UNLV football should probably applaud Sanchez for even winning four games. In 2017, he faces a multitude of questions at the game's most important position, quarterback, and must replace essentially every starter on a defense that wasn't close to being formidable.
On top of it all, Sanchez will continue to be judged for his decision to bring 66-year-old Kent Baer as defensive coordinator and then 60-year-old Barney Cotton to direct the offense. Seasoned veterans, sure, but both are at least 17 years older than their boss.
The Rebels make the long trip to Columbus on Sept. 23 to face Ohio State for the first time ever. Let's get to know them a little bit more.
There are so many ways to dissect UNLV's production on offense in 2016. Pretty much all of them revolve around injuries and the subsequent adjustments that the coaching staff had to make as a result.
The Rebels averaged 31.6 points per game, good for 47th-most in the country. They still lost eight games, which is more an indictment on their defense than anything. We'll get to that below.
What is staggering about how UNLV moved the ball last fall was who physically was doing it. Returning leading rusher Keith Whitely left the team in August, then No. 2 receiver Kendal Keys was lost for the season with a knee injury in training camp. Top punt returner and wide receiver Brandon Presley broke his foot in the first game of the season and never returned to the field. No. 1 receiver Devonte Boyd missed the final two games with a broken arm and Darren Woods, another receiver, missed the last six with a knee injury. The hits just kept coming for Sanchez and Cotton.
Additionally, a trio of quarterbacks took the lion's share of the snaps in what essentially amounted to three separate four-game stretches. Those names: Johnny Stanton, Kurt Palandech and Dalton Sneed. The latter was the player mentioned earlier who finished 2016 as a wide receiver. So yeah — anytime Cotton would get some semblance of a game plan and consistency put together, one of his key pieces hit the injury report.
|Head Coach||Tony Sanchez (3rd season, 7-17 record at UNLV)|
|2016 Record||4-8, last in the Mountain West's West Division at 3-5|
|Biggest Losses||C Will Kreitler, RB David Greene, 10 starters on defense|
|Biggest Returnees||RBs Charles Williams and Lexington Thomas, 4 starters on OL, WR Devonte Boyd|
|Summary||UNLV's 2016 campaign was riddled with injury. Can its defense stop anybody?|
|Matchup||Sept. 23, 2017: UNLV at Ohio State, kickoff TBA|
Still, the Rebels moved the ball with some regularity in the high-scoring Mountain West mostly due to a terrific offensive line that somehow managed to steer clear of the injury bug. All five players up front started every single game last season, and only Will Kreitler, the center, exhausted his eligibility.
UNLV ran the ball with terrific efficiency, either with their stable of quarterbacks — all three who started averaged at least 5.7 yards per carry — or with running backs Charles Williams and Lexington Thomas. The latter tied with David Greene for the team lead with eight rushing touchdowns. Seven different players rushed for more than 215 yards, led by Williams, who tallied 763 at 5.4 yards per carry.
Sanchez and Cotton pieced together the Mountain West's fourth-best rushing attack, even though defenses knew the odds the Rebels were going to throw the ball were minuscule. For perspective on how inept the passing game was: UNLV had games where its quarterbacks completed eight, two, seven and nine passes last season. It won one of those, 45-20 against Fresno State, who went 1-11.
While options are aplenty in the backfield for Sanchez, whether or not the passing game takes a step forward depends on better production from whichever quarterback he taps as the starter. His receivers also must stay healthy. Four of those that return have some form of game experience, led by Boyd, who is currently seventh in team history in career receptions and third in career receiving yards. The No. 1 spot on both lists is attainable provided he stays healthy and gets some help from his quarterback.
Sanchez, who got his start in high school football, has to pick between Stanton, Pollandech or redshirt freshman Armani Rogers, who showed out in the team's spring game. By the time the Rebels come to Columbus in Week 4, you'd expect them to have their situation at the game's most important position ironed out.
UNLV has athletes who can move the ball and a solid offensive line returning. If everyone stays healthy, they will be able to put up some points in 2017. Of course, that is a big if, as last season showed.
Let's just get to this right away: UNLV's defense in 2016 was bad. Not as bad as Cal's or Hawai'i's, but still pretty bad.
The Rebels allowed more than 430 yards and nearly 37 points per game last season, both near the very bottom of the MWC. To boot, Baer has to replace three of four top tacklers in the secondary, his three best linebackers and four key contributors on the defensive line. Ouch.
UNLV redshirted a bunch of its 2016 recruiting class, so as a result has to turn to that personnel to produce this fall and do so quickly. Mike Hughes Jr. returns at nose tackle after a strong season where he didn't miss a game and finished fifth on the team in tackles for loss with 3.5. No. 1 cornerback Darius Mouton is also back — he broke up 13 passes a year ago.
Other than that, new faces line Baer's defense. The 2016 recruiting class ranked third among MWC schools and boasted a dozen three-star prospects. Pretty much all of them will make their way into the two-deep on both sides of the ball in one way or another this fall.
Urban Meyer stressed over Ohio State having to face Navy and its triple option to open its 2014 campaign. Turns out, he had every reason to considering Virginia Tech upset the Buckeyes the following week under the lights in Ohio Stadium.
It appears Martin Jarmond and Gene Smith heard his cry, though this game was scheduled before the 2014 season began and the Buckeyes agreed to pay the Rebels a cool $1.3 million. Ohio State hosts Army (another opponent who runs the triple option) a week before it plays UNLV, who is a far inferior opponent to even Frank Beamer's worst Hokie teams.
Ohio State should win going away (S&P gives UNLV a 1 percent chance of pulling the upset), but the challenge will be on its defense to hold the Rebels in check and not give up the big play. UNLV racked up nine plays of more than 50 yards last season. Tony Sanchez, who won six straight NIAA 4A Championships at Bishop Gorman High School earlier in his career, appears to have his program trending in the right direction. But a bowl game doesn't really seem plausible until 2018.