Linebacker was UNLV’s thinnest position last season, when starters Tau Lotulelei, Ryan McAleenan and Matt Lea were forced to stay on the field for virtually every snap of every game they played.
“We had no depth,” Rebels defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “They got worn down, lost too much weight and couldn’t stay strong enough.”
This season, linebacker is expected to be one of UNLV’s deepest and strongest positions. Seniors Lotulelei and McAleenan and junior Lea return to their starting spots, and they will be bolstered by the addition of junior college transfer Brian Keyes and fifth-year senior graduate transfer LaKeith Walls, among others.
“We definitely have a lot of depth. It’s a competition every day. You’ve got to fight for your spot,” said McAleenan, the middle linebacker who is backed up by the 255-pound Keyes, a former Arizona product. “It’s going to be good for us in games. People won’t get as tired.
“You can see it in our drills already. We have a little more time to rest before we have to go again, so it’s been great.”
Lotulelei — the younger brother of former UNLV linebacker John Lotulelei, who plays for the Oakland Raiders — is the most talented linebacker on the team and perhaps in the Mountain West.
“He could be the Defensive Player of the Year in our conference. He has that type of ability,” Rebels coach Tony Sanchez said. “The biggest thing for him is being more vocal, being a leader and being consistent in every game and every practice. If he learns that, he might play a lot longer after he’s done playing at UNLV.”
Baer is entering his 30th season as coach at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level — with stops at 10 schools along the way, including Notre Dame, Arizona State and Stanford — and he said Lotulelei is one of the most talented players he’s coached.
“He truly is. He’s tremendously talented,” Baer said. “Not many guys have that much speed and quickness, and he’s so strong. He’s a pretty physical guy.
“If he stays consistent, he’s going to have a big year.”
The 6-foot-1-inch, 235-pound Lotulelei had a team-leading 100 tackles and three sacks for the Rebels in 2014 before dipping to 70 tackles and three sacks last season, when injuries limited him to nine starts. The soft-spoken Maui native is hoping to have a monster senior year that will help propel him into the NFL alongside his brother John and cousin Star Lotulelei, who plays defensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers.
“Personally, that’s my goal. I’m definitely trying to show out this year, beat my (100 tackles) from my sophomore year and try to follow in my brother’s footsteps,” he said. “And another goal is to try to bring the linebacking corps and defense together to bond and feel that really strong connection of brotherhood.”
Walls, a 6-2, 235-pound transfer from Illinois who had two sacks for the Fighting Illini in 2014, also has great expectations for this season. He hopes to make his mark as a pass rusher at UNLV, which finished last in the nation in sacks last season with nine.
“I’m coming in here with the intentions of being an impact guy, being a senior leader and bringing a lot of sacks to this team,” he said. “I know that was something we struggled with last year, so my personal goal is to lead the Mountain West in sacks.
“I’m trying to come in and come off that edge and make something happen for us.”
Keyes also plans to be an impact player, and Baer said he’s more than capable.
“He’s a big, physical linebacker that can really play and run for a big guy,” he said.
The linebacking corps also will be bolstered by sophomore returnee Bailey Laolagi, who Baer said has made “amazing” strides since last year, and redshirt freshman Gabe McCoy.
The added depth at the position also is expected to improve UNLV’s special teams, which rely heavily on linebackers.
“They can come in and make us more explosive on special teams,” Sanchez said. “We didn’t play bad on special teams, but we didn’t do anything special.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33