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Red zone offense, special teams in focus

ELY — It doesn’t take 100 hours of video study by an experienced football coach to determine two of UNLV’s biggest weaknesses last season were failures in the red zone and on special teams.

To try to correct the problems, UNLV coaches have devoted extra time in preseason camp in both areas, running drill after drill inside the 20-yard line and working diligently to improve the kicking and return games.

UNLV ranked last in the nine-team Mountain West Conference, scoring just 70.3 percent of the time when reaching the red zone. The Rebels’ 15 touchdowns from that area of the field also were last.

"Obviously, we have a plan of some specific things that we work on and plays we run in the red zone, and we have worked on that very hard," coach Mike Sanford said. "That’s a big focus of ours going into the season. We’ve got to score more touchdowns in the red zone, and one of the ways you do that is practice."

The Rebels, who open the season Aug. 30 against Utah State at Sam Boyd Stadium, also want to improve every phase of their special teams.

UNLV was last in the conference in kickoff return coverage (26.7-yard average), eighth in kickoff returns (19.7), sixth in punt return coverage (9.1), punting (42.1) and field-goal percentage (77.3) and fifth in punt returns (8.4) and extra-point percentage (95.5).

Some seniors suggested to Sanford that each starter or backup should play on special teams. Except for the quarterbacks, that will happen.

"We have put emphasis on the kicking game in the past, but we are putting more emphasis on it," Sanford said.

FEELING ILL — A stomach bug could be starting to hit the team. It forced three players to miss Thursday’s practice — tailback Channing Trotter, quarterback Dack Ishii and long snapper Eric Braner.

Also, tight end Luke Plante suffered a mild concussion that probably will keep him out about two days.

DON’T GET COMFORTABLE — Quarterback Omar Clayton doesn’t need to look over his shoulder, but Mike Clausen has made it clear he’s not far behind the starter.

Clayton wore the black jersey, meaning he was the offensive standout the previous day. Clausen, his backup, was the runner-up.

"We always come out and have really good competition between us," Clayton said. "There’s not a lot of separation between me and Mike, so we kind of go tit for tat."

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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