The Star-Tribune is taking an early look at each of Wyoming’s opponents in the order they appear on the Cowboys’ 2019 schedule. Next up is UNLV.
LARAMIE — UNLV is still trying to get it going under Tony Sanchez.
Sanchez, who was hired out of the high school ranks to be the Rebels’ coach before the 2015 season, has been tasked with reviving what’s long been a dormant program in the Mountain West. So far, it’s largely been much of the same under the fifth-year coach.
UNLV hasn’t had a winning record since 2013 and has only reached the .500 mark in MW play once during Sanchez’s tenure. The Rebels are coming off a 4-8 showing last season — one plagued by injuries and a leaky defense.
The MW’s unbalanced schedule puts Wyoming back on UNLV’s slate this fall for the first time since 2016. The Rebels will travel to War Memorial Stadium on Sept. 28 for both teams’ conference opener.
Getting its quarterback through a full season would be a good place for UNLV to start. Armani Rogers set a school record for rushing yards by a UNLV quarterback (780) in 2017 on his way to MW Freshman of the Year honors and led the Rebels to a 2-2 record through four games last season before he was sidelined with a toe injury.
He enters his junior season with a clean bill of health having accounted for 3,108 yards of offense and 26 touchdowns, though the 6-foot-5, 225-pounder will need to improve on his 49-percent career completion mark if the Rebels’ offense is going to take a step up.
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UNLV will have to find another ball carrier or two to take some of the pressure off its quarterback. Gone is 1,000-yard rusher Lexington Thomas, though junior Charles Williams is the frontrunner to take over as UNLV’s featured back after averaging 5.1 yards per carry in limited action last season. Sophomore Chad Magyar, at 6-2 and 215 pounds, brings more physicality to an offense that finished second in the MW in rushing a season ago.
There seem to be far fewer answers for UNLV in the passing game. Brandon Presley, the team’s leading receiver last season, reportedly sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament that will cost him the entire season, and the next three receivers on the depth chart — Darren Woods, Mekhi Stevenson and Tyleek Collins — combined for just 75 catches a season ago. Graduate transfer Jordan McCray, who initially committed to the Rebels after leaving South Alabama, ultimately signed with Oklahoma State, but that loss was canceled out with the addition of USC transfer Randal Grimes, who, at 6-4 and 205 pounds, will give UNLV an immediate physical presence on the outside.
But nothing the offense does this season is going to matter much if UNLV’s defense doesn’t give the Rebels a chance. UNLV was 10th in the MW last season in total defense, 11th against the pass and dead last in scoring defense. The Rebels’ 37.3 points allowed per game were 119th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
The return of defensive end Nick Dehdashtian, who missed all of last season with an injury, should give UNLV’s front seven a boost while edge rusher Gabe McCoy and tackle Kolo Uasike are back up front. Linebacker Javin White and safety Evan Austrie also return after finishing as UNLV’s third- and fourth-leading tacklers last season, respectively.
The group will need to generate as much pressure as it can on opposing offenses to help out a secondary that struggled mightily last season. Senior Jericho Flowers is back at one corner spot, but the other two, including nickel, are up for grabs heading into fall camp. Prep school signee Jamel Hamm and junior college transfer Jeremiah Houston figure to get long looks on the back end of a defense that yielded more than 267 yards per game through the air and 8.4 yards per completion.
If the Rebels can’t get some of that shored up, the rebuild in Vegas will continue at a methodical pace.