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Rebels hard to gauge until Hinds makes full recovery

The NBA on Friday afternoon appointed a committee that will further study a Las Vegas proposal to one day bring a franchise here, only accentuating the fact that no such development now or in the future means anything until a new arena becomes more than just a fancy vision to debate over lunch.

The UNLV football team held its annual spring game Friday night with its most important player standing on the sideline, only accentuating the fact that it’s impossible to tell how much better the Rebels might be until junior quarterback Rocky Hinds is again healthy enough to run while wearing a helmet.

Nothing has changed. You haven’t missed some extraordinary occurrence since UNLV beat visiting Air Force before around 250 people in November. Hinds is recovering from his second major knee surgery in four years, but his importance in 2007 (with him, UNLV could finally win more than two games in a season; without him, it has no chance to do so) remains as immense as ever.

“I’ll being doing everything by the time (fall camp gets underway),” Hinds said.

He has to be. He might not be UNLV’s only chance to be better, but the distance between him and the next possible candidate is that of Pluto from the sun.

The end of spring football is no different here than in Gainesville, Fla., or Austin, Texas — other than those crowds of 60,000 for scrimmages and a Sam Boyd Stadium-sized disparity in skill. But everyone says they learned a lot. Everyone says they made progress. Everyone says the defense won one scrimmage and the offense another and — what a shock — both sides played well in a third. Everyone walks away with an elevated level of optimism only April can create. It’s like five weeks of the NFL Draft.

There is hope at running back for UNLV, where junior college transfer Frank Summers is already far ahead of anyone who carried the ball last year, which means he understands it’s not a bad thing to run straight and gain yards; while young, UNLV’s group of wide receivers could be the best among Mountain West Conference teams; senior linebacker Beau Bell had a solid spring, signifying that sprained ankle is finally healed six months later.

But the boat that is UNLV has for some time been taking on water, not completely submerged and yet dipping in a way only a 4-19 record over the last two seasons can produce.

“We have something to prove,” third-year coach Mike Sanford said. “We haven’t done anything.”

The funny thing is, Hinds is still more about boundless potential than significant results. He became the school’s first 2,000-yard passer since 1997 last season but also mixed in 13 interceptions with eight touchdowns. He started 11 games and played in all 12, the final 10 with an injured knee. He was good at times and shaky at others. He didn’t really run at all until that win against Air Force (thus abandoning a large portion of the team’s offense), when the interest level locally had long since fell to the point that front-row parking spaces were available minutes before kickoff.

And yet, he is the one who can salvage the program.

You know how important he is when a true freshman (Mike Clausen) will arrive in the fall with a legitimate opportunity to claim the No. 2 role at the most critical position in an offensive scheme that can hardly be described as straightforward.

Travis Dixon was the best quarterback who played this spring, but the redshirt freshman isn’t near ready to win games against anyone other than an opponent named Scarlet in a spring game.

Dixon has good feet. He can scoot and evade and gain yards when things break down. He also threw interceptions on three consecutive passes during a scrimmage last week when he wasn’t even considered live and couldn’t be hit. That’s an issue. He would have thrown two more Friday (when he was decent in completing 11 of 21 passes for 124 yards) if not for his receivers suddenly becoming defensive backs.

It’s just not a very promising depth chart after Hinds. Dack Ishii is a junior who threw well at times this spring but is probably destined to hold a clipboard, and Jarrod Jackson is a fifth-year senior who, while assuredly a pleasant young man, threw two interceptions Friday that would have been considered awful decisions in Pop Warner.

“We’ve got to do something in training camp where we can put Rocky in a live situation,” Sanford said. “He needs that. He has to also have a great summer throwing to our receivers.”

He has to get healthy and improve and play well. Nothing has changed.

Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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