LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 29: UNLV Rebels football players and cheerleaders celebrate the team's 38-35 win over the Colorado State Rams at Sam Boyd Stadium October 29, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Hope isn't a word that is generally associated with the UNLV football team. Over the years, the squad has been labeled as anything from bad to downright miserbale, and rightfully so. The Rebels haven't played in more than 5 bowl games in their 42 year history, the last game coming in 2000. With each new coach that is brought in, there is always that sense of hope, granted not very much hope, but there is some sort of sense of hope that they will be able to bring this program out of the ashes and into the light, where the Rebels can at least be semi-competitive and possibly even make a bowl game. The latest of these coaches is Bobby Hauck.
Hauck, now in his third season, hasn't produced good results in his first two seasons. The 2010 season was filled with bad losses and a couple of blowout wins over New Mexico and Wyoming, leading to a 2-10 record. The 2011 season also looked of the same type, as the Rebels finished with another 2-10 record, but this time with some more surprising victories and surprising losses. In the third week of the season, the Rebels stunned Hawaii with a 41-10 lashing of the Warriors, but squandered the progress by losing 41-16 next week to the FCS school Southern Utah. A surprising win over Colorado State, who was expected to have a breakout season last year, and a bad loss to New Mexico summed up the schedule.
Even with these two bad seasons, Hauck has a decent excuse for both. For the past two years, he's been trying to change the demeanor of the football team from the finesse, spread offense team that Mike Sanford had established to a team with a demeanor of toughness and downhill running - a team that will beat you by smashing you in the mouth with a power running game and tough defense, not by slinging the ball around the field and outscoring the opponent. In his third season, Hauck seems to have finally achieved just that.
The identity of the offense has changed over completely from what it was in Mike Sanford's final year. Hauck's offensive style has taken hold among the personnel, and that means that he will be able to run the offense much more like he did when he was winning Big Sky championships in Montana. The offense returns five starters on the offensive line, a rarity nowadays in college football, and Tim Cornett, who led the Rebels in rushing in both his freshman and sophomore years. The running game should be much improved with experience all over.
The big question on offense is how the passing game will hold up. After starting his freshman and sophomore years, Caleb Herring was yanked from his positition in favor of redshirt freshman Nick Sherry. Sherry is highly touted and essentially won his job by simply playing better than Herring during spring and fall camps. Sherry should be a change of pace and bring in a new leader who isn't accustomed to losing quite like Herring has become.
On top of that, the Rebels receiving corps isn't very experienced. With three sophomores and a redshirt freshman filling out the depth chart, UNLV's receivers are going to have to grow up fast, although potential isn't really an issue. Marcus Sullivan, who is back to make plays this year after sustaining an injury in fall camp and missing all of last season, is a very quick receiver, one who will most likely make his plays by making people miss tackles. Devante Davis is more of a deep threat with good speed and a tall stature of 6'3". Taylor Spencer is a good compliment to the receiving corps as well. The question is how quickly will all these receivers mature and help spread the field.
The bottom line for UNLV's offense is that the running game should be fine - if the passing game can mature. If the passing game isn't a threat at all, defenses will just load the box to stop the run. With big questions at quarterback and receiver in terms of experience, that is definitely a wild card.
For UNLV's defense, there are also some serious questions. The secondary will be getting some new players, most of which are inexperienced. They do return Sidney Hodge at cornerback, which should be a strong point of the defense, but other questions at safety and the other cornerback have me wondering if the Rebels pass defense will improve at all.
One place where there isn't a question is the linebackers. Two returning starters and a third player in Princeton Jackson, who happens to be decent, means that this area should improve at some capacity. Along the defensive line, some strength returns and is introduced. Both defensive tackles return and Sophomore Desmond Tautofi and Junior James Boyd are expected to take the new spots on defensive end, with both players showing excellent progress in the spring.
As for special teams, the return of Marcus Sullivan helps. With Sullivan's big play ability, the special teams should improve in the returning department, but maybe not so much in the covering area of special teams. Covering punts and kickoffs has been an issue for the Rebels in Hauck's tenure, and that may still be an issue with not many personnel changes coming. As for the kicking part of special teams, there isn't any questions as to who will start there. Nolan Kohorst will be in his second season kicking field goals for UNLV and Chase Lansford will once again be the punter.
This season should be a transition one for UNLV, if all goes well. A relatively easy schedule and an improved team should mean more wins than there has been in the past two seasons, possibly three, four or maybe even five. It all depends on how Hauck puts this team together.