The quarterbacks competition this month will receive the most attention from media and fans, but the battle between juniors Blake Decker and Nick Sherry isn’t what makes coach Bobby Hauck nervous.
He is more concerned with how the competition on the defensive line, particularly at tackle, plays out.
Both interior positions are wide open, and the Rebels have brought in three junior college transfers and a player from UCLA to address the situation.
“I like our personnel in the secondary,” Hauck said. “I think our young linebackers have a chance to play well this year. I feel pretty good about them coming out of spring. The big unknown is the defensive line. They have to produce, specifically the guys at tackle. So we’ll see how it goes, but the pressure’s on those guys to perform, and they’re here for a reason. It’s because we think they can.”
Gone from last season’s team are Tyler Gaston and Mark Garrick, who combined for 25 starts at the two tackle positions. The other start went to Alex Klorman, who also used up his eligibility. Those players combined to make 120 tackles, including 15½ for loss and eight sacks.
So the Rebels brought in Brandon Willis (6 feet 2 inches, 285 pounds) from UCLA and junior college transfers Najee Johnson (6-5, 220), Tui Maloata (6-3, 260) and Billy Tanuvasa (6-2, 290).
“They have the knowledge of the basic techniques,” defensive line coach Michael Gray said. “Now it’s a matter for those JC guys to learn the scheme.”
Gray said he wasn’t hung up on finding players for each spot on the line based on position, preferring to play the best four and figure out the spots later.
As part of that philosophy, junior Sonny Sanitoa (6-3, 260) lined up at tackle when the first-team defense took the field Wednesday at Rebel Park. Sanitoa started 21 games at end over the past two years, including every game last season.
“It’s good to have some depth,” Gray said. “Four years ago, we didn’t have this. We were playing freshmen that really shouldn’t have been playing.”
On the practice field, Sanitoa was lined up next to Willis, a senior who is eligible to play right away because he received his degree from UCLA. He chose the Rebels after talking to his former Bruins teammate Taylor Embree, a UNLV graduate assistant coach last season.
Willis liked the idea of going to a school where there was plenty of opportunity to make an immediate impact, and as Wednesday’s practice showed, he will be given plenty of chances.
“When you’re a fifth-year (player), you’ve only got one season,” Willis said. “So you want to go in with the best opportunity to play. I’m a competitor. I want to go out here and compete. That did help my decision, but knowing I had a chemistry with the guys and a chemistry with the coaches kind of led me here.”
He joins those three JC transfers trying to earn playing time on the line by the time the season opens Aug. 29 at Arizona.
One is Tanuvasa, who last season at Santa Ana (Calif.) College made 15 tackles for loss, including 8½ sacks. He chose the Rebels over New Mexico and New Mexico State.
“I think we’re deep; we’ve got a lot experience,” Tanuvasa said. “I think once the dudes find where they’re supposed to be and make sure they have all the plays down, it’s going to be a show.”
Maybe, but at this point, not much can be made of the first practice of training camp. Coaches are trying to figure out what they have, and they can only discover those answers by mixing up lineups and placing players in various situations.
The unknown is especially true this early in camp when players aren’t even in pads yet. They go into half pads Friday and full pads Sunday.
“Non-padded practices for those guys is pretty much a waste of time,” Hauck said of the defensive linemen. “They’re really the one position on the team where you can’t get a lot out of it.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.