UNLV's defense against Arizona last season left a lot to be desired, so the Runnin' Rebels went out and tried to upgrade it.
Going into the offseason, the defensive line figured to be a major cause of concern for the UNLV defense and while it still is a concern, those fears were greatly allayed by the arrival of Washington transfer Josh Shirley.
Quite frankly, Shirley is a stud defensive end who has a chance to play on Sundays. Considering he was solid in the Pac-12, there is a good chance he will put up strong numbers in a weaker conference.
The other defensive end is 6-foot-6, 270-pound senior Jordan Sparkman. The mammoth senior figures to be more of a factor stopping the run game than as a pass rusher.
He contributed 37 tackles last season along with a few tackles for loss, but make no mistake, his top priority is to take on blockers and contain the edge.
One of the most indispensible players on the defensive line figures to be 6-foot-3, 260-pound junior defensive tackle Sonny Sanitoa.
Far from just a gap plugger, Sanitoa showed a fairly consistent ability to push the line last season. He will be counted on to provide pass rushing help for Josh Shirley and overall consistency as well.
The other defensive tackle position is littered with concerns. Tuli Fakoloua and Brandon Willis both have similar physical dimensions and are transfers, but they haven’t provided much on the field up until this point.
Willis a highly regarded transfer from UCLA and this is his last opportunity to show that he has what it takes. His play will go a long way in determining the overall success of this defense
The linebacking unit also has questions abound. Undersized and inexperienced, UNLV is going to rely on 6-foot-2, 230-pound Iggy Porchia and transfer Ryan McAllamen to man the mid.
Lining up on the weakside is 6-foot-1, 220-pound Tau Lotulelei. Lotulelei will be counted on to make plays and he seems to be capable. His size is a concern, but he showed a nice ability in the open field last season.
On the strongside is 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore Trent Langham. Largely unproven, Langham has impressed coaches at times in camp and will be given every opportunity to hold onto the starting position.
It would not be a surprise to see Arizona come out and look to run the ball, as the strengths of the UNLV defense figures to reside in the defensive secondary.
All four players bring a wealth of experience and it starts at strong safety with Peni Vea. The 6-foot-1,205-pound junior is a sure tackler and figures to build on a strong sophomore season that saw him amass 108 tackles.
Lining up next to Vea will be free safety Mike Horsey. Like Vea, Horsey shows solid instincts in the box and actually made quite a few plays in the offensive backfield last season.
Both starting corners showed a knack for being around the ball last season. Senior Kenneth Penny in particular stood out, contributing an impressive 18 pass break ups.
Opposite Perry is 6-foot-1 senior Tajh Hasson. Hasson is a fairly sure tackler and isn’t a guy who figures to get picked on much this season. He figures to build off an impressive junior campaign that saw him contribute 49 tackles and 11 pass break ups.
UNLV's defense is similar to last season with the major difference being on the defensive line. The hope is that it can contain Arizona's run game much more than it did last season and, if so, the chances of winning will increase dramatically.
Players to watch
#91, DE Josh Shirley: The defensive end figures to be a matchup problem for the Arizona offensive line. He is very quick off the snap and is deceptively strong for an undersized lineman. Look for Arizona to slide protection at times to keep him out of the backfield.
#42, SS Peni Vea: While it’s never a good sign when the strong safety is the team’s leading tackler, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Vea can play. He is easily one of UNLV’s best players and figures to hear his name called a lot Friday.
#17, CB Kenneth Penny: While Penny figures to have a difficult time against Arizona’s taller receivers, there is no denying that he is a factor once the ball is in the air. He has not come up with the interceptions one might expect, but he is usually around the ball.
Keys to the Game
Establish the run: UNLV’s front seven isn’t exactly an intimidating unit and, considering this is Solomon’s first game, look for Arizona to try and move the ball on the ground.
Avoid the costly turnover: Despite having a secondary full of capable veterans, UNLV only picked off 11 passes last year. Arizona hopes UNLV's lack of ability to force turnovers does not change right away.
Contain Shirley: It is no secret how good Shirley is, and when Solomon is asked to pass, look for the coaches to design some quick hits and misdirection plays to mitigate some of Shirley’s impact.