ELY — No one player will replace Tim Cornett, and probably not even two.
But for now, at least, two players have emerged as the favorites to be UNLV’s go-to running backs, and whether either becomes the official starter should be largely irrelevant.
Junior David Greene and sophomore Keith Whitely should each see significant playing time, and they most likely will have to share their carries with at least one other back.
Whether three or four backs can adequately replace Cornett, the Rebels’ all-time leading rusher who posted 1,000-yard seasons the past two years, is a key question as UNLV prepares for its Aug. 29 season opener at Arizona.
“I think we’ll be OK,” Whitely said. “I know a lot of people outside looking in think, ‘Man, we’ve got a lot of young guys. They’re in over their head.’ That’s a little motivation.”
Even when Cornett was in the lineup, coach Bobby Hauck preferred to go with a rotation early in the season to keep his star back healthy for later in the year. The strategy worked, and Cornett became a workhorse late in the season.
Unless one back clearly emerges, this year has the look of a season-long rotation.
“You want to have as many guys as possible,” running backs coach Dominic Daste said. “I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out who’s going to play. We haven’t got that far yet. Probably after the first scrimmage (Saturday) we’d like to have three or four.”
Greene (6 feet, 210 pounds) and Whitely (5-9, 185) have stepped forward as the leading backs, receiving most of the work this training camp.
Both have similar straight-ahead running styles, with Greene providing a little more ability to juke defenders and Whitely showing a toughness that belies his size.
UNLV moved Greene from safety late in spring practices, a decision that helped lead to the departure of Adonis Smith, who was competing for the starting job. Smith made his displeasure known following the spring game, calling the move “a slap in my face,” and he later transferred to Arizona.
Greene’s performance in the spring, though, should ease concerns about Smith’s departure.
“It made my confidence go (high) since I hadn’t been at running back in about two years,” Greene said of how well he practiced. “So it let me know that I still had it.”
Whitely was rated the nation’s No. 87 back by Scout.com when he signed last year, and UNLV played him right away. He carried the ball only 10 times for 56 yards, but Whitely was the primary punt returner (2.9-yard average) and handled 18 kickoff returns (22.6 average).
“I think having the opportunity to be in situations has helped him,” Daste said.
Last season was a learning experience in other ways, too. Whitely muffed a punt in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at a time in the first half when UNLV had momentum. The play led to a North Texas touchdown, and the Mean Green went on to win 36-14.
How much of a difference a cleanly fielded punt would’ve made in what turned out to be a one-sided game is up for debate, but Whitely was affected by the drop.
“He was down,” Daste said. “He’s a guy who takes everything very, very hard if he messes up. I kind of had to pull him out of the funk. We had a discussion on the bus afterward.”
Whitely’s approach this season is to forget about that play, but to remember the outcome of the bowl and use that as motivation.
“As far as going back to a bowl game and winning, we’re going to do that as a team,” Whitely said. “I feel real confident about the offense and defense, and I feel we have a real shot of going back to a bowl game and actually winning this time.”
Behind Greene and Whitely is an even more crowded field of backs.
Among them is senior Shaquille Murray-Lawrence (5-8, 190), who provided some big plays last season in averaging 8.9 yards on 47 carries. Whether he has the build to take the pounding required of an every-down back is one reason Murray-Lawrence is at least third on the depth chart.
He is fighting for that spot against junior college transfers George Naufahu (6-0, 215) and Jamal Overton (5-9, 205). Naufahu received work late in Monday morning’s practice during a two-minute drill.
“The other guys are coming along,” Daste said. “George Naufahu is doing a really good job. He’s moving really well. So ... those other groups are trying to catch up right now.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.