Progress must start with defensive stops

The best types of spring football practices are the boring ones. Five or so weeks of drills that create as much news as a crossing guard promotion. An uneventful time when roles are defined and schemes are advanced with experienced players. A tedious stretch in which no serious injuries are suffered in April that might impact what happens in September.

For the most part, UNLV successfully maneuvered through the spring in this repetitive manner. For the most part, what we assumed when drills began hadn’t changed upon completion of the annual spring game Friday night at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Which is to say this: UNLV will feature an offense this fall capable of keeping its team in each of 12 games.

It also will mean little if the Rebels again can’t stop anyone.

There is nothing boring about the way UNLV has played defense under coach Mike Sanford, but any excitement has usually been felt by the opposing team scoring at will.

You can’t get more critical for a coach than an approaching fifth season when the previous four resulted in a record of 11-36. Sanford has a good enough offense to improve on last year’s five wins, to earn the school’s first bowl bid since 2000.

What he had to decide this offseason is whether his defense (and those who coach it) could hold up its part.

He gambled it could by not making any drastic changes. He won’t know for months if it was the correct decision.

“One of the reasons I wanted to keep some consistency with the staff and system was I felt we could take a step forward on defense this spring,” Sanford said. “We know what to do and how to do it now. One thing that caused us not to play fast and aggressive last season was a new system with new players who had to think before they played.

“We’ve had a lot of changes on the (defensive coaching staff) since I’ve been here, and I just felt we needed to keep things the same for the most part. We’re more confident as a defense now. That, coupled with repetition and improved competition, has, I believe, made us better.”

It won’t be difficult to improve given how bad the Rebels were in spots. UNLV surrendered averages last season of 32 points and 423 yards. It was as consistently inept against the run (213.0 average against) as the pass (210.0). In one midseason stretch of five straight losses, it allowed 41 or more points four times.

It’s an old story. In the last four seasons, the Rebels have allowed an average of 32.1 points and just over 400 yards.

They. Haven’t. Stopped. Much. Of. Anyone.

What now?

Dennis Therrell faces his second season as defensive coordinator with some of the same issues that impeded growth in 2008, issues that need to be resolved for the Rebels to be any good.

Until proven otherwise, a group of talented linebackers are the only sure things on that side of the ball. A line that was supposed to hold its own and even excel last year didn’t. A secondary that was a question mark turned out to be even more dreadful than feared.

You’re going to continue hearing the names Omar Clayton and Ryan Wolfe and Phillip Payne as the season approaches. But those offensive leaders entrusted to move the ball need more unknown players to execute so that UNLV doesn’t have to average 30 or more points to merely have a chance.

Names such Warren Zeigler, Quinton Pointer, Chris Jones, Will Chandler, Deante Purvis, Travis Dixon. You can’t win enough to contend in the Mountain West Conference if you always make it appear as if opposing quarterbacks are throwing against air.

Coaches like to talk about getting a heavy enough push up front to protect those in the back. It’s true. It’s also important to have a few bodies able to cover someone who runs the 40-yard dash faster than five seconds.

“I’d say I would rather be set on defense over offense going into a season,” Sanford said. “But that said, I think we’ll be much better defensively. We are still a question mark there until we play a real team.

“The fact that I think we can score points and move the football and not turn it over — if we do those things, all of that will help our defense.”

He gambled for the most part to remain status quo on that side of things, to allow those coaches in charge of teaching and those players in charge of executing the benefit of another spring. He needs it to pay off months from now.

Nearly five seasons later, an offense full of skilled players offers more than a hint of promising results.

It won’t mean anything if opponents continue to view scoring 30 as routine.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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