Battle in the middle
ELY — Sophomore, sophomore, sophomore.
That should be UNLV’s starting lineup at linebacker when the Rebels open their football season Aug. 29 at Arizona.
The question is whether that young group can play like veterans by the time that game arrives.
“We all had a little bit of playing time last year,” said Marc Philippi, who went to Bishop Gorman. “We had a great linebacking corps last year, and we got a lot of experience watching film on them. So I don’t think age matters. We can’t use it as an excuse or anything, and I don’t think we will because we’re flying around making plays.”
UNLV is still trying to sort out its lineup at the position, but the only spot truly up for grabs is in the middle between sophomores Philippi (5 feet 10 inches, 220 pounds) and Iggy Porchia (6-2, 225).
“I really like the competition we have right now because we’re pushing each other to get better,” Philippi said. “He has a skill set for certain things. I have my own skill set.”
The race is close enough that the two probably will share the spot, which is exactly what linebackers coach Kraig Paulson wants.
“The thing about the Mike (middle linebacker) is he’s our quarterback,” Paulson said. “He’s got to get five guys lined up every snap. You’re always looking to get an athletic guy, but that guy’s got to be spot on getting that group lined up.”
Only sophomore Tau Lotulelei (6-1, 220), the projected starter on the weakside, has any starts to his credit in the entire group. He played in 11 games last season and started five, making 31 tackles, including four for loss.
On the strongside is sophomore Trent Langham (6-2, 210), who played in all 13 games last season but didn’t start any. With much of his contribution coming on special teams, he made nine tackles, including one for a loss, and a sack. But much is expected of Langham, who is having a good camp.
Porchia also is the backup on the weakside, and redshirt freshman Matt Lea (5-10, 210) is No. 2 on the strongside. Lea also could find himself on the field at times ahead of Langham, depending on the opposing personnel.
Not far behind is a group that could work their way into playing time — sophomores Nicolai Bornand (6-1, 225), Ryan McAleenan (6-2, 230) and junior Kimble Jensen (6-0, 205).
“The bottom line on these guys is they’ve all got to establish who’s first, trying to find the best three, and then have backups for them ready to go in order to create depth,” Paulson said.
Junior quarterback Blake Decker took the vast majority of first-team snaps at practice Tuesday. He is competing with junior Nick Sherry for the starting job. Coach Bobby Hauck said offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach “has certain plays scripted he wants to see. Some guys get more on certain days.” Hauck said he didn’t anticipate naming a starter until at least after Saturday’s scrimmage. ... Freshman quarterback Kevin Thomson, who is expected to redshirt, received most of the work with the reserves. He completed three consecutive passes to end one session. “He’s really doing a nice job,” Hauck said. “When we recruit these guys as freshmen, we tell them we’re going to give them a chance to show in training camp. The other guys got a lot of (repetitions) in the spring.” ... Junior running back David Greene and senior wide receiver Marcus Sullivan didn’t practice because of pulled muscles. They aren’t expected to be sidelined long. ... Sophomore running back Keith Whitely had a 17-yard touchdown run and a 50-yard gain. After the TD run, an elated Greene went up to him and said, “Make me come back and earn it.” Greene and Whitely are competing for the starting job. ... Junior safety Kenny Keys intercepted two passes in the end zone. Junior Kimble Jensen ended practice with a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown. ... A New England Patriots scout attended practice. He spoke with wide receivers coach Cedric Cormier afterward. Senior receiver Devante Davis could be a high pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
Linebackers: The most competitive spot is in the middle, where Marc Philippi and Iggy Porchia are vying for the job.
Tau Lotulelei, So., 6-1, 220
Iggy Porchia, So., 6-2, 225
Marc Philippi, So., 5-10, 220
Iggy Porchia, So., 6-2, 225
Trent Langham, So., 6-2, 210
Matt Lea, Fr., 5-10, 210
Player, Pos., Status
Aaron Criswell, WR, Limited
David Greene, RB, Out
Marcus Sullivan, WR, Out
MARK ANDERSON/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL