Tajh Hasson was lined up in press coverage on one side, and Kenneth Penny was in the same spot on the other end.
Both UNLV cornerbacks can be counted on to play such aggressive defense, as Wednesday’s spring football practice at Rebel Park demonstrated.
They showed their abilities last season, giving the Rebels two dependable corners for the first time since UNLV Hall of Famer Kevin Thomas and the late Amar Brisco were turning away opposing offenses in 2000.
Hasson and Penny combined to break up 29 passes last season, with Penny’s 18 leading the Mountain West and tying for second nationally.
“The thing you’ve seen them evolve is they are more consistent, and you see them play every play better,” coach Bobby Hauck said. “They don’t take plays off. They understand the urgency that you have to approach corner with because you’re a play away from getting beat. They’ve embraced that. They’ve learned to play the ball a lot better.”
The fact coaches are letting the corners, who are both seniors, handle press coverage shows the confidence they have in them. Hasson and Penny were given that responsibility much of last season.
Hauck, though, said the players will be in a variety of coverages to offset whatever the opposing offense is doing. But for UNLV fans long accustomed to seeing corners playing seven or eight yards off wide receivers, any sign of press coverage is welcome.
“I love getting my hands on a (receiver),” Penny said. “It makes it much easier for me. Instead of playing off of him and having to guess where he’s going and wait until he makes a move, I can get my hand on him and control him how I want to control him.”
The hints the corners would be more reliable began to appear in training camp last August, particularly with Hasson. He made several big plays, be it breaking up passes or intercepting them.
“It gave me the confidence that I needed,” Hasson said. “This spring, I have to do good and make plays again and build on that to keep getting better and have a better season than I did last year. I wasn’t happy with what I did. I want to improve on that.”
Hasson (6 feet, 1 inch, 195 pounds) obviously has some high standards.
He didn’t waste any time becoming an impact player last season, intercepting a pass in the Aug. 29 opener at Minnesota. Hasson also forced and recovered a fumble at New Mexico on Sept. 28, broke up five Hawaii passes on Oct. 12, and forced a fumble at UNR on Oct. 26.
As far as improving on that kind of production next season, he said he can get better by “being a smarter player, making plays, playing faster. Every element of my game.”
Penny (5-11, 170) produced as well, giving UNLV its most pass breakups since Mil’Von James recorded 19 in 2007.
Until last year, Penny was more of a spectator than performer, appearing in nine games and starting three the two previous seasons combined. He was the Rebels’ starter all 13 games last season.
“My goal was to have a great season, and I did,” Penny said. “I could’ve gotten better at some different places out there on the field, but I’m proud of the results that I had. Every game, I got more confidence, I studied more film, and I got more familiar with the scheme we were running and the personnel.”
Penny and Hasson not only give the Rebels a strong set of corners, the return of safeties Peni Vea and Mike Horsey make the secondary a position of strength.
“When you have some returning players that feel good about each other and have played together, that helps,” Hauck said. “It helps in the secondary. It helps in the offensive line. There’s so much correlation there because it’s groups working together, and very rarely is that group working on an island.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter @markanderson65.