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2021 UNLV Football Season Preview

The Rebels are looking to make a significant step forward in the second year of the Marcus Arroyo era. 

NCAA Football: Wyoming at UNLV Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

This is officially Marcus Arroyo’s second season as the head coach of UNLV. But, in many ways, it is like his first full season. The Rebels’ 2020 spring football was canceled due to the pandemic and the team had a shortened fall camp leading up to an abbreviated 2020 season that saw UNLV go 0-6. As UNLV turned the calendar to 2021, it marked the first time in the Arroyo era that the entire team and coaching staff could get together for winter workouts, spring football, and other team activities they could not do due to the pandemic last year.

As fall camp begins, there is a lot of optimism around the UNLV football program, with that time they did not have last year available to them this year to get better and familiar with each other and the system. But, there are also a lot of questions about how much improved this Rebel team is in the second season with Arroyo. The Rebels have a tough schedule ahead of them, so things won’t be easy. And, they are still looking to find their starting quarterback as the battle rages on during fall camp. But, there honestly is a lot to be excited for UNLV this football season.

Offense

Reason for Optimism: Wide Receivers. The shining star on offense last year was freshman wide receiver, Kyle Williams. The Rebels had a lot of depth issues at receiver with guys opting out of the season and some leaving the program, which meant freshmen like Williams and Zyell Griffin got significant playing time last year and showed flashes of their potential. Williams was named Mountain West Freshman of the Year and he is likely to be heavily featured again in the offense this season as Arroyo and staff want to balance out the offense with a solid ground attack and a big aerial attack. It’s not all young guys at the receiver spot, Tyleek Collins and Steve Jenkins are back and should see a lot of balls thrown their way. Also, the Rebels are bringing in a transfer from Indiana, Jordan Jakes. He stands at 6-foot-5 and could be a dynamic playmaker for the Rebels on offense if he plays to his full potential, and gets help from the quarterbacks. Speaking of the quarterbacks...

Cause for Concern: Who Will Start at Quarterback? As fall camp has begun, there are still questions around the quarterback position. UNLV played four different guys at quarterback in their six games, Max Gilliam, who has since graduated and left an opening at the quarterback position. The Rebels went into spring with Justin Rogers, Doug Brumfield, and true freshman Cameron Friel. It appeared after spring that Brumfield had a slight advantage over Rogers, but then a wildcard entered the program. UNLV recently brought in Tate Martell to be a member of the 2021 football team. Now, the QB competition is wide open. On paper, it appears Martell has the most talent and might be UNLV’s best chance to win, but he does not have much game experience given that he is at his third school. In fact, all the quarterbacks on the roster have very minimal experience. Brumfield appeared in two games last year as a true freshman and Rogers saw limited playing time, but had an injury last year that threw him off schedule and forced him to miss time and he only appeared in one game while at TCU, where he also had injury issues. Arroyo said early in fall camp that Brumfield and Rogers have gotten the reps with the starting unit, but the situation is very fluid and things will change significantly by the time of the first game against Eastern Washington. The biggest challenge that Arroyo and his staff will have is finding a quarterback to lead UNLV this season. There are great skill position players and a solid offensive line to help them out, as UNLV’s success, this season will hinge on who leads them under center.

Key Stat: 17.3 PPG. Those were the average number of points UNLV scored last year. Throughout the entire shortened 2020 season, the offense struggled to score. A big reason was the fact UNLV had a little amount of time to get adjusted to Arroyo’s new system. The month or so of fall camp they got was not enough to get fully acclimated and learn the new offense. Also, the game of musical chairs that took place at the quarterback position did not help either. The Rebels need consistency there for the offense to build chemistry and momentum this year. Having the experience of last year, and a full offseason should make everything run more smoothly on the offensive side of the ball. There are going to be a lot of great offenses in the West division this year, and scoring less than 20 points a game will not cut it for the Rebels this season. UNLV has a lot of tough opponents this season, so they won’t score 30 or 40 every game, but not reaching 20 won’t give them a chance in any game this year. The Rebels need big plays and they need their big players, like Charles Williams or Kyle Williams, to step up and have multiple touchdown games. This will also call on the starting quarterback to make a lot of big plays and take care of the ball so UNLV gets many great scoring chances throughout a game.

