UNLV can’t look past any teams

On this one issue, UNLV football coach Mike Sanford insists on the Rebels speaking with one voice.

Yes, it’s coach-speak to talk about only focusing on the next opponent, but it’s especially critical for the Rebels if they are to experience success.

They can’t look past today’s 5 p.m. PDT opener at Utah State, tempting as it might be, to a demanding stretch of games. They can’t do that because even Utah State — picked next-to-last in the Western Athletic Conference — is no gimme. The Aggies won the past two meetings with UNLV.

“The only game I’m allowing our team to talk about is Utah State,” Sanford said. “I’m the only one in our program that can talk about any other games, and I don’t look at it like that at all. I look at it as one game at a time, and we have an opportunity to win every game.

“I know how people on the outside think, but I can’t go into a game not believing I’m going to win. What’s the point in going out there?”

After Utah State, UNLV faces Wisconsin, Hawaii, Utah, UNR, Air Force and Brigham Young — a slate that could rough up the Rebels physically and psychologically.

UNLV’s schedule lightens up late in the season. Colorado State and San Diego State visit Sam Boyd Stadium, though there is a trip to Mountain West Conference favorite Texas Christian on Nov. 17.

Of course, the Rebels cannot expect victories on any part of their schedule. Not a team coming off three consecutive two-win seasons, picked to finish at the bottom of the conference standings this year.

Sanford enters his third season trying to revive one of Division I-A’s worst programs. He took over a team bereft of talent following the 2004 season, and even now his scholarship total is at least 10 under the NCAA limit of 85.

UNLV athletic director Mike Hamrick said he supports Sanford, and the coach will receive the time he needs. Hamrick also said he sees an improved program, and the win-loss record this season might not reflect the gains that have been made, such as improved overall talent and strength.

Sanford’s harshest critic might be himself.

“I put a ton of pressure on myself, and that’s the kind of pressure that means a lot more to me than external pressure,” Sanford said. “And I put a lot of pressure on our players and our coaches, too.”

Sanford has not caught many breaks the past two seasons. Quarterback Shane Steichen broke a finger and missed six games in 2005, and last year, QB Rocky Hinds played nearly the entire season with a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Now Hinds is out with a 50 percent tear to the cadaver graft placed in his right knee in January. Redshirt freshman Travis Dixon is the starter, and he showed promise in training camp, especially running the option and improving his passing accuracy.

“The timing with the receivers that we put in with the work in the summertime — doing seven-on-seven, one-on-one — that helped a lot coming into fall camp,” Dixon said.

Room for improvement still exists, though, and Dixon hasn’t played in three seasons. Inexperience also could be a problem in the secondary, where newcomers Quinton Pointer and Geoffery Howard expected to get plenty of playing time at cornerback and Shane Horton at safety. All are talented players who had their moments in camp, but how quickly they play up to their potential is a question.

There also is inexperience at tailback, but junior college transfer Frank Summers was this year’s Ryan Wolfe in camp. Wolfe was outstanding last year, then went out and became the conference Freshman of the Year. The hard-charging 240-pound Summers put together the type of camp that indicated he could become one of the Mountain West’s elite players.

UNLV also has hope in a deep receiving corps that includes Wolfe, Casey Flair and Aaron Straiten.

And the Rebels finally appear to have depth on both lines. The offensive line was especially impressive in camp, and defensive end Jeremy Geathers is one of the league’s proven top pass rushers. If linebacker Beau Bell stays healthy, he should be among the conference’s best defenders.

“Our confidence, I can see the change,” Bell said. “There’s a big change.”

Summers said he has seen the confidence grow in his short time on campus, and third-year running backs coach Reggie Davis confirmed that sense to him.

“I think everyone around here is tired of losing,” Summers said. “The players took it into consideration, and they wanted to do something about it. And the way you do something about it is you get out and work your butt off every day.

“I think we’re on the right track.”

But Rebels fans have heard for years the promise UNLV brings into a season. They want to see results.

So do the Rebels.

“There are some very positive signs,” Sanford said, “but it’s all about what we do on the field.”

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