The importance of quarterback, already a crucial position, has become even more pronounced in recent years because of rules changes that have helped the offense.
UNLV football fans saw just how important that position was last year when Caleb Herring came off the bench to rescue the season.
Now he’s gone, and if the Rebels are to make back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in school history, they will need one of the juniors, Nick Sherry or Blake Decker, to step up just like Herring did. The fight for that position begins at 3:45 p.m. today when UNLV opens spring practices at Rebel Park.
All 15 practices are open to the public, concluding April 11 with the spring game.
Coach Bobby Hauck doesn’t expect to name a starting quarterback by that time, and would prefer to play out the competition into training camp in August.
Hauck also knows the success of his team won’t rely solely on quarterback. The starter, be it Sherry (6 feet 5 inches, 235 pounds) or Decker (6-2, 205) or perhaps even a freshman, needs to have capable players around him.
That shouldn’t be an issue at running back, even with the loss of all-time leading rusher Tim Cornett.
UNLV probably will go to a committee system, at least early in the season, that could include seniors Shaquille Murray-Lawrence (5-8, 180) and Adonis Smith (5-11, 200), sophomore Keith Whitely (5-9, 185) and redshirt freshman Henri Jussila (5-9, 180). Then the hope is one or two backs will take hold of the position at some point in the season.
UNLV doesn’t have much competition for the starting jobs at wide receiver and offensive line, where the starters all return. The influx of three grayshirts at wide receiver, however, should keep the intensity high at that position.
Hauck doesn’t want any starter getting complacent, though he acknowledged knocking someone like senior wide receiver Devante Davis (6-3, 210) or senior left tackle Brett Boyko (6-7, 310) from the first unit was unlikely.
“Even a guy like Brett, who’s got good work ethic and a good perspective on things, we want him to feel the pressure to improve and perform,” Hauck said. “So, someway, we’ve got to create good competition there. Davis is like that, too. He’s possibly our best player, and he’s got to feel like he’s pushed as well, and if he doesn’t perform that somebody else can go in and do the job.”
Much of the competition on defense will be on the line, which loses its top three tackles. UNLV signed three defensive linemen, so those spots won’t heat up until August. The Rebels bring back all four top ends.
“We’ll be a little shorthanded (at tackle) in the spring,” Hauck said. “Some of the young guys are going to get maybe a little more than they normally would, but that will be productive in terms of growth. Some of our ends have got to play better and become better pass rushers and play more consistently.”
Linebacker took a big hit with the losses of two full-time starters and one co-starter. Sophomore Tau Lotulelei (6-1, 220), who shared the duties on the weakside, is back as are sophomore backups Iggy Porchia (6-2, 210) in the middle and Trent Langham (6-2, 210) on the strongside.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good pool of athletes at linebacker,” Hauck said. “What we’ve got to do is figure out who the most capable six are and then put them into spots where they’re the top six. We’re not going to play our eighth-best guy because right now it says Mike (middle) linebacker on his shirt.
“I think athletically we’re capable. Now, football playing-wise, we have to get there.”
UNLV is experienced in the secondary, which was the team’s strong defensive unit last season, and nearly every starter and backup returns.
On special teams, the key question is who will replace kicker Nolan Kohorst, the school’s all-time leading scorer. Signee Conor Perkins will go on a two-year Mormon mission, and Hauck said he expects that position to be decided in camp after the Rebels bring a kicker or two on to campus.
Unlike previous spring sessions, though, UNLV comes in with the benefit of extra work because of the appearance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The Rebels had 14 practices leading up to the New Year’s Day game.
“It’s not quite the same (as spring), but our young guys got a lot of good work that they wouldn’t have normally had,” Hauck said. “It helps with conditioning. It helps with skill level.
“Any time you’re not working and somebody else is, you fall behind. So that was productive.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.