Wild Card: Tate Martell. We thought the quarterback battle would come down to Brumfield and Rogers, but Martell threw a wrench into what we thought the quarterback competition would look like after spring ball. On paper, it would appear that Martell would be the best option, but he does not have a lot of game experience with his time at Ohio State and Miami, just like the other quarterbacks in the room right now. Currently, Martell has not been fully involved in the practice, he has just been throwing on the side and engaging with the team in the practice room. Arroyo has been impressed with what Martell has shown in his leadership skills and how he celebrates his teammates and interacts with them. Arroyo said that Martell is still coming along physically as they get him ready to go through fall camp. Originally, it was reported that Martell would walk on as an “athlete” but he is listed on the roster as a QB. Martell is going to have a say in the QB competition. If he plays like the four-star recruit he was, he could end up being the Rebels’ starter in week one.

Defense

Reason for Optimism: Defensive Line. One of the focuses for UNLV’s defense during the spring was to create havoc plays and get pressure on in the backfield. The coaches were impressed with what they say in the spring and in glimpses last year with being able to get pressure on the quarterback. Adam Plant Jr. and Jacoby Windmon will be key players for UNLV, they showed last year they could create those havoc plays the coaches want to see. Windmon picked up five sacks last year and 6.5 tackles for loss, he is going through a position change as he moves off the edge and goes to an inside linebacker positon, which all the coaches said has been going well. There also transfers Kylan Wilborn and Conner Murphy that everyone in the program is excited about who will be other guys to watch out for on the defensive line and as guys who can get pressure on the quarterback. Those two bring PAC-12 experience, Wilborn at Arizona and Murphy at USC, with them and if they play to their full potential, they could help the Rebel defense take a huge step forward this year.

Cause for Concern: Allowing Big Plays. The Rebels are notorious for giving up big plays. It’s been an issue that’s plagued the defense for a long time. Much of the reason has been due to depth, there was a significant talent drop off to the two’s and three’s in the past for UNLV. Every Rebel fan remembers that UNLV was so thin at defensive back, that they converted wide receiver Drew Tejchman to play on defense. One of the focuses for Arroyo and his staff in the recruiting process is to create quality depth so there isn’t a significant talent drop-off if a guy gets hurt or isn’t producing. Also, last year, a lot of freshmen had to play and the entire defensive unit did not have a lot of time to learn the system. Similar to the offense, they should be a bit better with more time in the system, but they are going against some great teams, like Iowa State and Arizona State, and some great offenses like Nevada, San Jose State, and Hawaii, so nothing will be easy for UNLV this season.

Key Stat: 7.2 yards per play. Their key stat is similar to the cause for concern, last year UNLV gave up over seven yards per play last year. Again, there are a lot of reasons why that was, depth issues, the shortened camp, and not a lot of time for the players to get familiar with the system, but the number cannot be that high again this year. The continuity under the system and playing with each other will help the Rebels to be a better defensive unit. In the spring, one of the focuses for the defense was to play together as a collective unit and help each position group out, so no one feels like they have to do everything on their own. Also, the big plays mean shorter drives, so the offense has to go right back out after a quick scoring drive given up by the defense. The smaller this number is, the better chance UNLV has to be in close games late and secure victories in Arroyo’s second year.

