Rebels fans could not wait for 2020 to arrive. The new year would mark new beginnings for a football program that has had little success in over 40 years in Division I. UNLV was upgrading its facilities, they were moving out of the outdated Lied Athletic Complex to the Fertitta Football Complex. And there was plenty of excitement around its new home, as they leave Sam Boyd Stadium for Allegiant Stadium on the strip.
But, the biggest change at UNLV that created the most excitement came around new head coach Marcus Arroyo. After five seasons under Tony Sanchez, where the Rebels only won four games more than once in his tenure, UNLV made a change and brought in Arroyo, who was the offensive coordinator at Oregon. With his experience working with offenses in Oklahoma State and Oregon, and helping first round pick Justin Herbert, Arroyo brings a style of football that could revitalize the Rebel fan base.
While the pandemic has put a lot of events on hold or in question and dampened a lot of the anticipation and excitement around much of the newness surrounding this year, spirits are still high around UNLV for this new era of Rebel football. With the work Marcus Arroyo has done on the field, off the field, and on the recruiting front, there has never been a more anticipated year as this one for UNLV fans.
Reasons for Optimism: Charles Williams. Running back Charles Williams returns for his senior year and will be the focal point for the Rebels’ offense. He compiled 1,257 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns for UNLV last season. They will likely need to rely on him more considering the questions surround the quarterback position. We have seen the Rebel offense struggle last year, and when it did struggle, and it struggled a lot last year, they always looked to the running game to provide a spark. Williams is not the only running back in the room for the Rebels. Chad Magyar and Courtney Reese are returners who could see some time this year and the Rebels will need to rely on them for production when Williams needs a break. If UNLV has a productive season offensively, it is because the running game was dynamic.
Cause for Concern: Making up for lost time. For a team that has struggled to score points, it made a lot of sense to bring in a coach that is known for his offense. Under normal circumstances, UNLV would have had an entire spring and most of the summer to implement the new offense and see where players would fall on the depth chart, but as we all know, we are not under normal circumstances. The biggest concern for UNLV is how the offense will mesh with less time working together. There are new pieces coming in and a new style of play the current players must adapt to. A lot of teams might look rusty in the first few games, but if UNLV’s offense cannot knock off the rust and come together to play at their full potential, it could be another year of the offense struggling to score points.
Key Stat: 53.6 Completion Percentage. UNLV’s passing game was not effective last year. After a combination of an injury to and struggling play by Armani Rogers, the Rebels went with local product Kenyon Oblad. While Oblad was a slightly more consistent passer than Rogers, it was still not enough to be a difference maker. If UNLV would have received a little bit more production from the quarterback position, the program might be in a better spot. They cannot rely solely on Williams and the running backs for production this year, the quarterback must play better. UNLV has a solid offensive line and a good crop of receivers and tight ends to throw the ball to, if everything goes right, UNLV’s passing game could be one of the best in the conference.
Wildcard: Justin Rogers. Quarterback has been a position that has hindered UNLV for a while. If you look back at the past few years, under performing quarterback play has cost the Rebels a chance at winning some close games. Last year, both Armani Roges and Oblad play and neither one showed dynamic, play-making ability to elevate the Rebel offense. That is where Justin Rogers, the potential wildcard, comes into the mix. Currently, we are still waiting word on his eligibility from the NCAA, it might be best if he does not become eligible this year, so he does not waste a year of eligibility on a shorten season. Justin Rogers is the best of both worlds. He is big and athletic to break off a big run, and he has the big arm to make plays down the field. He could be the piece that elevates the Rebel offense to another level.
Reason for Optimism: 2020 Recruiting Class. Marcus Arroyo made his first splash at UNLV with the 2020 recruiting class he brought in. Arroyo originally did not sign any of the recruits from the old regime in the early signing period, he chose to wait until the February signing date, and it proved to pay off. Two of the top gets for the Rebels in the 2020 recruiting cycle were linebackers Brennon Scott and LeShaun Bell. The duo on the defensive line could be one of the best in the conference. And there are other complimentary pieces that could be reliable every down players for UNLV like Ricky Johnson, Jalen Dixon, and Alven Johnson. Arroyo and his staff have made it a priority to address the issues on defense in both the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes. They might not be all on the field on the first game of the season, but the first class under Arroyo has the potential to be the group that changes the Rebels’ struggles on defense.
