ELY — UNLV’s football team returned to Las Vegas on Thursday, and the coaches have a much clearer picture of how the lineup shakes out.
Not that every starting position for the Aug. 29 season opener at Arizona has been settled, but the rotations at various spots are pretty well decided.
“There aren’t really any position battles on defense because you have to play two-deep,” coach Bobby Hauck said. “So a lot of guys are going to play. Guys in the third group are fighting to get into the second group. Beyond that, the ones (starters) will probably play a little more in the back end than the twos, but in the front seven, the twos are going to play equal with the ones. With the number of plays, you have to do that.
“Right now with the offensive line, at the guards spots, we’re still battling it out there. We’re still battling it out at running back, and we’re still battling at wide receiver, too. The guys are really competing hard for playing time at wideout. They’re all going to play (at those three positions). It’s a battle, but it’s to see who gets the first play rather than to get few more plays to get into the game.”
Five position areas, in particular, were in question entering training camp. Here is how those spots stand.
Blake Decker (6 feet 2 inches, 205 pounds) had little trouble beating out fellow junior Nick Sherry (6-5, 235). Decker quickly took over running the first-team offense, and Hauck saw no reason to wait until after the major scrimmage of camp to declare him the winner.
The starter at the beginning of the season, however, has not always been the starter at the end. Sherry lost his job after starting the first three games in 2013, so he knows first hand how the situation can change.
But if Decker is the season-long answer, the Rebels better hope he delivers like Caleb Herring did last year in leading UNLV to the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Otherwise, a second consecutive postseason appearance will be far from guaranteed.
Hauck never made it a secret he planned to use a committee system to replace Tim Cornett, who departed as the Rebels’ career rushing leader.
Three running backs emerged to share that rotation — juniors David Greene (6-0, 210) and George Naufahu (6-0, 215) and sophomore Keith Whitely (5-9, 185). Expect Greene and Whitely to share the load, with Naufahu largely used in short-yardage situations.
All three backs have ability, but whether any can carry the offensive load like Cornett did at times is a big question.
Junior Nick Gstrein (6-4, 295) is proven on the right side, and on the left could be an untested walk-on in sophomore Eric Noone (6-2, 300). Noone, who went to Silverado High School, is a great story, but now he must produce if he holds off sophomore Charles Howard (6-5, 330), who also has never started.
When junior Ron Scoggins (6-3, 335), a Bishop Gorman High product, returns to be part of the rotation is unknown. Because he left team in the spring, Scoggins didn’t go through summer conditioning before coming back to the Rebels shortly before camp opened. He heads into the season “miles” behind, according to Hauck, and has been trying to get back into shape rather than working in practices with the line.
UNLV could use Scoggins back on the line, but in the meantime maybe his fellow local, Noone, will get the job done for what is, overall, one of the Mountain West’s best fronts.
Hauck and his assistants were aggressive in addressing the weakest part of the team. They signed three junior college transfers and brought in senior transfers Brandon Willis (6-2, 300) from UCLA and Josh Shirley (6-3, 230) from Washington.
They also moved junior Sonny Sanitoa (6-3, 260) from end to tackle, and he will line up next to Willis inside. Behind them are juniors Billy Tanuvasa (6-2, 300) and Tuli Fakauho (6-1, 300) and senior Asten Koki (6-3, 275), and all figure to be in the rotation.
At end, seniors Jordan Sparkman (6-6, 270) and Siuea Vaesau (6-4, 250) enter the season as starters, and the backups are Shirley, junior Najee Johnson (6-4, 220) and sophomore Dominic Baldwin (6-5, 240). All five played well in camp.
UNLV’s line performed well enough in Ely to ease concern about that unit, but soon it will be a matter of getting it done in the games.
Hauck likes his linebackers, but they’re all sophomores and only one has started. Will they be ready from the opening game? That’s the key question because a lot will be asked of Trent Langham (6-2, 210) and Tau Lotulelei (6-1, 220) on the outside and from Gorman graduate Marc Philippi (5-10, 220) and Iggy Porchia (6-2, 225) who will share the middle.
Lotulelei, who started five games last season, is the most experienced. Langham, though, has stood out at linebacker, making several plays in camp.
Those three linebacker positions are set up for the future, but the present is a little more iffy. How they and the line perform will go a long way in determining what kind of season the Rebels put together.
NOTE — Senior offensive left tackle Brett Boyko returned to practice Thursday. He had been out nearly a week because Hauck said Boyko, who has undergone several surgeries in his college career, needed the rest.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.