Seeds for success take root

About a year ago, Bobby Hauck sat at his desk as reporters asked him about his tenuous future as UNLV’s football coach. He was upfront, telling them he probably needed to get the Rebels bowl eligible to keep his job.

A year later, he was back at his desk answering reporters’ questions, but the tone was considerably different this time.

Hauck indeed had led the Rebels to bowl eligibility (they find out today if they’re in one), coaching them to a 7-5 record and agreeing to a new three-year contract.

“We had an enjoyable fall,” Hauck said Thursday. “It was fun to see our guys reap some rewards from their efforts because a year ago I thought we had a pretty good team, and we worked awfully hard even though we were as young as maybe anybody in country. We just couldn’t quite get over the top in games.”

As Hauck moves forward, he has reasons to be optimistic and concerned.

A reason for optimism: Hauck and his staff recruited well when the Rebels were lousy, so the program figures to be an even easier sell. UNLV is expected to haul in a 17-player class, and though Hauck can’t speak about specific recruits until they sign, he is pleased with the early responses.

“What we were selling in the past was personality and a potential future,” Hauck said. “Now we’ve got some tangible evidence that what we’ve been telling these guys is going to happen has happened.”

A reason for concern: Recruits want to play for a team that goes to bowls, and UNLV probably will be invited to Hawaii or a Texas bowl today. Being bowl eligible and going to a postseason game, however, are two different things. And if the Rebels are passed over, that could speak much louder to high school and junior college prospects than posting the first winning season since 2000.

“I think you have a little more to sell” with a bowl appearance, Hauck said.

A reason for optimism: Hauck avoided the temptation to build the program through junior college and four-year transfers, though some have been key contributors. It’s a different path from what coach John Robinson took when he went for the quick fix and led the Rebels to a winning record in his second season.

That 2000 season marked Robinson’s only winning record at UNLV. No coach had posted another one until Hauck, now nearing the end of his fourth season. By signing mostly high school players, he should set up the program for a more sustained run of success.

A reason for concern: Replacing quarterback Caleb Herring and running back Tim Cornett won’t be easy.

Herring rescued UNLV’s season as well as Hauck’s job by expertly running the spread offense in passing for 2,522 yards and rushing for 313 yards. He threw just four interceptions to 22 touchdown passes.

Nick Sherry showed promise as a starter last season before turnovers began to do him in. He will need to regain his earlier form, or the Rebels must hope a different quarterback comes through again.

Hauck said the offense will fit whoever runs the offense, not the other way around.

“At a place like this, I don’t think you can say, ‘We’re doing this, and that’s it,’ ” Hauck said. “So we’ll continue to expand our offensive package and do with what we’ve got.”

And then there’s Cornett. He is UNLV’s leading career rusher with 3,700 yards, and he and Mike Thomas (1973 and 1974) are the only Rebels backs with two 1,000-yard seasons. Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, Adonis Smith, Keith Whitely or perhaps another back will be given the chance to do the difficult job of following Cornett.

“I have a lot of confidence in our young guys,” Hauck said. “I like our guys that were behind him this year.”

A reason for optimism: The Rebels had chances to win games last season but couldn’t make the plays in key moments and finished 2-11. They mostly took advantage of those opportunities this season and showed resiliency in winning five times after trailing at some point.

Overcoming the mental challenge in difficult times has been a major barrier, and the results this season provide hope UNLV has learned how to win tough games.

A reason for concern: Each season is unique, and no one should assume success one year will lead to more the next. Robinson appeared to have UNLV rolling in 2000, especially after the 31-14 victory over Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl, but his tenure didn’t work out that way.

Hauck knows more hard work is ahead, and nonconference games at Arizona and Brigham Young next season don’t make his task easier.

But he’s still on the job. That couldn’t be assumed a year ago.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.