Cause for Concern: Need for Playmakers. Last season, when the Rebels needed a big play or stop on defense, there were two guys UNLV could count on to deliver, Javin White and Rayshad Jackson. Unfortunately, both of those players have graduated, which means UNLV will need to find players to fill those spots. One player that was expected to be a playmaker last year was Vic Viramontes. However, he under performed in his first year and at times was non-existent on the field. Now, there will be more eyeballs watching him and the other members of the defense to step up. With a mix of returners and members of the 2020 recruiting class, there are a lot of candidates to be breakout stars and become playmakers for the Rebel defense.
Key Stat: 33 PPG Allowed. In 2018, the Rebels allowed over 37 points per game. The next year, they improved upon that mark, by only allowing 33 points per game. While any improvement, on a team that has a notoriously bad defense, is good, except for the fact that UNLV’s offense only averaged 24.2 points per game. While UNLV’s offense has had its struggles, the defense must cut down the point total significantly. UNLV is going to need to win games because its defense held the opponent to a low point total while the offense develops in Arroyo’s first season. Not many winning teams, or teams that are bowl eligible, allow nearly five touchdowns a game while their offense averages under four touchdowns per game.
Wildcard: Brennon Scott. Whenever UNLV lands an impact player in recruiting, it is a big deal, and Brennon Scott coming to Las Vegas is a big deal. 24/7 Sports has Scott ranked as the third highest rated recruit for UNLV since 2003 (the farthest 24/7 recruiting goes back). With the struggles UNLV faced last year and the lack of performance from certain pieces, there are a lot of people watching Scott to see his impact on the field. Arroyo has said that he will not rely heavily on the freshman too much in this first year. UNLV returns some good players at linebacker, with Farrell Hester, Jacoby Windmon, and Viramontes. Scott might not be an every down player this first season, but his development will be key for a productive UNLV defense.
Best Case Scenario: UNLV is not the only team that will have a new head coach on the sidelines. In total, four of UNLV’s eight conference games will feature teams with new head coaches. It could take some time for those teams to adjust to their respective coaches given the current situation. There are also two more games that could be wins, depending on who UNLV chooses to schedule in its two non-conference slots. For UNLV to play to its ceiling this year, they will need production from all over. The defense must improve drastically and whoever is quarterback must step up and lead the new offense. UNLV has the pieces around them, both in players on the field and If the Rebels play the full ten-game schedule, a 5-5 mark would be an outstanding accomplishment for Arroyo in his first year.
Worst Case Scenario: The lack of time the team has spent together will hurt the Rebels. Even though some of their games are against teams with new coaches, teams like Fresno State and San Diego State are still some of the best in the conference. Eight of their ten opponents on the schedule, as of now, made bowl games last season. And do not forget that schedules around college football have been changing. The Rebels could have a game against TCU, there are rumors BYU could play a Mountain West schedule because of their independent status. With all of the obstacles and changing circumstances, there might be too many hurdles in the way for UNLV to win. The worst-case scenario for UNLV would be if the Rebels won two games or less. And while that would be a bad first year for Arroyo, it definitely should not cause the fan base to panic given the bizarre circumstances this year presents.
What’s Probably Going to Happen: There will be flashes of excellence from UNLV, and there will be moments that will leave us scratching our heads. It is going to be a mix of both the best- and worst-case scenario. There are a lot of talented players on UNLV’s roster, players that can be dynamic players in the conference and play makers when the Rebels need them. Based on the current schedule, it would be a good year if UNLV can win four games in Arroyo’s first season. Something that could be a good thing coming from the cancelled games, Cal and Arizona State, is that those two games were going to be tough for the Rebels to win. Games against Mountain West teams seem like the best chances for UNLV to get some wins. It is hard to tell how good the teams are in the conference are. Some years a team could be a top tier team in the league winning 9 or 10 games, and the next, they are a middle of the road team with 5-7 wins. But, with everyone in the same boat of trying to tackle a unique circumstance, it will even the playing field. If UNLV gets to play a ten-game schedule, it is likely they win three or four games.