Anticipation is building with the Rebels’ opening game against Jackson State less than two weeks away. As the grueling training camp process rolls on, things are gradually beginning to take shape for the squad preparing to enter their second year under head coach Tony Sanchez.
With two intrasquad scrimmages now in the books, let’s take a look at how the team’s units fared during Friday morning’s session and how that reflects what could come when things kick off for real on September 1.
The ongoing quarterback battle between Kurt Palandech and Johnny Stanton and the eventual decision of who will be the week one starter continues for now.
While both looked much better than their previous scrimmage outputs, little progress (if any at all) seems to be made in the decision process. Interestingly enough, Dalton Sneed looked the sharpest of any passer on the depth chart during the reps he was given. Sneed and Armani Rogers rounded out the team’s snaps in the latter half of the second scrimmage, but Sanchez made it clear that the competition will remain between Palandech and Stanton while also stating that both will see action come opening day.
“As of today sitting right now, both guys are going to play in game one,” Sanchez said. “The starter will get the majority of the reps, but you’re going to see whoever the number two is at some point during the first half.”
If the Rebels are going to find offensive rhythm this season it will need to come in the form of advancing the ball on the ground. UNLV was able to find success on Friday with their perimeter running game and the opening of cutback lanes, serving as an early point of optimism.
Although much is expected from Lexington Thomas and his backfield partner Xzaviar Campbell, the performances of David Greene during the camp’s two respective scrimmages suggests that a committee of running backs could be the fuel to the Rebels’ offensive fire during the 2016 campaign. Freshman Charles Williams could be a potential contributor as well both offensively and returning kicks on special teams.
It is becoming more and more obvious that airing out the ball deep downfield will not be UNLV’s bread and butter this season. However, that should not be a signal to completely abandon the passing attack, as the team’s receiving corps boasts a few talented playmakers.
Many expectations have been placed on the play of wideout Devonte Boyd as he prepares to enter his third season with the program. The Vegas local did not see action on Friday due to a wrist injury according to Sanchez, but his production along with that of Kendal Keys will be imperative for the balance of the team’s offense.
Keys has looked sharp at times throughout camp and like Boyd is expected to produce frequently. Yet the unit has struggled to find openings, leading to heavily forced throws. Creating more separation against defenders will be a crucial component for the passing game once a starting quarterback has been established and even more so when the team is forced to open up the play calling.
While they may not manhandle defensive fronts at the point of attack this season, the Rebels’ blocking schemes and pass protection could ultimately prove to be the make-or-break-factor for UNLV.
The defense out-performed the offense for the most part during the second scrimmage, but the execution of several effective running plays appears to be a potential strength to monitor this year. While the running game and quarterback battle will continue to garner the most intrigue, both will be rendered useless if this group does not pave the way.
If UNLV’s offensive line will determine the degree of success for one side of the ball, it is not a stretch to say that the defensive line will do the same for the other side. This is a unit that is really hard to evaluate as they have not had many pass rushing opportunities due to the quick passes favored by the offense so far. Like the O-line, the front four does not have overwhelming size and will have to rely on technique, discipline, and aggression to be competitive in the trenches.
In-game action will be the best way to truly determine how the unit will perform this season as its depth, backfield disruption, and consistency at getting after the opposing passer are all questions that will be answered in due time.
The linebacking corps lacked star power on Friday as many of its core members saw limited time in favor of more inexperienced players being granted snaps. But this appears to be the unit that will define the program defensively. Expect returning starters Tau Lotulelei, Ryan McAleenan, and Matt Lea to be key components, as all have looked comfortable and fluid in practices thus far. The trio brings a multitude of experience to the table, something that could serve as a foundation for improvement.
Also, the depth of the unit could wind up being a great advantage, as the increased practice reps for the backups could very well lead to playing opportunities in a rotational format. Fifth year transfer LaKeith Walls saw plenty of action and looks to contribute on the outside along with the debuting Gabe McCoy.
The most eventful play of Friday’s session was undoubtedly sophomore cornerback Darius Mouton’s interception of Kurt Palandech, a sequence that resulted in Rebel Park erupting with excitement as the Texas native took one to the house.
“I really just made the move as it came and was like, ‘I have to make this play,’” Mouton said regarding his pick-six. “After about thirty yards I said to myself, ‘Oh, I am scoring now.’”
The aforementioned issue of Rebel receivers finding separation was a direct result of the secondary’s impact, as several of UNLV’s defensive backs effectively tackled, covered, and positioned themselves throughout the morning. The performance of the secondary stands as arguably the biggest takeaway from the weekend.
One area of consistency for the Rebels was their special teams coverage. Assignments seemed to be in order and few mistakes were made, something refreshing after a disastrous day of subpar execution and blocked kicks seen in the first scrimmage.
The PAT/FG protection let through very little leakage, allowing kicker Nicolai Bornand to split the uprights with ease. Additionally, sophomore Evan Pantels looked strong with both his place kicks and punts.