2015 CFB Preview – UNLV

    UNLV RebelsGo to Team Page RebelsGo to Selection Page           Okay, Tony Sanchez. Are you ready to go from being a local legend

    July 1, 2015


    Okay, Tony Sanchez. Are you ready to go from being a local legend to being something even more?

    By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

    It takes a lot to be a star in Las Vegas, but Sanchez was able to become one after dominating as a high school head man, turning Bishop Gorman into one of the best programs in America.

    He’s very young – just 40 – and he’s going to need a while to try making UNLV into a football power, but he’s going to get plenty of time and he’ll get a lot of leeway. But it’s going to be a process, especially for a guy with a 120-26 high school record and coming off six straight state titles.

    There’s a good chance UNLV will lose five games or more before Halloween. Sanchez lost five games over the last six seasons.

    But if there’s going to be a guy who can turn around a basketball school in a glitzy town, Sanchez has as good a shot of anyone UNLV could get.

    The program went the legend route in John Robinson, and he went 28-42.
    It went with the rising star, and Mike Sanford went 16-43. It went with the superstar at the FCS level, and Bobby Hauck went 13-28.

    Sanchez now has to build and build some more, and for a program that has just one winning season and one bowl appearance since 2000, it has time.
    Even though it might take a while, there’s a good mix of players returning with some solid parts to build around on offense and plenty of veterans on defense.

    Last year’s team couldn’t stop anyone, but the linebacking corps could be the biggest strength this season. The running game didn’t work, but Keith Whitely is a good back working behind an O line with a little bit of beef. But for now, it’s just about everyone getting their feet wet.

    The new coach has to figure out life at the collegiate level, the first recruiting class has to be viewed as a building block, and UNLV has to hope that it’s seeing the start of something big.

    What You Need To Know About The Offense: Offensive coordinator Barney Cotton comes over from Nebraska, and he has plenty of work to do with an offense that cranked out just 129 rushing yards per game. The inefficient passing game didn’t go anywhere, and the points were impossible to come by in key moments. Fortunately, the passing attack should be stronger with QB Blake Decker healthy and ready to do more with a good-looking receiving corps led by Devonte Boyd. The line that struggled so much last season has bulk, but it needs to generate more of a push for promising back Keith Whitely.

    What You Need To Know About The Defense: Veteran defensive coordinator Kent Baer has plenty of work to do for a defense that was among the worst in the nation in almost every main category. The run defense was the main culprit, getting gashed for 294 yards per game, but the experienced linebacking corps should be better and stronger with three good starters back. The secondary needs an overhaul, but Peni Vea and the safeties could be terrific. More of a pass rush needs to come from the line, but more than anything else, the tackles have to be tougher against the run.

    What to watch for on offense: Don’t expect anything wacky. Offensive coordinator Barney Cotton did a great job getting Nebraska ready for the Holiday Bowl after Bo Pelini was let go, and now he’s going to try getting the offense rolling to try balancing out an attack that was pass-heavy last year. Don’t look for any quirky gimmicky, and don’t expect the new guy young head man to try to reinvent the wheel. The offense is going to do whatever is needed at the moment, but it’s going to eventually work around the ground game.

    What to watch for on defense: The linebackers should be excellent. Kent Baer knows the Mountain West, and he knows what he’s doing over 29 years as a defensive coordinator at a variety of schools including Notre Dame and Stanford. He inherits a defense that finished 123rd in the nation in total defense and the same against the run, but he has a good group of linebackers to start with. Ryan McAleenan has the size for the middle, Matt Lea is a quick option on the outside, and Tau Lotuleilei is a hitting machine who has all-star potential on a better D. It’s not going to take much for the defense to be a wee bit better.

    The team will be far better if … it all starts with an improved turnover margin. The Rebels just aren’t good enough to overcome a slew of massive mistakes, and last year they were on the wrong side in seven games and finished up -8 on the year. The two best games on the turnover side came against Fresno State – going +2 in the win – and against Hawaii – going +2 in the 37-35 loss to Hawaii. On the flip side, in the other win over Northern Colorado – a game the Rebels should’ve roared in – they went -3 and almost blew the layup in a 13-12 win.

