UNLV’s previous coaching staff was elated in January 2007 to land a commitment from Will Chandler, an athletic football player and track sprinter at his Los Angeles high school who chose the Rebels over UNR.
The coaches envisioned Chandler becoming what he is now — a play-making cornerback who constantly is around the ball. But those coaches probably rushed Chandler, starting him as a redshirt freshman in the 2008 season opener.
He struggled and didn’t start again that season or in 2009, and he was given few chances to play.
Then came a second chance under the new Bobby Hauck-led staff. Chandler made the most of his opportunity and was rewarded with a starting cornerback spot.
The junior has become UNLV’s top defensive playmaker and seems to be on a mission to prove the new coaches’ faith in him is well-founded. His five takeaways entering Saturday’s 7 p.m. game against No. 25 UNR at Sam Boyd Stadium ties him for the national lead.
When asked what has been the difference this season, Chandler didn’t hesitate: “Coaching change.”
“I guess it felt like it brought new life to me as far as football goes,” Chandler added. “Maybe I didn’t fit the scheme the coaches had before.”
Whether it was that reason or the previous staff didn’t give him the proper chance or it lost confidence in Chandler or he needed another season to develop is debatable. It could be a mix of reasons.
But it didn’t take the current coaches long to know they had a special player.
Chandler (5 feet 11 inches, 185 pounds) entered spring practice at No. 3 on the cornerback depth chart, which was based on how the previous season ended.
“He came out and practiced with a purpose in the spring every day,” defensive backs coach J.D. Williams said. “Just about every period, he’d try to make a play. So he started moving up the depth chart.”
All the way to the top by the end of spring drills. Chandler not only took the No. 1 spot into August training camp, he solidified it.
Then Chandler showed right away he wasn’t just a practice player. In UNLV’s season opener against Wisconsin, he returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown and a fumble 82 yards to set up another touchdown.
Chandler also recovered a fumble at Utah, intercepted a pass at Idaho and picked off a pass against New Mexico.
He leads the Mountain West Conference in interceptions (three) and is tied for the lead in fumble recoveries (two). He also is tied with Alabama safety Robert Lester and Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews for the national lead in total takeaways.
Hauck said scheme isn’t as important as a player’s desire to force turnovers.
“When you’re a corner and you get down the field, whether it’s man-to-man or it’s a three-deep zone, it essentially becomes man-to-man when the ball’s in the air,” Hauck said. “Whoever can get it gets it, and he’s done a nice job of beating receivers to the ball this year.”
It’s quite a long way from two years ago at training camp in Ely when wide receiver Phillip Payne had his way with fade pass after fade pass over Chandler in the end zone.
“I kind of try to put that behind me,” Chandler said. “Me and Phil have had a lot of battles since then. I learned from it, chucked it in the trash, kept moving.”
In winning his share of practice battles against Payne and UNLV’s other receivers, Chandler has shown a determination to not only show he belongs but that he thrives.
He’s made the same point in the Rebels’ first four games this season.
“He works hard,” Williams said. “There’s no surprise why he’s playing well. He tries to do it in practice every day.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914.