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Graney: The secret to UNLV football’s success this season

You have to believe in it. Promote it. Want it. Your have to put in the time.

UNLV football has won nine games this season, and you can point to several factors why.

The success of a Go-Go offense being led by a quarterback in redshirt freshman Jayden Maiava, who was a backup to begin the year. An opportunistic defense that has the Rebels tied for 11th nationally with a plus-9 turnover margin. A first-year coach in Barry Odom and a staff that have been outstanding teachers.

But lost somewhat in all the success — the Rebels host San Jose State on Saturday at Allegiant Stadium with a chance to clinch an outright Mountain West regular-season title — has been one of the country’s best special teams units.

One of the tops in school history. In the country right now.

Special teams aren’t sexy. They don’t often earn the headlines of a flashy offense scoring points or a stout defense making stops. They’re an afterthought by most reading box scores. 

This is also true: UNLV — which seemingly long ago clinched bowl eligibility for the first time since 2013 — isn’t near the team it is this season without them.

Without the job coordinator James Shibest and his players have done, allowing the Rebels to rank sixth nationally in special teams, according to one ESPN metric.

“Having talent is a great thing,” Shibest said. “In the beginning, they didn’t really know. But then you start having some success and they see work relates to the game, and they start taking pride in it. Once they understand the importance and value in it, it works.”

Award winner

I’m not suggesting teams forfeit the significance of special teams, but if there isn’t a buy-in from the head coach down, things won’t work. And this is where Odom comes into play.

He allows for ample practice time to be devoted. He preaches how critical the kicking game is. He treats is just as the other phases of a team.

He hired one of the best in the business, a man he worked with at Memphis.

Shibest won the nation’s special teams coordinator of the year award at two previous coaching stops. He is an elite instructor at it. He’s old school, all right, employing the same drills now as he has over decades. Not really into the new stuff. Doesn’t see much reason for it.

“It dang sure starts with the guys kicking it and punting it and snapping it and returning it,” Shibest said. “We’ve had kids do great jobs at that. No question, we’ve (excelled) more than originally thought. We have nonscholarship kids and guys who play on all three or four of the units and starters mixed in there. Great chemistry.”

They have a kicker in Jose Pizano who has made a school-record 18 straight field goals and 22 of 23 overall. He’s second nationally in scoring with 112 points and has game-winning fields goals against Vanderbilt and Colorado State.

They have a player in Jacob De Jesus who is the only player nationally to rank among the top 10 for return average on punts (16.8, third) and kickoffs (26.6, eighth).

They have a punter in Marshall Nichols who ranks 12th nationally with a 46.2 average, nearly four yards more than he did last season.

And — as seen on a key fake punt at Air Force last week — has a pretty good arm as well.

‘Problem solver’

“(Shibest) is really good at what he does,” Odom said. “He understands how to give our team an advantage schematically but is also a great motivator. He’s a problem solver. The list goes on. You never know what play might decide a game. Special teams has been a huge factor for us in every one of our games.”

It’s not sexy. Just really, really important.

UNLV has won nine games, and you can point to several reasons why.

Just don’t forget special teams.

This isn’t the same team without them.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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