First let my apologize for not writing anything for a couple weeks. I promise that won't be the norm, I have had some personal things that needed to be taken care of.
After watching the majority of UNLV spring football practices I came away with a few thoughts about the direction of the team. I wanted to share them since the season is only a few months away.
1. The UNLV defense will be better then last year and really active.
The first thing I noticed about the UNLV defense is the safety combination of Troy Hawthorne and Kenny Keys. They have NFL size and cover a lot of ground. There was no question who were the leaders in the secondary. Torry McTyer was the best cover corner throughout the spring practices. More standouts for the Rebels defense were Gabe McCoy, Mike Hughes and fellow defensive lineman Jeremiah Valoaga. At linebacker Tau Lotulelei, and Ryan McAleenan had impressive springs as well. I would keep an eye on defensive backs Darius Mouton and Tim Hough this season. They, along with McTyer, really stood out defending the pass.
For the Rebels to succeed in 2016 they need the defense to improve from last year when they allowed over 30 points a game (33.7) and more then 400 yards per game (457). The biggest need for the defense is to increase the pass rush where they had only nine sacks in 2015. From watching the practices, it seems very likely that those stats will improve. The defense will be active and full of high energy that hopefully will translate to turnovers and big time stops, something that they lacked last season.
2. Who will be the trigger man for the offense?
I came to camp looking to see who will step up and take the mantel as the Rebels starting QB. Johnny Stanton has the NFL caliber arm and looks the part. Dalton Sneed seemed to have a firm grasp of the offense. Last years starter Kurt Palandech split reps with Stanton and flashed at times while local product (Green Valley HS) Christian Lopez also was in the mix. But the two that seemed to be the most ready to play were Stanton and Palandech. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, but until incoming freshman Armani Rogers gets on campus with his strong arm and playmaking skills, it really doesn't matter. Coach Sanchez will name his starter in the Fall and I have been on record that I believe it's a race between Rogers or Stanton this upcoming season.
3. The teams depth and toughness are much improved.
Last year the Rebels lacked toughness and it showed when the games were tight and they collapsed and lost those close games. This year I saw a toughness and new attitude from the players. It happened early and carried on into the spring practices. That new attitude comes from more talent, more competitiveness which translates to better depth. The depth really showed in the tight end, offense and defensive lines and at linebacker. A player that added a new attitude and intensity was Brian Keyes, who went down day 1 with an ankle injury but was back at it the next practice setting the tone for the spring.
4. The wide receivers will be a lot better, more talented and a force in 2016.
The Rebels have a stud in Devonte Boyd. Kendal Keys isn't that far behind Boyd and was impressive as well all spring. They may be the best duo in the Mountain West Conference and have NFL ability that should give defenses fits. But the player who may of had the best spring of any rebel player was redshirt freshman Darren Woods who made plays every practice and with Brandon Presley the Rebels are 4 deep at WR. What I feel they lack is a pure speed threat that can blow the top off the defense, but make no mistake about it, there is enough speed and size to make opposing teams think twice about loading the box.
5. This is Tony Sanchez's Team.
From the 1st day of spring practice to the last, Coach Sanchez's impact was felt. The energy, enthusiasm, intensity, the fire, music and excitement was felt from any and all who attended a practice. The coaches and team fed of it and it was very noticeable, as was the amount of unofficial visits from UNLV targets, both local and players from Southern California. It was reminiscent of what I witnessed at USC over a decade ago when Pete Carroll was the Trojan head coach. Sanchez has the program moving in the right direction and it's clear that his vision is shared by everyone involved with the program.
6. Final thoughts:
Seeing Lexington Thomas up close it is clear he could take over as the starter for the season. He has the type of speed, vision, balance, wiggle and swag to be the type of running back that can really excel in the offense and under Sanchez.
The city is excited. I have talked to a lot of recruits and UNLV targets who are buying into what Sanchez is selling and believe he will turn the Rebels around. They love the new uniforms, the atmosphere at practice, the offense and what the future is looking like. If Sanchez can keep 10-15 of Las Vegas' top local talent, the Rebels could really start a nice run.
If the spring practices are any indication the 2016 season will be a very fun one to watch and be a part of.