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Sanchez set to open first training camp with UNLV

UNLV football fans are constantly reminded these are different times under first-year coach Tony Sanchez, from his aggressive approach to recruiting to his willingness to promote the program at every opportunity.

And now one more thing.

Instead of soon staying in motels in Ely, as the Rebels have done the past nine training camps, they will call the Hyatt Place across the street from campus their temporary home.

But, more upscale accommodations or not, the Rebels know it’s time to get down to business.

Practice is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. today at Rebel Park. Almost all practices are open to the public as UNLV begins preparing for the season that opens Sept. 5 at Northern Illinois.

Here is where they stand entering training camp:

QUARTERBACK

Senior Blake Decker (6 feet 2 inches, 205 pounds) all but won the job in spring with a strong final week. He needs to cut down greatly on the 18 interceptions he threw last season, but also showed great promise in passing for 2,886 yards, the third-highest total in school history.

If Decker builds on what he accomplished at the end of spring, there will be no competition to speak of this month. He completed all five passes in the spring game for 166 yards and three touchdowns.

“I know people would want me to say this gave me this new-found confidence and propelled me into being a confident quarterback,” Decker said. “But, honestly, there hasn’t been a change in my confidence since I stepped on the campus at UNLV.

“More than anything, (the spring) was able to validate to everybody else how I can play.”

RUNNING BACK

The plan is to go with a committee system. Junior Keith Whitely (5-9, 190) is No. 1 for now, and he will be pushed by senior David Greene (6-0, 210) as well as incoming freshmen Xzaviar Campbell (5-11, 220) and Lexington Thomas (5-9, 170).

UNLV needs all the help it can get. The Rebels’ 129.2-yard rushing average last season was last in the Mountain West.

“That is a wide-open deal,” Sanchez said. “I think even if you do have a guy you trust, you’ve still got to have more than one guy.”

WIDE RECEIVER

Sophomores Devonte Boyd (6-1, 175) and Kendal Keys (6-3, 200) are as strong a 1-2 tandem as any in the Mountain West. Boyd was the conference Freshman of the Year after catching 65 passes for 980 yards last season, and Keys is a former Boise State signee who has shown potential.

Depth is limited at this position, and incoming freshmen Brandon Presley (6-0, 175) and Darren Woods Jr. (6-0, 210) should receive every opportunity to contribute immediately.

FULLBACK/TIGHT END

Junior Marc Philippi (5-10, 225) at fullback and senior Jake Phillips (6-6, 250) at tight end will be especially important as the Rebels begin to transition to a power offense, though they still run a lot of spread. Those players also will be counted on to provide maximum protection to assist a rebuilding offensive line.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The Rebels lost three starters, including left tackle/guard Brett Boyko, from a front that struggled even with those players. But sophomore left tackle Kyle Saxelid (6-7, 270) gained valuable experience by starting the final five games last season, and senior Ron Scoggins (6-3, 345) is showing signs of being an asset at right guard.

Senior Nick Gstrein (6-4, 300), who started 10 games at right guard last season, also should figure in the mix, but where is uncertain.

No one has impressed Sanchez more than junior college transfer Will Kreitler (6-0, 295), who has the daunting task of replacing four-year starter Robert Waterman at center.

“He is an absolute gem,” Sanchez said of Kreitler. “He changed the whole culture of that offensive line.”

Even if UNLV carves out a solid starting five, depth is a problem, as it is with the line on the other side of the ball.

DEFENSIVE LINE

UNLV spent part of the offseason trying to piece together a starting defensive line, pursuing and receiving commitments from Jason Fao (6-1, 305) and Nick Dehdashtian (6-1, 295) to play this season. They will walk on with the likelihood of receiving scholarships.

Senior end Jeremiah Valoaga (6-6, 260), who missed last season to focus on academics, also will give the line a big boost. He made 9½ tackles for loss combined in 2012 and 2013. Senior end/tackle Sonny Sanitoa (6-3, 275) and sophomore tackle Mike Hughes Jr. (6-2, 310) will be counted on to stabilize the line.

“Our numbers were really, really low there,” Sanchez said. “Now with these guys coming in, it’s going to really add some depth. Let’s face it, in this game if you don’t have a lot of depth on the defensive line, it is tough. As fast as people go, keeping those guys fresh is huge.”

LINEBACKER

All three starters return, including junior weakside linebacker Tau Lotulelei (6-1, 225), who led the team last season with 100 tackles, including 10½ for loss. He lines up next to junior Ryan McAleenan (6-2, 225) in the middle and sophomore Matt Lea (5-10, 210) on the strongside.

This also is the rare UNLV unit with depth, with seniors Najee Johnson (6-4, 220) and Kimble Jensen (6-0, 210) and junior Trent Langham (6-2, 210) pushing for playing time.

SECONDARY

This is one of the more intriguing parts of the team because the talent is there but not the experience. Senior Peni Vea (6-1, 205) is one of the Mountain West’s top safeties, but he is the only returning starter.

Next to him at the other safety spot is senior Blake Richmond (6-3, 200), who has shown glimpses of being a quality player. Junior Torry McTyer (6-0, 180) and senior Fred Wilson (6-0 180) enter camp No. 1 at the cornerback positions, and McTyer had an especially productive spring.

Junior college transfer Jay’Onn Myles (5-8, 175) and freshman cornerback Chazz Eldridge (6-1, 190) also are players to watch. Myles chose UNLV over Baylor and is expected to play cornerback or nickelback, and Eldridge was a former Arizona commit who grayshirted last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Senior Jonathan Leiva (5-11, 190) is back to handle extra points and most field goals, with junior Nicolai Bornand (6-1, 225) most likely in charge of long field goals. Leiva went 11 of 17 on field goals last season. Senior Logan Yunker (6-2, 200) is back after averaging 40.5 yards per punt.

The return specialists will be decided in camp.

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

 

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