Local product Plunkett brings fire to UNLV line

It didn't matter to UNLV left tackle Richie Plunkett that quarterback Rocky Hinds wasn't part of the drill.

His job this season will be to protect Hinds' back side, and Plunkett had just let defensive end Elton Shackelford get by for an all-too-easy sack in a recent one-on-one session. Plunkett yelled at himself but quickly got ready to go again.

And go he did. This time, Plunkett refused to let Washington State transfer Preston Brooks anywhere near the quarterback, quickly answering one disappointing play with a strong effort.

As the lineman most critical to keeping Hinds healthy, Plunkett needs to quickly put it behind him should an opposing defender get through.

"It's tough because (opponents) usually put the better defensive end on me," said Plunkett, a Las Vegas High School graduate.

But the Rebels, who play their first game Aug. 30 at Utah State, have reason to believe Plunkett is up to the task at left tackle. Though tackles coach Gary Bernardi said players can switch in and out of the two tackle spots, the 6-foot-6-inch, 290-pound Plunkett has been working No. 1 on the left side.

He also showed promise last season, when he was named UNLV's offensive scout team player of the year.

"It's important to him, and he's a fierce competitor," Bernardi said. "Being mediocre or making a mistake is unsettling to him."

Plunkett, a junior, showed how much he cared Tuesday when defensive end Jeremy Geathers, a second-team All-Mountain West Conference player last season after making 5 1/2 sacks, got past him.

"Too slow!" Plunkett yelled at himself.

Perhaps it was payback on Geathers' part after Plunkett knocked off his helmet earlier in practice.

Bernardi doesn't hesitate to praise or criticize linemen, but he knows Plunkett often is hard enough on himself. When Plunkett stood up Brooks, Bernardi quickly rushed to congratulate him.

"That's one of the good things about our team right now, there aren't many mistakes made because of lack of effort," Bernardi said. "It's never with Richie that there's a mistake made because of lack of effort."

Bernardi said part of Plunkett's drive comes from his dad. Art Plunkett, now an assistant at Las Vegas High, was drafted in the eighth round by the Los Angeles Rams in 1981 as an offensive lineman out of UNLV. He also played for the New England Patriots and St. Louis Cardinals.

"The genes help a lot," Richie Plunkett said. "He was my coach in high school, and he just beats on me constantly. When Coach Bernardi doesn't catch something and my dad's at practice, he yells at me for it."

Unlike his dad, Plunkett didn't choose UNLV when he came out of high school in 2004, though he would have if Rebels line coach Rob Boras hadn't left for the Chicago Bears. Instead Plunkett went to Colorado State because he liked Rams line coach John Benton, but Benton left for the St. Louis Rams shortly after Plunkett's arrival. Plunkett said he "wasn't on good terms" with Benton's replacement, Darryl Funk.

So Plunkett left Colorado State after two seasons and headed home.

"I've got a lot more family watching me," Plunkett said. "They're always asking me about everything. I'd like to go home or to a friend's house and actually do something besides football, but it's kind of hard to get away from it."

NOTES -- Junior defensive end Luke Plante, who had an infected blister on his right foot, was cleared to begin practicing. ... Hinds, a junior, was named to the Manning Award watch list. He did not participate in a team drill Wednesday because of "aches and pains," coach Mike Sanford said, adding that nothing appeared to be seriously wrong with Hinds. ... Senior safety Tony Cade is in Texas dealing with a personal matter and is expected to return soon.