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UNLV Rebels football spring preview: Defensive line

The interior will look familiar. The outside may not.

Wyoming v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The UNLV Rebels will have a new set of playmakers in their defensive front seven this fall. Many familiar names are gone, and we’re going to get the opportunity to see the players that head coach Tony Sanchez has recruited.

The Rebels were pretty solid against the run last season, fifth in a Mountain West Conference filled with talented running backs. That said, they were last in the country in sacks, and tied for last in the conference in interceptions.

2017 will be a huge year in UNLV Rebels football history. If they’re going to reach bowl eligibility, the defensive line can certainly play no worse than they did last season. I’m unsure how I feel about this group, they will be interesting to watch. Keep an eye on these guys:

Roger Mann

Sanchez loves getting players from the junior college system, and Mann is a good get. Good enough that he may be starting at defensive end for the Rebels when the season gets underway in September.

He comes to UNLV by way of Palomar College in San Diego, CA and his energy is one of the things that may give him an inside edge on the depth chart at DE. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s 6-foot-4, 265 pounds.

Salanoa-Alo Wily

Salanoa-Alo Wily earned playing time early and often at the defensive tackle position as a freshman in 2015. Last season he was assigned starting duties for the Rebels and was on the field for all 12 games.

Wily will be critical to the defensive success of the Rebels in 2017. He’s athletic and brings good size to the Rebels at 6-foot, 290 pounds. With 24 games at UNLV under his belt, perhaps most important is the veteran presence he brings to the Rebels.

Mike Hughes Jr.

Like Wily, Hughes is well versed in Sanchez’s system. He had his redshirt pulled as a freshman in 2014, and saw action in seven games that season.

Since then he’s been a mainstay on the UNLV defensive line and he’s only getting better. He’s started every game the last two years, and was rewarded with All-MWC honorable mention honors at the conclusion of last season. Hughes and Wily represent the closest thing to a “sure thing” the Rebels possess.

Nick Dehdashtian

Nick Dehdashtian redshirted in 2015. He got the opportunity to play last season and it didn’t take long for him to make an impression.

In the season opener against Jackson State, he scooped up a Tigers fumble and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown. He appeared in all 12 games last season, and will continue to get time behind Wily. His chance to start will come.

Jason Fao

Jason Fao is good enough to start for the Rebels, and in fact has in the past. He started five times in 2015, before regularly assuming second on the UNLV depth chart in 2016.

Fao is 6-foot, 310 pounds and is a fantastic backup option for the Rebels on the defensive line. He provides good depth and UNLV fans needn’t worry if the injury bug bites the team again in 2017 and he is called into action.

Mark Finau

Finau started nine games and appeared in all twelve for the Rebels in 2015. Then he lost his job.

Jeremiah Valoaga started ten games for UNLV and led the team in sacks last season before he was dismissed due to a violation of team rules. There will still be plenty of competition, but with Valoaga out of the picture Finau will have a better shot of working his way back to the top of the Rebels depth chart.

Toa Iafeta

Once upon a time, Iafeta was a Wyoming commit, who reneged on his plans to join the Cowboys and ruined the day of head coach Craig Bohl.

Iafeta’s redshirt is lifted and he’s put on good size during his year in Las Vegas. He’s 6-foot-5, 295 pounds and will have the opportunity to earn significant playing time in Sanchez’s system.

Antonio Zepeda

Zepeda has done a little bit of everything since he first pulled on a Rebels uniform. He tried his hand at tight end at one time for UNLV, but Sanchez found his skill set better suited for at defensive end.

He’s been number one on the depth chart in the past, and with so much change in the Rebels front seven, it’s a goal that can be reached again. His teammates are talking. Mike Hughes Jr. predicted that Zepeda is due for a breakout season.