    The schedule: The Rebels aren’t getting any sort of a break in interdivisional play having to play Boise State along with road games against Colorado State and Nevada.
    – It’s not a bad overall schedule considering there isn’t a horrible run of away games. The Rebels don’t get two road games in a row and don’t have any bad stretches.
    – Starting the season out at Northern Illinois, hosting UCLA, and going to Michigan will mean the Idaho State game will be a very, very welcome break at the end of September.
    – Two of the West stars – Boise State and San Diego State – have to come to Vegas. There’s a nice run of three home games in four before closing out at Wyoming.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … San Jose State. The Rebels might desperately need this win as a sandwich between road games at Nevada and Fresno State, and with a home game against Boise State to follow.

    Best offensive player: Sophomore WR Devonte Boyd. The best young talent on the team appears to be at receiver, and Boyd is the leader. Devante Davis was supposed to be the team’s receiving star going into last year, but he got banged up and Boyd took over as the top target. Very quick and with a world of upside, he’s a big play talent who averaged over 15 yards per catch on a team-leading 64 grabs.

    Best defensive player: Senior S Peni Vea. Second on the team in tackles and first in solo stops, the veteran hitter earned all-star honors as the leader of the secondary. With three senior starters gone, Vea will have more pressure on him than ever to be the sheriff of the secondary, and he can handle the work. Almost like another linebacker at times against the run, this is his defensive backfield when it comes to getting the stop,

    Key player to a successful season: Junior DT Mike Hughes and Senior DT Tuli Fakauho. The Rebels need to start doing more things right defensively, and being better against the run is a good place to begin. With Sonny Sanitoa moving to the outside, the tackles are bigger and stronger with a pair of 300-pounders on the inside. UNLV allowed 37 rushing touchdowns and gave up 300 yards or more seven times.

    The season will be a success if … the Rebels win four games. It would be two wins better than last year, and even that might be tough to get with a brutal schedule. The Idaho State game is a win, and taking care of San Jose State and Hawaii at home would be a must. The Rebels will be big underdogs against everyone else, but with a new coaching staff and a new attitude, there their hope has to be there for a few minor miracles.

    Key game: Oct. 10 vs. San Jose State. There’s no way the Rebels beat Northern Illinois on the road, UCLA or Michigan, and it’s going to be tough to hang with Nevada on the road. However, with San Jose State coming to Las Vegas, getting a win is a must after losing 33-10 last year on the road. A 2-4 start – assuming a win over Idaho State – would at least mean the season is as strong as 2013. One more win makes it a step-forward campaign.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Rushing Yards Per Game: Opponents 293.8 – UNLV 129.2
    – Fumbles: Opponents 21 (lost 11) – UNLV 10 (lost 3)
    – Second Half Scoring: Opponents 281 – UNLV 142

    Players You Need To Know

    1. WR Devonte Boyd, Soph.
    Not exactly a hot prospect coming out of high school, he was good, but he ended up grayshirting for a year before joining into the mix. Considered more of an athlete than a true receiver, he was a great high school basketball player and a nice playmaker for the football team. The 6-1, 175-pounder got his shot last year, and boom. In one of last year’s nice surprises, he came up with a team-leading 64 catches for 973 yards and four scores, averaging 15.2 yards per catch highlighted by an 11-grab, 108-yard day against New Mexico. Smooth, explosive and consistent, he showed the upside to be the main man for the passing game for the next three years.

    2. SS Peni Vea, Sr.
    A strong 6-1, 200-pound veteran, he led the team with 108 tackles with two picks and three tackles for loss two years ago, and followed it up with an all-star season making 88 tackles with an interception and 3.5 sacks – and that’s despite missing a game. A great athlete who can work anywhere in the secondary, he has found a home as a great hitter who doesn’t miss stops as a proven statistical superstar. He has to make way too many plays to clean up the messes left by the defensive front seven, but he can handle the work making 12 stops against Northern Illinois and ten against both New Mexico and Nevada. He’s a tough hitter, but he could do more against the pass if he didn’t have to spend so much time cheating up against the run.

    3. LB Tau Lotuleilei, Jr.
    The team’s leading returning tackler, the 6-1, 220-pound weakside defender made 100 stops with three sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. All over the place against Utah State, he cranked out 15 tackles to go along with half a sack and three tackles for loss. Turn him loose, and he’ll always be around the ball. A legacy, he’s the younger brother of former UNLV star John Lotuleilei – he’s the same type of big hitter, but he has better wheels.

