ELY — It was following spring football when third-year UNLV coach Mike Sanford addressed his team’s collection of quarterbacks, saying the position is in the best shape of his short tenure.
Which makes you wonder if the Rebels had an equipment manager throwing passes before 2005.
Fewer than 14 days remain until UNLV opens its season at Utah State before encountering a stretch (host to Wisconsin, Hawaii and Utah before traveling to UNR) that would test the most promising of teams, never mind one that on Thursday night handed its offense to a redshirt freshman quarterback who has never taken a Division I-A snap and who in the spring had this troubling issue of throwing to the wrong colored jerseys.
Funny (scary?) thing is, Travis Dixon has been the best option dating to those spring drills. It’s just official now.
The future of Rocky Hinds as a college player remains cloudier than a Seattle skyline. The junior quarterback left camp here Sunday for Southern California to be examined after swelling occurred on his twice surgically repaired knee. He has yet to return. If and when he sees the practice field again, he’ll face a far more daunting task than winning his job back from Dixon.
He’ll have to win back his confidence.
If self-assurance is paramount to succeeding in any type of stressful, public setting, Hinds on a football field for some time has been an opera signer with strep throat on opening night.
It’s to be expected of a player who has undergone two major surgeries on the same knee in four years. Conquering fear can be a difficult, frightening process — go have your knee cut into a few times and then try avoiding the rush of 300-pound linemen diving at your legs — but one Hinds must complete if he is ever to realize the promise most predicted upon his transfer from USC.
"I recognize where (Hinds) is at because I was a quarterback in college who had a knee injury," new Rebels offensive coordinator Todd Berry said. "But he has to get past those (doubts). If he can’t, then he’s not the best quarterback on the field."
Here’s the thing: Even if Hinds is able to resume practice — which Sanford certainly wasn’t sure about Thursday — he shouldn’t again lead this offense until he overcomes the worry of getting hurt.
Hinds tore his ACL against Iowa State in the second game last season and continued to play. But there was constant doubt in his movement through 12 games and 11 starts. He often wouldn’t run when opportunities arose in an offense in which the quarterback making plays with his feet is as important as one at Brigham Young doing so with his arm.
If you don’t completely believe in yourself, how can you expect teammates in the huddle to do so?
"I’m hoping Rocky’s medical situation rectifies itself and he comes back and competes to be a contributor," Sanford said. "But I have no idea when that would be. We’re two weeks from playing Utah State. We have to do what’s best for this team. I don’t know the exact status of his injury at this point.
"But I believe Travis Dixon has improved tremendously and he deserves the chance to be our starting quarterback."
Sanford is saying what he must, but the only reason competition arose at quarterback is because Hinds missed all of the spring recovering from surgery. This is not the depth chart coaches envisioned in May. It’s probably not even the one they envisioned a few days ago.
That’s not to say Dixon can’t take advantage of his new standing, although the idea of a redshirt freshman quarterback facing UNLV’s early schedule is similar to an amateur boxer facing Floyd Mayweather Jr. blindfolded.
There is some good: Dixon knows how to win, having led his Arizona high school to consecutive 5A state titles.
There is also this major concern: While he is more dangerous than Hinds on the run (Dixon nearly couldn’t be tackled in the spring, which might have something to do with UNLV being unable to tackle anyone last season) he is incredibly unproven as a passer.
He ended practice Thursday by throwing an interception near the end zone in a two-minute drill. It was a bad pass, the kind that gets below-average teams beat every time.
"I know I can play at this level, " Dixon said. "I’m very confident. If you don’t have confidence, you won’t be able to play well."
It’s a truth Rocky Hinds must face upon his return, whenever that is. It’s also one UNLV fans should hope junior Dack Ishii understands.
He, by the way, is now the No. 2 quarterback who also hasn’t taken a Division I-A snap.
The fun is just beginning.
Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.ED GRANEYMORE COLUMNS