Leading into last year's game against UNLV, Badger fans were led to believe that quarterback Jason Thomas was the man to stop. Thomas, a senior quarterback, had a wealth of untapped potential that everyone in Las Vegas was waiting to see unleashed.
But the only thing Thomas amazed Wisconsin with was his ability to turn the ball over seemingly every series, giving UNLV no chance to defeat the visiting Badgers.
Thomas never did develop into the quarterback many people felt he had the potential to become. And in the last game of the 2002 season, he was replaced by Kurt Nantkes, a 6-4, 220-pound sophomore that led the Rebels to an upset victory over Colorado State.
UNLV fans are hopeful that Nantkes is the man that can finally pull the Rebels out of a funk, in which the program has underachieved under legendary Coach John Robinson.
Here is a look at the Rebels' offense, which should be much improved in 2003:
Nantjes, entering his junior season, will be the starter against Wisconsin if he remains healthy. UNLV fans are excited about Nantkes taking over because, while he is not the natural athlete that Thomas was, he is a better passer. The Rebels should have a more consistent, balanced offense under Nantkes.
The offense will take on a different look with Nantkes at the helm. Thomas was known as a scrambler with an average-at-best throwing arm. Nantkes is the opposite. The Rebels hope to improve on Thomas' dismal 48.9 percent completion average last season, and use more high-percentage passes for better ball control.
The battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot will continue into the spring between redshirt freshman Tyler Arciaga and sophomore Scott Turner, the son of former Washington Redskins head coach and current Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
When Wisconsin met UNLV last season, the starting tailback was senior Joe Haro, who rushed for just 34 yards on seven carries. But as the season progressed, Larry Croom began to take over the No. 1 tailback role. Croom, now a senior, averaged 7.2 yards per carry last season, finishing with 605 yards and four touchdowns.
The 5-10, 205-pound former Arizona transfer, like Nantkes, turned a lot of heads in the season finale against Colorado State. He rushed for 222 yards in the big win.
Also expected to make a big splash this fall is junior college transfer Alvin Marshall, a 5-10, 185-pound highly-recruited tailback from Compton (Calif.) College. Marshall made a big impact during spring practice, and will get a lot of snaps behind Croom.
Prepare yourself now. In the week leading up to the UNLV game, you are going to hear enough Johnson & Johnson jokes from the Wisconsin media to last a lifetime. The UNLV receiving corps features junior Earvin Johnson and senior Michael Johnson.
Earvin Johnson, considered one of the top receivers in the Mountain West Conference, led the Rebels with 51 catches for 793 yards and four touchdowns last year. But Rebel fans feel with a more accurate passer, Nantjes, throwing Johnson's way, his numbers will skyrocket this season. In the Colorado State finale, Johnson pulled down 23 catches for 132 yards.
Michael Johnson is a 5-11, 190-pounder who finished with 42 catches for 502 yards and two touchdowns last year. Starting at tight end is senior Ryan Clifford, a 6-2, 250-pounder who will replace three year starter DeJhown Mandley.
The Rebels offensive line had considerable turnover in the offseason with the departure of starting guard Tony Terrell, starting tackle Keith Kincaid and two backups. But the UNLV coaching staff took proactive steps to fill the gaps, bringing in two junior college transfers in the recruiting class.
Guard Joe Critchfield, a JUCO All-American, is expected to start at right guard after participating in spring practice, as did tackle Tyler Crandal.
Sophomore Zach Gorham will battle Crandal this fall for the starting right tackle spot, while tackle Matt Williams, guard Marcus Johnson and center Dominic Furio return to their starting spots from 2002.
UNLV Week: Offensive Preview
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