Wild Card: 2020 and 2021 Recruits. No one was at more of a disadvantage last year than the incoming 2020 recruits that had no spring football and summer workouts, and a shortened fall camp before the shortened 2020 season. But now the 2020 recruits are getting the full offseason they did not have last year, starting with winter training, and transitioning into spring football, summer workouts, and now into a full fall camp. And they also have a taste of what it’s like to go through a season after playing in some games last year. Just like Arroyo and his staff, this is the first full season that the 2020 recruits will experience, they have the full offseason and some game experience they can use to their advantage as they try and get ready this year. For the 2021 recruits coming in, they will get the full experience that the 2020 recruits did not get last year due to the pandemic. Looking at the 2020 recruits, expect to see LeShaun Bell, Brennan Scott, and Nohl Williams, to name a few, as guys who will take a bigger role in the defense and play a crucial role this season. For the freshman this season, we aren’t sure how much playing time they will see, but there are a lot of talented freshmen on this UNLV defense. Nick Dimitris, Marsel McDuffie, Kamren Blanton, and Jaylen Lane, are all guys to keep an eye on this season and into the future.

Schedule

Sept. 2 vs Eastern Washington

Sept. 11 at Arizona State

Sept. 18 vs Iowa State

Sept. 24 at Fresno State

Oct. 2 at UTSA

Oct. 16 vs Utah State

Oct. 23 vs San Jose State

Oct. 29 at UNR

Nov. 6 at New Mexico

Nov. 13 vs Hawaii

Nov. 20 vs San Diego State

Nov. 26 at Air Force

Schedule Analysis: The Rebels do not get any breaks with this schedule in Arroyo’s second season. The two big non-conference games against Arizona State and Iowa State are the headliners, but UTSA and Eastern Washington will be tough games. UTSA is a solid CUSA program and Eastern Washington has been a solid FCS team for a while. And once the conference portion of the schedule begins, the Rebels face a slate of tough games with Fresno State, UNR, San Jose State, and Hawaii. UNLV gets a couple of cracks at wins with games against Utah State and New Mexico. They close out with tough games against San Diego State and in Colorado against Air Force, which will be a tough environment to play. Overall, the Rebels have a tough schedule ahead of them, and the biggest sign of improvement will be their on-field play and not necessarily just the win-loss record. If the Rebels are 3-9, but most of their losses are single digits, that would be a good sign after UNLV was blown out in every game.

Best Case Scenario: UNLV is not going to a bowl game this year, the West division is too stacked and there are a lot of tough non-conference games for the Rebels to get to six wins. Looking from a win-loss perspective, the ceiling is four or five wins for UNLV. There are three games UNLV has a legitimate chance in, Eastern Washington, Utah State, and New Mexico. And, in the past, the Rebels usually pull off an upset that was not expected. This year, this could be one of the home games at the end of the season, Hawaii or San Diego State, or maybe the rivalry game against UNR. The Wolf Pack are the superior team, but anything could happen during a rivalry game. Also, UNLV cannot get blown out in all of its losses, if the Rebels are 4-8 and lose by single digits in four of their losses and are competitive until halftime in the other losses, would be a great sign.

Worst Case Scenario: We saw last year what the worst-case scenario would be for UNLV when they went 0-6 in the shortened season. Looking at how many tough opponents are on the schedule, the fear of going winless for the second straight season is in the mind of Rebels fans. I don’t expect UNLV to go winless again, they will win at least one game. But what would be worse than going winless is getting blown out every game. UNLV lost all of its games last year by double digits, if that happens again this year, Arroyo’s seat should be engulfed in flames from it being so hot. If UNLV comes out in nine or 10 of its games and is blown off the field in the first quarter and doesn’t even make the game competitive, that would be worse than going winless. Again, I don’t see the Rebels going winless again, but I would pay the most attention to how competitive UNLV is this season.

What’s Probably Going to Happen: UNLV will probably be somewhere in between that, around two or three wins. They should win against Eastern Washington and pick up another win against Utah State or New Mexico, and possibly pull off an upset. And while everyone will get caught up in UNLV’s win-loss record, it should not be what determines the success of UNLV football this season. The best thing for UNLV this season is to be competitive and have a respectable showing in every game. There will be games where they lose by a lot of points, but in every game last year, the Rebels were out of it by halftime and could not make it close in the second half. If UNLV goes 3-9, with this tough schedule and has a competitive outing in five or six of those losses, it would be a good season.