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Gordon: Jayden Maiava’s development in 2024 drives UNLV’s upside

Updated December 26, 2023 - 11:21 pm

PHOENIX

Reminder: Jayden Maiava is a redshirt freshman.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’d eventually play like one.

UNLV’s standout first-year quarterback capped his season with two straight games of growing pains, including those he experienced Tuesday night in a 49-36 loss to Kansas in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl at Chase Field.

Maiava threw two forgettable first-half interceptions, bobbling a snap before back-footing a pass into triple coverage — and pirouetting out of pressure and into an errant throw directly to a Jayhawks defender.

Then he morphed back into the Mountain West’s Freshman of the Year and gave UNLV a chance to compete.

His spirited second half — absent of interceptions and filled instead with touchdown passes to Ricky White, Shelton Zeon III and Senika McKie — helped the Rebels rally furiously from a 28-10 halftime deficit and pull within four points.

A Power Five-caliber player and All-Mountain West honoree, Maiava announced on Sunday his plan to play for UNLV again in 2024.

He holds in his right arm and hand the future of the program.

Strong season, shaky finish

Maiava finished 24 of 35 for 291 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions — unsheathing in the second half against Kansas the resilience that defined the Rebels throughout their upstart season.

His emergence was buoyed by several skills — his live arm and legs, his feel for the pocket, his poise under pressure — and propensity for protecting the ball.

His first 10 games as UNLV’s primary quarterback featured three game-winning drives and 14 touchdown passes against six interceptions. But his last two games — against stiffer competition in the Mountain West championship game against Boise State and versus Kansas — featured three touchdown passes against four picks.

What’s more is the interceptions weren’t the byproduct of unbelievable defensive play, but rather the ilk of decision he’ll have to mitigate more often moving forward.

Rebels coach Barry Odom called his interceptions Tuesday “forced throws … He’ll learn from those.”

He doesn’t have to be the hero he tried to be Tuesday in the first half. When he stayed in the second half within the structure of the offense, the Rebels started to roll.

But the deficit this time was too deep to overcome. Their opponent too explosive to make untimely mistakes.

The better the opposition, the thinner the margins become.

Positioned to progress

Said Odom of Maiava: “The combination of who we’ve got coming back, the combination of his skill set — I think he can be an elite quarterback in college football.”

Indeed, Maiava has plenty to build on — and more important plenty to build with.

Returning on the perimeter is White, an All-American who equaled on Tuesday the school’s single-season record for receptions while supplying 97 more yards. Another rising star, offensive coordinator Brennan Marion, returns — along with most of a veteran offensive line that mostly kept Maiava clean.

The Rebels also boast a brigade of running backs and have added Texas wide receiver transfer Casey Cain, whom Marion formerly coached.

The future should be bright for the Rebels and Maiava.

Even though the first half Tuesday wasn’t.

“We’ve all got to get better, and that’s the challenge and the opportunity,” Odom said. “Guys that played meaningful snaps this year, whatever they played, however many they played, it’s our job as coaches to get them to play better the next opportunity out.

“At this point, the guys did some great things this year, but we can all be a lot better.”

On to 2024.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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