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Gordon: Spring showcase gives UNLV football some needed fun

Updated April 23, 2022 - 9:57 pm

The black cast envelops fifth-year senior linebacker Austin Ajiake’s left hand, protecting the wrist he broke in November. But it didn’t prevent him from intercepting quarterback Harrison Bailey on Saturday toward the end of UNLV’s spring showcase on Saturday at Allegiant Stadium.

Or cradling his daughter, Eliana, on the field afterward while mingling with friends and family.

“We put a lot of work in this past month or so. I’m glad it’s starting to show,” Ajiake said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we’ve been putting a lot of work in since really the end of the season last year. It feels good to be back here with the crowd and the community around. I’m just happy to be back.”

Yes, it’s spring. And yes, it was a scrimmage. But Ajiake and the Rebels had some fun before a crowd of 1,000 or so on Saturday — previewing what the Rebels could be in 2022.

He had a pick and so, too, did senior defensive back Bryce Jackson, courtesy of Doug Brumfield, formerly of the transfer portal. Bailey and Brumfield threw the ball over the yard. Mostly accurately. Mostly to a battalion of wide receivers bigger, stronger, faster than those of yesteryear.

A field goal was blocked. A kickoff was returned for a touchdown. And a happy coach addressed a happy smattering of spectators that spent their Saturday afternoon with the Rebels.

“This was fantastic,” UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo said. “This is as good as it gets as far as our opportunity to get in front of our people and have the fans out. Have recruits out. … I told them ‘Have fun. This is what it’s about.’”

Competition continues

Bailey fielded the first snap and would seem to have the inside track in the quarterback competition. The Tennessee transfer throws a feathery football, particularly in the short and intermediate areas. He hit Michigan State transfer wideout Ricky White in stride over the middle, allowing his former high school teammate to run an additional 25 yards for a gain of 50 or so on the most impressive play of the evening.

He also telegraphed the slant pattern that Ajiake jumped during a two-minute drill and received some informal coaching on the field from Arroyo afterward while his teammates socialized nearby.

“Me personally, (I need) more command,” said Bailey, who also threw a touchdown pass to transfer Jeff Weimer. “I feel like that just comes with experience.”

Brumfield played plenty, too, sharing roughly half of the 83 offensive snaps in his first extended playing time since September. He still has a rocket left arm and his mobility posed problems for Rebels defenders.

He, too, threw one touchdown and one interception — and can surely contribute this season, even if he doesn’t win the starting job this fall.

“It’s been a real emotional roller coaster, but I’m glad those days are over,” Brumfield said of his foray in the portal. “I love my teammates. I really understand the coaching staff now. Understand what their plan is.”

Three more practices

There’s still one more week, three more practices and plenty to work on before UNLV’s spring season concludes. The film on Saturday is fodder for Arroyo, who is as eager as anybody to get back to work Tuesday.

He was pleased with the penalties, or lack thereof. Pass protection was a plus as well for the Rebels, who still need to find a replacement for Charles Williams at running back. But the spring showcase was a success and that matters for a program that hasn’t experienced much of that lately.

“We’re 12 practices in. We’ve got three left. We’ve tried to elevate the standards of everything we do. … The way we play. The way we’ve recruited. The way we treat each other,” Arroyo said. “We’re trying to turn it over to them. … Them taking control of their locker room and their practice and their standards and their habits. And I’ve been really proud of the leadership.”

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

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