    4. QB Blake Decker, Sr.
    The former transfer from Scottsdale CC started out his career at BYU, turned into at the JUCO level, and last year hit 58% of his throws for 2,886 yards and 15 touchdowns. The problem? Interceptions. He gave up 18 picks throwing two or more in six games and was wildly inconsistent throughout the season. Part of the problem was the team, but injuries were the other issue. With an offseason to heal up and get back to his normal size, the 6-2, 205-pounder has the arm and has the timing to do far more. Able to run a little bit, too, he took off for 366 yards and ran for five scores. The offense is going to rest on his shoulders – and he can handle it.

    5. LB Ryan McAleenan, Jr.
    A big-time tackler for College of the Canyons, McAleenan started out his career at San Jose State, transferred out, and turned out to be a surprise contributor for the Rebels last year making 70 tackles with a sack. At 6-2 and 230 pounds he has good size, but he’s not much of a pass rusher from the inside and he makes too many plays down the field. Even so, he eats things up when they’re funneled his way.

    6. RB Keith Whitely, Jr.
    Shaquille Murray-Lawrence led the team with 552 yards and nine scores, but the 5-9, 185-pound Whitely did a decent job even though he didn’t have much room to move with 504 yards and two scores. A good receiver with reliable hands, he caught 23 passes for 193 yards showing off decent quickness as a safety valve. He’s never going to power over anyone, and he’s not a workhorse, but he’s a good fit for what the attack wants to do. He’ll be a part of a rotation, but he’ll be the key factor for the ground game.

    An end by nature, the 6-3, 260-pounder was used as a tackle at times last year and got pounded on. He came up with 34 tackles with two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2013 when he was on the outside, and last year he came up with 44 tackles with 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. In a better position now, he’ll be turned loose as a pass rusher and won’t be asked to hold up as much as a big run stopper. There’s a chance he could blow up in his final year.

    8. OT Kyle Saxelid, Soph.
    The line needs to be far, far better, but it has a possible anchor to build around for the next few years in the 6-7, 270-pound Saxelid. He started out his career at right tackle before moving over to the left side, and now he needs to rise up as a pass protector. An excellent prospect for the program, he still has room on his frame to add more good weight and be more of a mauler. As soon as he can become more of a rock to work around, the offense could take a huge leap forward.

    9. S Kenny Keys, Sr.
    Somehow he’ll find a spot on the field. Last year he worked at free safety behind Mike Horsey, and this year he’ll likely start out behind Blake Richmond, but he’s too good and too productive to take off the field. At 6-4 and 190 pounds he’s very tall with great length, and he can hit a little, too. He only broke up two passes and didn’t come up with a pick, but he made 53 tackles with 13 against Air Force and ten against Houston.

    10. LB Matt Lea, Soph.
    Built like a safety, the 5-10, 210-pound strongside linebacker isn’t big, but he can move. Very, very feisty, he held up well making 52 tackles with three tackles for loss. A big hitter for his size, he made 12 tackles against New Mexico and followed it up with nine stops against Air Force, but he can get shoved when a blocker locks on.

    Head Coach: Tony Sanchez
    1st year
    Sept. 5 at Northern Illinois
    Sept. 12 UCLA
    Sept. 19 at Michigan
    Sept. 26 Idaho State
    Oct. 3 at Nevada
    Oct. 10 San Jose State
    Oct. 17 at Fresno State
    Oct. 24 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 31 Boise State
    Nov. 7 Hawaii
    Nov. 14 at Colorado State
    Nov. 21 San Diego State
    Nov. 28 at Wyoming
    Ten Best UNLV Players
    1. WR Devonte Boyd, Soph.
    2. SS Peni Vea, Sr.
    3. LB Tau Lotuleilei, Jr.
    4. QB Blake Decker, Sr.
    5. LB Ryan McAleenan, Jr.
    6. RB Keith Whitely, Jr.
    7. DE Sonny Sanitoa, Sr.
    8. OT Kyle Saxelid, Soph.
    9. S Kenny Keys, Sr.
    10. LB Matt Lea, Soph.


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