After looking at defending Mountain West Conference champion BYU in the previous installment of my “First Look” series, I’m looking at the team that finished last in the league in 2007 – UNLV. Scroll down to previous posts to see looks at BYU, Wyoming and New Mexico.
2007 Record: 2-10, 1-7
Off/Def Starters Back: 9/5
Last Year vs. AF: Air Force 31, UNLV 14
This Year vs. AF: Oct. 18, at UNLV
Roster Report: The Rebels have nine starters back from their 2007 offense. That offense, however, ranked last in the MWC in scoring and second-to-last in total yards last season.
Still, there is reason for optimism in experience, and UNLV returns four of five starting offensive linemen, standout Frank Summers (a bowling ball of a running back at 5-foot-10, 240 pounds), and one of the top receiving tandems in the conference – Ryan Wolfe and Casey Flair. There is plenty of depth at receiver behind those two, the question is who will get them the ball. Sophomores-to-be Omar Clayton and Travis Dixon are competing for the top spot after both saw time as freshmen. Dixon started nine games, including the Rebels’ first seven, while Clayton took over as the starter before the eighth game and started three games before going down with an injury.
Mark Anderson, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s UNLV football beat writer, said on The Mtn.’s Around The Mountain program that Clayton had a better spring game and seemed to have an edge in the competition.
Several standouts from the 2007 defense are gone, including linebacker Beau Bell, last year’s MWC Defensive Player of the Year. But the Rebels have five starters back.
Fast Facts: UNLV has won just three of 24 conference games under head coach Mike Sanford. One of those games was in 2006 against Air Force. The Rebels beat the Falcons, 42-39, to snap a 15-game losing streak to Division I programs and hasten the end of the Fisher DeBerry Era.
What Caught My Eye: Two things. One is a philosophy change on defense. According to Anderson, the Rebels, under new defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell, will play a more aggressive, attacking style and try to cram more bodies into the box to attempt to stop the run. Last season UNLV ranked seventh in the nine-team MWC in rushing yards allowed per game (183.6) and seventh in points allowed per game (28.6).
The philosophy change intrigued me because it sounds quite similar to the change Air Force made last season when Tim DeRuyter took over as defensive coordinator at the academy. The Falcons had been abysmal on defense immediately prior to DeRuyter’s arrival. And in DeRuyter’s first season they had most of the same players from the porous crews of previous campaigns. But by ditching a bend-but-don’t-break style for an attacking one, the Falcons defense improved considerably. Can UNLV do the same?
Second thing that caught my eye is four of UNLV’s 10 losses in 2007 came by eight points or less, including the Rebels’ near upset of Wisconsin in the second week of the season. That tells me UNLV has been in position to win some games but just needs to learn how to close the deal. If the Rebels continue to lose close games, that reflects poorly on the coaching. Which leads me to …
Final Thought: Summers had this to say to the Review-Journal about the 2008 UNLV squad: “We feel we have a great opportunity this year and have a great chance to come out and compete week in and week out with the veteran players that we have. Really, we have no excuses.”
That includes Sanford. He now has a team that consists almost entirely of players his staff recruited, including plenty of returning starters. So after three straight two-win seasons under Sanford (UNLV has had four overall), the Rebels need to show tangible improvement for Sanford to keep his job. Anderson said UNLV fans have grown weary of the program’s recent ineptitude.
The Rebels probably need to get to at least five wins for Sanford to be safe. As Summers told the Review-Journal, “Really, it’s like now or never for us.”
Jake’s Way Early Line vs. AF: Air Force -1.5. If the Falcons are going to become bowl eligible, this is a game they need to win.