UNLV more prepared now to deal with loss of QB Armani Rogers

At the time, Boise State had a football team ranked 22nd nationally, one that would ultimately win 10 games and advance to the Cactus Bowl against Baylor.

At the time, UNLV was 4-6 and merely playing out another schedule that wouldn’t include a postseason invitation.

And on that Friday night in the capital city of Idaho, Rebels quarterback Kurt Palandech threw to a group of wide receives that included the following two names:

Jericho Flowers, who four weeks earlier was a third-string cornerback playing primarily on special teams.

And a redshirt freshman named Dalton Sneed, who had started five games that season … at quarterback.

It seems further back than 2016, that 42-25 UNLV loss, that laughable depth chart at wideout after injuries to several of the team’s top receivers, and yet more than anything else, it embodies where the Rebels are now compared to then.

Which is another way of saying that while losing starting quarterback Armani Rogers indefinitely this week to a toe injury is hardly a desired reality, UNLV should deal with such a blow far better than it could two years ago.

This is the sort of moment coach Tony Sanchez has prepared for through recruiting.

This is when a team has the opportunity to prove itself a program.

“When we got the news about Armani, we felt terrible for him because he has worked so hard, but at the same time, not one person panicked,” Sanchez said. “It’s crazy to think about the (Boise State) game, when we were just fighting our guts out to try to win any game.

“Looking back, you have to laugh. What we were dealing with was almost comical. Now, when a guy drops back to throw, he’s looking at real wide receivers.”

That guy is junior college transfer Max Gilliam, who replaces Rogers and will have a lot more around him from which to lead than Palandech did that night in Boise.

The Rebels are 2-2, coming off a bye, and you can’t overstate the importance of opening Mountain West play with a victory against visiting New Mexico on Saturday.

It’s big. It’s huge. It’s paramount to moving toward that critical goal of six wins and bowl eligibility.

Rebels better everywhere

UNLV is as good across the offensive line as it has been under Sanchez and features the league’s best group of backs. It’s running the ball as well as most teams nationally, although losing the country’s No. 8 rusher in yards per game can’t in any way be considered positive.

We saw what happened to UNLV’s run game without Rogers for stretches last season.

It’s wasn’t nearly as lethal.

But the receivers are skilled and, while always relative, the defense is better.

It doesn’t mean Gilliam won’t struggle some as a major college starter for the first time, but it does mean he shouldn’t feel any sense of having to carry the entire burden of production. He doesn’t have to be incredible for the Rebels to win. He just has to be good and, most important, efficient throwing the ball.

UNLV was going to have to upset at least a few league opponents to make a bowl even with Rogers, and that’s assuming it wins games in which it will be favored, beginning Saturday.

Now, it’s on Gilliam and those teammates around him to maintain such a narrative.

I have no idea which way this goes — a loss to the Lobos could end those bowl chances before they begin — but I know UNLV is as prepared for such a situation more than any other time under Sanchez.

Now and in the future.

Consider: In 2019, which will be his fifth season as coach, UNLV will return 43 offensive players, 39 of whom will have redshirted; it will return 39 on defense, 29 of whom will have redshirted.

These are the signs of development, of progress, of depth. The Rebels have more players now. They’re better everywhere from recent seasons. Key names get hurt every week across the country. Teams struggle with it. Programs deal with it.

I assumed Sanchez was in a team meeting — perhaps with his quarterbacks — when reaching him Monday afternoon.

I assumed he had little time to chat.

“No problem,” he said upon answering, “I’m just sitting here watching some recruiting tape.”

Of course he was.

He keeps building that depth, and now is a time it could begin paying off.

Or at least keep things moving forward.

More Rebels: Follow all of our Rebels coverage online at reviewjournal.com/Rebels and @RJRebels on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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