Three Rebels back on football field after missing 2011 with academic issues

Every kickoff two seasons ago became one of anticipation. The feeling carried over into last spring and then August, whenever Marcus Sullivan touched the football as both a returner and a receiver.

That anticipation quickly died, however, when Sullivan was ruled academically ineligible just before last season's opening game because an extra-credit project in one class didn't pass muster.

"I was shocked," he said.

Gone was UNLV's best game-breaker, leaving the Rebels with a good but not spectacular return game and a set of possession receivers incapable of stretching opposing defenses.

"It killed us," coach Bobby Hauck said. "He was our best receiver, and he's the most explosive player.

"He's a guy that can go the distance every time he catches the ball."

Sullivan, a Cheyenne High School product, wasn't the only missing piece. Fellow receiver Eric Johnson and safety Dre Crawford also were ruled academically ineligible before the season.

Now all three are back and spending this spring trying to make up for lost time. It's an especially short time for Johnson and Crawford, who are seniors.

Johnson (5 feet 7 inches, 170 pounds) was expected to complement a veteran but limited receiving corps with his quickness. He signed early out of College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., and went through spring practices last year.

"When I came in last spring, it was just learning the plays," Johnson said. "But this spring, I feel way more comfortable knowing the plays already and just playing."

Crawford (6-0, 185) originally signed with Minnesota, but one credit didn't transfer from Yuma's Arizona Western College, where he made 66 tackles and intercepted four passes in 2010. After the rejection from Minnesota, Crawford made his way to Las Vegas.

The Rebels' opening opponent is Minnesota on Aug. 30 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

"I'm super motivated for this season," Crawford said. "I never sat out a year of football. I'm excited for my first time playing Division I football."

Getting Johnson and Crawford back, should they be eligible, would be important. Sullivan's eligibility is critical.

Gone are Phillip Payne and Michael Johnson, who over the past two seasons combined to catch 166 passes for 2,054 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Sullivan (5-9, 195) should be the go-to receiver next season, giving the offense a dynamic spark it missed last season. Payne averaged 11.6 yards per reception, and Michael Johnson averaged 9.2.

In limited time two seasons ago, Sullivan averaged 17 yards on six catches. He's ready to produce significantly higher reception and yardage numbers as a redshirt sophomore.

"I had a real excellent camp, and then got the news I wasn't going to play," Sullivan said of last August. "So I'm going to use that for motivation next year."

UNLV also greatly missed Sullivan on kick returns, where he averaged 27.9 yards in 2010. Seven of his 35 returns (20 percent) went for at least 37 yards, and five were for 50 or more.

Deante Purvis did well replacing Sullivan, averaging 24.4 yards, but other than a key touchdown return against Colorado State, he had difficulty filling Sullivan's massive void.

Hauck certainly hopes Sullivan, as well as Crawford and Eric Johnson, will be in the lineup next season, but he knows he can't make any assumptions.

"It's good to have them out here," Hauck said. "But they all know they have work to do in the classroom, just like every kid out here. Those guys have a harder time in the classroom because they always know they're up against it."

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.