Armani Rogers hasn’t taken a snap for UNLV. But the weight of the program is already on his shoulders.
From the outside, the comparisons for Rogers have gone to the extreme. The obvious one, Randall Cunningham, came when he first signed with UNLV. But after redshirting last season, the hype leading into this season has signaled comparisons to Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. Rogers even tossed out his own comparisons earlier this month.
“Tom Brady and Cam Newton,” Rogers said when asked which NFL quarterback he likes to compare himself to. “I like Tom Brady as far as his recognition on defense and how he can pick up certain things right away. And I am built like Cam Newton, and I kind of play like him.”
UNLV’s quarterback play has been nowhere near those levels in the first two years under Tony Sanchez. It has been the opposite; maybe the worst in college football.
In 2016 UNLV completed just 46.9 percent of its passes, the fourth worst mark in college football. And that lack of accuracy led to UNLV calling a pass play just 37.3 percent of the time.
It was a run until you had to throw it offense last season. Despite that the offense still averaged 5.6 yards per carry, 13th best in the country.
Add in a decent passing threat and this offense could explode. That’s what UNLV hopes Rogers is, at the least.
“At some point in the game, we’ll let him loose. It could be right away,” Tony Sanchez said of the Rebels season opener against Howard. “He’s going to be handle a lot more than people think.”
The weapons are there for Rogers to be a game manager and let the talent surrounding him do the work. The offensive line returns four starters from the group that paved open running lanes last season. The one concern is center, where Zack Singer appears slated to start, but has had some issues snapping the ball.
Carrying the ball will be the same guys that did it last season. Charles Williams and Lexington Thomas are the lead backs. Those two split time last season, but both had over 600 yards and averaged at least 5 yards per carry.
On the outside, UNLV has one of the best in the Mountain West in Devonte Boyd. He is the impact player for UNLV’s offense. Despite the poor play around him, Boyd has averaged at least 4 receptions and 70 yards per game in all three of his seasons at UNLV. He may stand to benefit the most from an upgrade at quarterback.
Beyond Boyd there are some question marks. Kendal Keys is dealing with a knee injury for the second straight season and is a game-time decision for the opener. There is a lot of youth after that. The Rebel receivers on the depth chart have combined for 31 catches and 402 yards combined in their college careers. Boyd has 164 catches for 2,630 yards in his career.
But it is a group the coaching staff is relying on the receivers.
“Devonte Boyd needs to be an explosive player. Be a playmaker. Brandon Presley and Darren Woods and when (Kendal) Keys gets back, those guys are capable of scoring from anywhere on the field,” Sanchez said.
This offense is good and has very few question marks. It could be managed by Rogers to 30 points per game easily. But UNLV will need more than that to reach a bowl game. The defense looks set to give up more than 30 points a game, something they have done the last two seasons.
UNLV’s defense lost nearly every starter from last season. It may be addition by subtraction, but a lot of the new starters were the back ups to those nine last season. Meaning the coaching staff didn’t think they were good enough to start on a defense that ranked 116th in S&P+.
Defensive tackle Mike Hughes – who was named to the All Mountain West Preseason Team – started every game. Tim Hough saw a few spot starts throughout the year, and Mark Finau started the final two games of the season.
The two newcomers slated to start are Jameer Outsey at defensive end and Chauncey Scissum at safety. Outsey comes to Las Vegas through Mesa Community College. Originally he went to Iowa and played tight end. Scissum played six games at Syracuse last season before becoming a graduate transfer.
“I think Scissum was a huge pick up as a safety,” Sanchez said. “The big question on the defensive side is how well we play the deep ball.”
But the rest of the starting secondary and all three linebackers played last season, but weren’t good enough to start.
In year three under Tony Sanchez, the defense doesn’t appear to be getting much better. And that means Armani Rogers can’t simply be a game manager.
He has to be a game winner.
That winning will start on Saturday, where the Rebels have a 97 percent chance to win. But after that Rogers will have to make plays to guide UNLV to its fifth bowl game ever.