UNLV only managed to get through half of its spring football scrimmage on Saturday afternoon before the skies opened up and sent the crowd (and the players and coaches) scrambling for cover. But for the approximately 45 minutes the team was on the field, we got an early glimpse of what the 2016 Rebels might look like when the season kicks off in September.
So, with the usual caveat that it’s difficult to infer much from a scrimmage held five months before opening day, let’s run through five takeaways from the spring showcase:
Passing game is work in progress
As might be expected at this point in the preseason, the passing game was inconsistent, owing mostly to timing issues between the quarterbacks and receivers. Current No. 1 QB Johnny Stanton completed fewer than half his passes, including an overthrow in the end zone on what should have been an easy touchdown pass on his final possession. Junior Kurt Palandech had a little more success, but also looked out of sync with his receivers.
Stanton finished 3-of-7 for 54 yards, with most of that production coming on a catch-and-run of 30-plus yards by Brandon Presley. Palandech went 3-of-6 for 42 yards, including a nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Trevor Kanteman. Dalton Sneed attempted just two passes, completing one throw for five yards.
While the QBs didn’t put on a show, it’s definitely not worth getting worked up about at this point. Given the Rebels’ talent at the wide receiver position—juniors Devonte Boyd and Kendal Keys both looked explosive on Saturday—it should only be a matter of time (and reps) before the quarterbacks are connecting on a more regular basis.
If you’re looking for a potential breakout star on offense, sophomore running back Lexington Thomas fits the bill. He showed flashes of elusiveness last year as a freshman, and on Saturday he looked like a certified playmaker with the ball in his hands.
He only carried five times for 20 yards, but the stats don’t tell the entire story. On one play, Thomas was met at the line of scrimmage by multiple defenders, but managed to juke and slip his way through tacklers to gain eight yards. And before the full scrimmage began, he had an impressive touchdown run on a goal-line drill, beating a pair of defenders to the pylon.
At 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, the biggest question Thomas has to answer is whether he’s strong enough to take on a full-time workload. But with senior Keith Whitely and sophomore Xzaviar Campbell available to share carries, Tony Sanchez should be able to spread the ball around and keep Thomas fresh.
Expect Thomas to be on the field a ton in 2016, and expect the Rebels to get him the ball as much as possible.
UNLV struggled to generate pressure along the defensive line last season, and it will be hard for the team to improve much in 2016 unless the pass rushers make life more difficult for opposing quarterbacks. To that end, the scrimmage didn’t shine much light on the situation.
Rebels quarterbacks dropped back 15 times, and the defensive line got pressure on two of those plays. Senior defensive end Iggy Porchia recorded the only sack. Junior tackle Mike Hughes got a good push on the other pressure. The rest of the time, the quarterbacks got rid of the ball on time and largely rendered the pass rush irrelevant.
Cornering the market
Like last year, the Rebels’ strength on defense appears to be in the secondary. Senior cornerback Torry McTyer looked good in coverage on Saturday and recorded an athletic pass breakup, and 6-foot-2 junior college transfer Robert Jackson had a big hit and pass breakup from his safety position.
With sophomore Tim Hough and senior Jay’Onn Myles also back to provide more experience and depth at cornerback, the Rebels should have a solid rotation in the defensive backfield.
Blocking was a big issue for the Rebels in 2015, especially pass protection. Defenders created chaos in the backfield and it led the UNLV quarterbacks to make some bad decisions under hurried circumstances. The good news is that on Saturday, the passers generally had time to orchestrate the plays. The QBs threw the ball in rhythm and were only pressured twice in 15 dropbacks (although, considering the state of UNLV’s defensive line, some could choose to interpret that as a negative).
Running the ball was more difficult. The offensive line struggled to open up holes, leading the Rebels to finish with just 36 yards on 13 carries (2.8 yards per carry). The only running back to have any success was Thomas, and he did most of the work himself, slipping multiple tackles at the line of scrimmage.
Considering UNLV averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season in Tony Sanchez’s first year in charge, I think it’s reasonable to assume the Rebels’ run blocking will be okay. It just didn’t come together on Saturday.