Straiten plays catch-up

UNLV coach Mike Sanford didn't spare the hyperbole in February 2006 when he announced the signing of wide receiver Aaron Straiten, comparing him to former NFL first-round draft picks Keyshawn Johnson, Johnnie Morton and Curtis Conway.

Maybe the praise went to Straiten's head and he figured the transition from junior college to Division I-A would be easy.

It wasn't.

"I think I got too focused on living up to the hype instead of just playing football like I used to do," Straiten said. "And at the end of the year, once I had my fresh legs back and I adjusted to the game and I stopped (caring) about what the papers were saying and I focused on what I needed to do, that helped my performance on the field."

The 6-foot-2-inch, 195-pound Straiten ended last season on a strong note, improved in the spring and had an impressive preseason camp in Ely. He was behind junior Gerold Rodriguez before camp but is No. 1 entering Thursday's 5 p.m. PDT opener at Utah State.

The senior caught just about every pass in Ely, including a 6-yard touchdown during a scrimmage when he jumped high in the left side of the end zone over two defenders.

When camp ended Tuesday, Straiten walked off the field with wide receivers coach Kris Cinkovich, who told him, "Ely focus." It's a phrase Cinkovich plans to repeat many times.

"He was OK here in Vegas, and when we went to Ely, he really upped his game and his focus," Cinkovich said.

Last year was much different for Straiten. He signed out of City College of San Francisco, choosing the Rebels over Oregon State. Straiten also visited Texas A&M and turned down trips to Washington State and Arizona.

At the signing day news conference, Sanford likened Straiten to Johnson, Morton and Conway -- three former star receivers at Southern California whom Sanford coached there.

But because Straiten didn't sign early, he couldn't practice with the Rebels in the spring, which probably set him back.

"The transition from two-year to four-year football is tough," Cinkovich said. "When you're not there in the springtime, in my opinion, it's usually worth about four games of learning that you've got to get caught up on. It actually took more than that before he finally got going."

Perhaps the reason for that was the time Straiten missed in preseason camp last year because of an ankle injury and an academic issue from junior college.

Through 10 games, he had just 15 catches for 116 yards -- not exactly the stuff of Johnson, Morton and Conway.

But in the final two games, Straiten provided a glimpse of why Sanford was so excited to put him in a Rebels uniform, catching seven passes for 133 yards.

"I carried the end of the season on to the spring and then from the spring to the summer to camp, and now I plan on taking it into the season," Straiten said. "My only focus is to get better week in, week out."

Cinkovich has noticed the change.

"He wasn't working with the intensity that he needs to last year," Cinkovich said. "He's more professional, if I can use that term, where you don't have to beg him for work. You can coach him because he's working hard already."

• NOTES -- UNLV will play a mock game from 6 to 7:30 p.m today at Sam Boyd Stadium. It is open to the public, and admission is free. ... The Rebels this season will honor the team's first coach, Bill Ireland, with stickers on the backs of their helmets. Ireland died July 31 at age 80.


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