Step by remarkable step, walk-on quarterback Omar Clayton rose up the UNLV depth chart last season, passing the supposed future starter, the backup and finally the current starter.
Now Clayton has to beat them all out again, to prove his journey from obscurity to No. 1 at the Rebels’ marquee position was well earned and real.
"I definitely feel like since I’ve already had the opportunity to start, it’s my responsibility to be the starter," he said. "I don’t feel like I should give that job up to anybody. It’s my job to lose."
The position battle begins at 4 p.m. today at Rebel Park with the opening of UNLV spring drills. It’s the first of 15 practices, culminating with the spring game April 18 at Sam Boyd Stadium.
With last year’s incumbent quarterback Rocky Hinds out of the program for good, coach Mike Sanford said the position is an open competition among Clayton, sophomore Travis Dixon and redshirt freshman Mike Clausen. Senior Dack Ishii also could be a factor.
Sanford said he didn’t know if a starter would be named this spring or in August. He left open the possibility of going with two quarterbacks.
"I think (waiting to name a starter) is important because then you’re treating your quarterback position the same way we’re treating a lot of positions," Sanford said.
Clayton, a 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore, emerged last season to become the starter by the eighth game against Colorado State.
He committed four first-half turnovers in a 48-23 loss, but in the second half he passed for 279 yards on 18-of-26 and had only one turnover. Clayton became the first UNLV quarterback to pass for at least 300 yards and run for at least 100.
Two games later, though, he broke his right hand and missed the final two weeks.
Clayton said he wasn’t too disappointed because it was a relatively minor injury. He took plenty of positives away after completing 61.1 percent of his passes, the highest among UNLV’s quarterbacks.
"It was a great boost of confidence," Clayton said. "I know what it’s like to be out there playing and in the starting role, so when it happens again, it won’t be anything new."
Being on the field won’t be new to Dixon, either. He started nine games last season, including the first seven.
Though Dixon (6-1, 190) had some notable performances — three games of throwing for at least 249 yards — he also completed just 53.2 percent.
"I would say the area Travis needs to improve on this spring and in going into next season is his passing," Sanford said. "He was the quarterback of our two wins, and he was also the quarterback of a game that in a lot of ways we should’ve won against Wisconsin."
Dixon said he enters the spring with the same urgency and determination he took into fall camp last year.
"There’s really great competition out there, and I have to be ready to play each and every practice," he said.
Clausen (6-2, 200) signed with UNLV as the potential quarterback of the future, but redshirted while fellow freshman Clayton took snaps. Clausen used the time wisely and became the Rebels’ offensive scout team player of the year.
"We have seen him showing flashes of brilliance," Sanford said. "We loved what we saw on high school tape. We like what we’ve seen so far since he’s been here. He did an excellent job with the scout team. When he got into scrimmages and got into times where he played (in practices), he did a lot of really good things."
Sanford says now Clausen must prove himself on the field. He says he intends to.
"It makes me want to work a little harder and go out and show what I can bring to the table since I was the only quarterback who didn’t get the chance to step on the field last year," Clausen said.
Ishii (6-2, 220), the backup entering last season before falling to No. 3, has the most ground to make up, though he was awarded a scholarship.
"I think he’s got the strongest arm of the whole group, but he’s not consistent and he throws some balls he shouldn’t throw," Sanford said.
UNLV hasn’t had a reliable quarterback since Jason Thomas in 2000, before he suffered a shoulder injury.
"We’ve got to eliminate turnovers and we’ve got to score more points," Sanford said. "The quarterback position isn’t all of it, but the quarterback position is a lot of it."
• NOTE — Defensive tackle Jacob Hales, a Las Vegas High School graduate, will remain with the team after considering leaving.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 387-2914.SPRING FOOTBALL WHEN: Starting today; practices open to the public WHERE: Rebel Park SPRING GAME: April 18, 6 p.m., Sam Boyd Stadium PRACTICE SCHEDULE: Today, 4-6 p.m.; Wednesday, 4-6 p.m.; Friday, 9-11 a.m.; March 17-21, no practices (spring break); March 24, 4-6 p.m.; March 26, 4-6 p.m.; March 28, 9-11 a.m.; April 2, 4-6 p.m.; April 4, scrimmage, 4-6 p.m.; April 7, 4-6 p.m.; April 9, 4-6 p.m.; April 11, scrimmage, Alumni Night, 6-8 p.m.; April 14, 4-6 p.m.; April 16, 4-6 p.m.