UNLV freshman Jefferson steps into void as QB’s key protector

Things worked out quite well for UNLV the last time it started a freshman at its most crucial position on the offensive line. Matt Murphy became a freshman All-American in 2007 and a four-year starter, and now he’s in an NFL training camp.

It’s a heck of a script to follow, one that brings plenty of pressure. But redshirt freshman Cameron Jefferson seems more fired up than worried about following Murphy at left tackle, the position that protects the quarterback’s blind side.

And Jefferson — who has family in Madison, Wis. — is even excited his first start probably will be Sept. 1 when the Rebels open the season at Wisconsin against the Badgers’ intimidating defensive line.

“Oh, I’m happy about that,” Jefferson said. “I can’t wait to play.”

Jefferson signed with UNLV out of Desert Oasis High School as part of coach Bobby Hauck’s first class. He chose the Rebels over UNR and Northern Arizona.

“When we recruited Cam, we knew we had someone special there,” offensive line coach Chad Germer said. “He’s got a chance to be a real excellent player, and he’s got a lot of tools.”

Much was expected of Jefferson from the start. He figured to have a good chance to succeed Murphy, who as an undrafted free agent is competing for a spot with the Atlanta Falcons.

Jefferson learned from Murphy the nuances of playing tackle, such as the proper helmet angle and how to position his hands and feet. Those details matter to Jefferson, who said he believes minor improvements can make a major difference. He studies video of his practices in search of any area that can be tweaked.

“That’s one of the reasons why I think he will become a good player, because he sees that he’s got work to do,” Germer said. “He realizes there’s much room for improvement, and he’s working hard to become a better player. As good as we think he can be, he’s a ways away from it right now.”

Jefferson fits the mold of the type of lineman Hauck prefers to recruit — a tall, athletic player with room to grow.

Jefferson has gained at least 25 pounds since arriving at UNLV, getting up to 291 pounds on his 6-foot-6-inch frame. Germer said any added weight would be through strength training.

Jefferson would like to increase his bench press from about 300 pounds to at least 400, and until then, the danger is allowing opposing defensive linemen to outmuscle him.

But Jefferson has worked his way into the No. 1 spot, though it’s not ideal to put a redshirt freshman there.

“It’s two things — we’re confident in him, and we’re desperate because we don’t have any veteran players on the offensive line,” Hauck said.

The last time UNLV put a freshman at left tackle, it worked out pretty well.

Whether Jefferson eventually makes it to an NFL camp as Murphy has — or his father, William Jefferson, who played for the Cleveland Browns in 1989 and 1990 — is impossible to know.

Jefferson first must find a way to block the Badgers. That alone won’t be easy.

“If we’re playing him, we expect him to not be a freshman anymore,” Hauck said. “That’s a tall order, especially at that position. But he is a gifted guy that has great promise.”

■ NOTES — Former UNLV star Hunkie Cooper was named to the Arena Football League Hall of Fame. Cooper, who played for the Rebels in 1990 and 1991, was the AFL Ironman of the Year in 1999 and 2000 and the Most Valuable Player in 1993. … UNLV moves its training camp to Ely today.

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

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