A little over a week into the start of fall camp, UNLV held its first football scrimmage on Saturday morning at Rebel Park.
When it ended after two hours and approximately 82 plays, the temperature in my car thermometer read 105 degrees … and it seemed a whole lot hotter than that standing on the turf.
Perfect weather for conditioning for what could be a breakout season for Tony Sanchez’s second squad at UNLV. The Rebels, who open their season on Sept. 1 with a 7 p.m. contest against Jackson State at Sam Boyd Stadium, didn’t keep stats for this one but with first teamers playing against two’s and three’s some of the time, those can often be misleading anyway.
Here are five things I took away from the action.
1. This is a much deeper and talented team than the one Bobby Hauck left behind two years ago. Give Sanchez and his veteran staff kudos for doing their homework when it comes to recruiting. The problem is most of the new blood are still freshmen and sophomores who lack experience and are probably another year away from being real impact performers. Still, the Rebels will actually look like a football team now when they take the field and if things fall into place should make a run at a bowl game. Another big recruiting class – early indications are 2017 will be another banner year for Sanchez and company – and look out.
2. Quarterback is still a big work in progress. Sanchez had hoped to name a starter early in fall camp but both junior college transfer Johnny Stanton and junior returnee Kurt Palandech have been erratic throwing the ball so far, including on what should be pretty basic short and intermediate routes. That’s especially troubling since the wide receiver group, led by preseason all-Mountain West pick Devonte Boyd, 6-foot-4 junior Kendal Keys and redshirt freshman standout Darren Woods Jr., is arguably the strength of the team and potentially as good as any group in the Mountain West.
Palandech is an explosive runner while the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Stanton is more of a chiseled bulldozer who should be a nightmare for corners coming up to try and tackle him on the spread option. Both are capable of putting up 100-yard rushing performances on a regular basis.
Sanchez said after the scrimmage the starting quarterback decision could now stretch out until the week of the opener and maybe longer. He also emphasized that game management and decision-making will play a key role in determining his starter.
True freshman Armani Rogers (6-5, 215) passes the look test but making the jump from a second tier Los Angeles City Section league to Division I football is a huge one, especially mentally. He’s a big, strong runner but lets try to keep comparisons to ex-Rebel star Jason Thomas to a minimum for now. JT was big and strong but also had big-time moves and toughness. He also was a much more polished passer when he arrived at UNLV and led the Rebels to a 2000 Las Vegas Bowl upset of Arkansas. In a perfect world, Rogers gets to redshirt and become more familiar with the offense while honing his passing skills.
— UNLV Football (@unlvfootball) August 14, 2016
3. The Rebels got a steal in Charles Williams. Although explosive sophomore Lexington Thomas entered fall camp No. 1 at running back and gives UNLV some much needed speed out of the backfield, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Williams was brilliant running both inside and outside and also excelled on kickoff returns. Williams, who was the Fresno Bee’s co-Offensive Player of the Year as a senior at Bullard High School after rushing for 2,142 yards and 28 touchdowns, displayed good vision and balance and wasn’t afraid to put his shoulder down to get the extra yard. I think he’s good enough to play at a number of Pac-12 schools right now and in my opinion will move up the depth chart very quickly.
4. Locals are contributing to a much-improved offensive line. The second team offensive line was formed of players who all prepped at Las Vegas high schools – true freshman left tackle Jaron Caldwell (Bishop Gorman), sophomore transfer left guard Zack Singer (Bishop Gorman), junior center J’Ondray Sanders (Basic), true freshman right guard Julio Garcia (Bishop Gorman) and true freshman right tackle Donovan Outlaw (Coronado). And they’re talented, big and physical and arguably better than UNLV’s starting offensive line of two years ago.
Another local, redshirt freshman Justin Polu (6-4, 320) of Silverado, is currently the starter at right guard and is one of the team’s most improved players.
It’s a young group that looks like it can hold its own already right now in the Mountain West and has the potential to be dominating in a couple of years. Singer, coming off a major knee injury, was a two-way line star for Sanchez at Gorman and is the kind of tough masher who should help open up some big holes for Thomas, Williams and company. He’s also a great leader on and off the field.
A unit that had zero depth when Sanchez arrived is now legitimately two-deep across and is only going to get better with age.
5. Good things come in small packages. Allan Cui is listed at 5-foot-5 and 175 pounds on the roster sheet. That looks to be a little generous by a few inches. But the walk-on wide receiver from Honolulu’s Saint Louis High School has already become a fan favorite, making several nice grabs including a touchdown that covered about 70 yards. Unfortunately, he plays at a position that is loaded. Still, don’t be surprised if he sees the field this season.