Year 2 of the Tony Sanchez era at UNLV starts in earnest Monday morning with the first of 15 spring football practices at Rebel Park.
Armed with a slew of returnees and seven midyear junior college transfers — including former Nebraska quarterback Johnny Stanton — from arguably the best recruiting class in school history, UNLV fans have reason for optimism that the Rebels can not only improve on last year’s 3-9 mark but also produce the program’s second winning season since 2000.
Here are four of the top storylines heading into spring ball:
1. Quarterback battle
Returnee Kurt Palandech and newcomer Stanton will compete for the starting quarterback spot. Redshirt freshman Dalton Sneed also will take part in spring practice, with true freshman Armani Rogers joining the competition in the fall.
“We really want to find out who’s got the right demeanor and attitude and ability to make decisions and lead the team,” Sanchez said. “Going in right now on the first day, Kurt will be taking reps with the 1s, and we’ll make sure Johnny gets some reps with the 1s. We’ll let those two kind of battle it out.
“I really hope one of them just flat out stands above them all. I’m looking for someone to take it and just completely separate themselves from the pack. In a perfect world, that’s what’s going to happen in the spring, but then you’ve got to go back at it in the fall.”
Palandech filled in for injured starter Blake Decker for much of last season but proved more proficient as a runner than a passer. The 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pounder was the Rebels’ fourth-leading rusher with 419 yards and four touchdowns, but completed less than half of his passes, connecting on 75 of 152 attempts for a 49.3 completion percentage.
Stanton, a rugged 6-2, 235-pound dual-threat quarterback, took only five snaps for the Cornhuskers as a redshirt freshman in 2014. He regrouped last season at Saddleback College (Calif.), where he completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,471 yards and 27 TDs and rushed for 752 yards and 12 TDs en route to earning All-America honors.
“You can’t discredit Kurt. He’ll be a better player,” Sanchez said. “We know he can run. We’ve got to see how much he’s developed in the offseason with his ability to make reads, his level of comfort and his ability to throw the football.
“Obviously, Johnny Stanton, we brought him in for a specific reason. The reason you go get a (junior college) guy is because you want him to push that battle fast. We want to find out who the best dude is there.”
2. Improved offensive line
The offensive line finished 110th of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision schools last season in sacks allowed, with 2.75 per game, and might have set a national record in the season finale with three starters weighing 270 pounds or less.
The line will be substantially bigger with returning 6-7 starter Kyle Saxelid entering practice at 292 pounds after finishing last season at 270 and junior college transfer Michael Chevalier (6-3, 300) and redshirt freshman Justin Polu (6-4, 325) joining the fray.
“He’s as good as he wants to be,” Sanchez said of Polu, a Silverado High School product. “He’s got a chance to start as a redshirt freshman. He’s 6-4 and 325 pounds. He’s powerful. We didn’t have guys like that last year.”
“It’s going to be a different group,” Sanchez said. “It’s going to be a more athletic, stronger, heavier group. Add the tight ends and fullbacks in, and our ability to play a much more physical brand of football is going to be much greater.”
3. Tight end infusion
The Rebels had only one available tight end in their 2015 season finale. They’ll have three talented players at the position this spring in senior returnee Andrew Price (6-6, 255) and junior college transfers Tim Holt (6-2, 230), a three-star recruit, and Trevor Kanteman (6-4, 240).
“That position looks drastically different all of a sudden,” Sanchez said. “I think that’s an important piece of us getting better in the spring.”
Sanchez also noted that Marc Phillipi (5-10, 230), a Bishop Gorman product who missed last season with a broken foot, will return to play fullback and H-back.
“All of a sudden, we’ve got these toys, for lack of a better term, and the ability to do things that we didn’t have at the end of the year,” Sanchez said. “So we’re much better there. That’s a big deal.”
4. Improved defense
The numbers weren’t pretty last season, as UNLV finished 100th in the FBS in scoring defense (33.7 points per game), 109th in total defense (457.3 yards per game) and last in sacks (nine).
The Rebels had the nation’s second-most improved rush defense from 2014, but still finished 110th in the nation in that category, allowing 217.5 ypg, a number Sanchez said could have been greatly reduced with better tackling.
“We charted how many yards were gained after missed tackles, and it was almost 900 yards,” he said. “You’re going to miss some tackles, but if we were doing a better fundamental job of tackling, we would’ve been No. 1.”
The man who helped guide the nation’s most-improved rush defense last season at Georgia State is Tony Samuel, whom the Rebels recently hired as defensive line coach to replace Joe Seumalo, who accepted the same position at Arizona State.
“We need a pass rush, and we have a new defensive line coach who I think will impact that and make us better,” Sanchez said.
UNLV returns the core of its linebackers and defensive linemen from last season.
“They’re all a year older, smarter and better,” Sanchez said. “They’re going to be a better group.”
Junior college transfer middle linebacker Brian Keyes (6-1, 245) will join the mix this spring before the Rebels add two more linebackers and three more defensive linemen in the fall.
UNLV also will feature two physical defensive backs in spring ball in junior college transfers Michael Adams (6-2, 210) and Robert Jackson (6-2, 200).
“The biggest thing is we went into spring football last year right at 60 guys, and right now we’re going in with 80,” Sanchez said. “We were pretty young last year. Our depth is greater. That’s the biggest thing you’re going to see. There’s competition all over the place.”
■ NOTE — Desert Pines High School quarterback Marckell Grayson is the first player to commit to UNLV’s 2017 recruiting class. The 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound dual-threat QB announced his decision on his Twitter account Saturday.
Grayson completed 113 of 208 passes (54.3 percent) for 1,798 yards and 21 touchdowns with 12 interceptions as a junior last season. He also ran for 309 yards and eight TDs.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33
UNLV SPRING PRACTICE SCHEDULE
Practices are open to the public
All dates and times are subject to change
Monday No Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
Wednesday No Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
Friday Shells 8:10-10:20 a.m.
Saturday Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
March 14 Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
March 16 Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
March 18 Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
March 21-25 Spring Break, no practices
March 28 Shells 8:10-10:20 a.m.
March 30 Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
April 1 Shells 8:10-10:20 a.m.
April 2 Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
April 4 Shells 8:10-10:20 a.m.
April 6 Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
April 8 No Pads 8:10-10:20 a.m.
April 9 Spring Showcase* 12-1:30 p.m.
* on campus