ELY — Expectations for UNLV’s secondary were basement-level low at this time last year.
It was an unproven group in a defense that hadn’t consistently stopped anyone in a decade.
But in one of the biggest surprises in a surprising football season, the Rebels’ defensive backs not only played better than predicted, they also became the strength of the defense.
So now expectations are as high as they were low last year, with all four defensive backs returning to the spots where they ended last season.
“We had a great season last year,” cornerback Kenneth Penny said. “We don’t expect the same. We expect more than what we did last year.”
The numbers tell the story of what they accomplished.
UNLV led the Mountain West in pass defense, allowing 217.7 yards per game. The Rebels were second in pass-efficiency defense, with a 120.3 rating.
In a league with some of the nation’s top quarterbacks, such as Fresno State’s Derek Carr and San Jose State’s David Fales, UNLV’s secondary more than held its own.
Penny tied for second nationally with 18 pass breakups, and fellow cornerback Tajh Hasson had 11 breakups, an interception and four forced fumbles.
“I think they can build on it, because they were really the question marks coming into last season, who was going to play corner,” said defensive coordinator Tim Hauck, also the cornerbacks coach. “They kind of stood up and said, ‘We’re taking this thing and handling it.’ They came out and did a great job, so I think they can take the next step. They’ve got goals of being some of the best in the conference.”
The corners received plenty of help from the safeties. Strong safety Peni Vea led the team with 108 tackles, free safety Frank Crawford led the Rebels with four interceptions and made 53 tackles, and at mostly nickel back, Mike Horsey made 6½ tackles for loss, broke up three passes and had an interception.
Crawford is gone, but Horsey isn’t just diving into free safety now and trying to pick it up. He was forced to make the transition in the 10th game last season against Utah State when Crawford went down with a season-ending leg injury.
Horsey responded by playing well.
The secondary is also a veteran group, with Hasson (6 feet 1 inch, 195 pounds), Penny (5-11, 175) and Horsey (6-0, 190) entering their senior seasons and Vea (6-1, 205) heading into his junior year. Plus, senior Sidney Hodge (5-8, 180), a Palo Verde High School product, will play nickel. He was granted an extra season of eligibility by the NCAA after missing virtually all of last season with a shoulder injury.
The talent in the secondary is undeniable, but as coach Bobby Hauck likes to say, it takes 11 players to defend the run and the pass. If the rebuilt defensive line doesn’t get the job done, it might not matter how good the defensive backs are if UNLV can’t mount a pass rush.
For now, at least, the Rebels go into the Aug. 29 season opener at Arizona knowing they have one of the Mountain West’s top secondaries.
“I think it’s easier this year because it’s not so much teaching how to win, teaching you can get it done, you’ve got to believe,” Tim Hauck said. “They do believe. They’re out here performing like they’re going to play for that conference championship. They believe they can do it. There are not many outside our room that believe they can do it, but as long as our guys believe, that’s what counts.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.