5 storylines to watch as UNLV football opens practice

Football teams coming off a 3-9 season typically don’t inspire much enthusiasm, but UNLV has managed to do that under high-energy coach Tony Sanchez.

“You really feel that sense of optimism out there,” said Sanchez, entering his second year at the school. “The biggest thing for us is we need to capitalize on that optimism and excitement by showing some improvement.”

The Rebels, who managed only two wins in eight of the previous 11 seasons, will open training camp Friday morning at Rebel Park with expectations of going to a bowl game this season.

“Walk in our locker room and it says, ‘Win a Mountain West championship. Go to a bowl game. Beat Reno.’ Those are things that are really important to us,” said Sanchez, who guided UNLV to a win over UNR last season. “Where we’re at in our program, winning a Mountain West championship, that’s a hell of a goal.

“But going to a bowl game? I think that’s very doable.”

With UNLV’s Sept. 1 season opener against Jackson State at Sam Boyd Stadium less than four weeks away, here are five things to watch in camp (which is closed to the public except for two scrimmages Aug. 13 and Aug. 19):

1. QUARTERBACKS

The quarterback picture remains unclear, as juniors Johnny Stanton and Kurt Palandech are both listed as the starter on the Rebels’ depth chart after neither player emerged as the clear No. 1 in spring practice.

The strong-armed Stanton, a junior college transfer who began his career at Nebraska, is still learning the offense. The fleet-footed Palandech, who appeared in nine games last season in place of the oft-injured Blake Decker, needs to improve as a passer.

“Kurt was put in bad situation after bad situation. I think he’s a lot better than he showed last year,” Sanchez said. “Johnny does some pretty dynamic things. The biggest thing for him was raising his level of comfort with our offense.

“Going into fall, those two are going to battle it out, and I think within the first couple weeks, we’ll have a decision (on a starter).”

Pushing Stanton and Palandech in practice will be redshirt freshman Dalton Sneed and true freshman Armani Rogers, a 6-foot-5-inch, 210-pound former California commit who was the headliner of one of UNLV’s highest-rated recruiting classes ever.

2. FRESHMEN

There are a handful of true freshmen Sanchez is counting on to contribute this season, including running back Charles Williams, receiver/returner Mekhi Stevenson and offensive lineman Jaron Caldwell, a Bishop Gorman High School product.

Redshirt freshmen expected to make an impact include two projected starters in wideout Darren Woods Jr. and right guard Justin Polu (Silverado), and backup linebacker Gabe McCoy.

3. TRANSFERS

Sanchez expects his junior college transfers to make a huge impact. Left guard Michael Chevalier and nickelback Robert Jackson are slated to start. Tight ends Trevor Kanteman and Tim Holt, and linebackers Brian Keyes and LaKeith Walls, a fifth-year graduate transfer from Illinois, also are expected to contribute.

4. OFFENSIVE LINE

The line has beefed up considerably since last season, when it started three players in the finale weighing 270 pounds or less. But it still lacks depth.

“The problem is we’re not even three-deep on the offensive line on scholarship,” Sanchez said. “We should have 18. We have 12, and four of them are true freshmen. It takes years to fix that.

“We’re good, and we’re physical. We just can’t afford a lot of injuries.”

5. PASS RUSH

The Rebels had one of the most improved run defenses in the country last season, but finished last in the nation in sacks with nine.

Sanchez expects that to change this season with the emergence of defensive ends Jeremiah Valoaga and Antonio Zepeda, and the additions of Walls and McCoy.

“We’re going to be a better pass rush team,” Sanchez said. “If we can continue to defend the run the same way and create turnovers, we’ll be a much improved defense.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33

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