This looked like a lost season in April when UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy announced the football program would be ineligible for a bowl because of a low Academic Progress Rate score.
Two players would transfer — guard Cameron Jefferson to Arkansas and running back Adonis Smith to Arizona — and the Rebels were headed into a season in which they would play for pride and little else.
That all changed in June when UNLV announced it was able to get the APR score high enough to compete for a bowl this season.
“Once they told us we could go, everybody was uplifted,” senior wide receiver Devante Davis said. “You see the change in the team. People started really working harder and tried to really get better because now they feel like they’re playing for something.”
Now that the Rebels can make a bowl, will they?
They have never appeared in back-to-back bowls, and you can make good arguments for and against the Rebels getting back to the postseason this year.
■ Quarterback Caleb Herring, who turned around the 2013 season, is gone. Junior Blake Decker (6 feet 2 inches, 205 pounds) takes over under center, and trusting an unproven quarterback is risky.
■ Running back Tim Cornett, the school’s all-time leading rusher, also is gone. UNLV is going to replace Cornett with a committee of backs, and making three equal one is tough.
■ Opposing defenses will double-team Davis (6-3, 215), and he won’t be able to put up the numbers he posted last season.
■ Even coach Bobby Hauck said he was concerned about the losses at defensive tackle, and without a pass rush or the ability to stop the run, it doesn’t matter that UNLV has a quality secondary. Add the all-sophomore starting lineup at linebacker, and the front seven is trouble waiting to happen.
■ The scramble to find a kicker is not good news for a team that has its share of special teams issues.
■ Decker looked sharp in training camp, and if Herring is going to be the example, few saw him putting together a breakout season last year.
Also, offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach has proven he can put the quarterback in situations to make plays.
■ That committee of backs is pretty good. Junior David Greene (6-0, 210) was so threatening, Smith ran off to Arizona. Sophomore Keith Whitely (5-9, 185) was a top recruit last year, and junior George Naufahu (6-0, 215) has shown the ability in practice to move the line with his bruising style.
■ UNLV will take a deep group of receivers into the season, with freshmen Devonte Boyd (6-1, 175) and Kendal Keys (6-3, 200) looking as if they will be impact players joining a unit of proven players.
If opponents double-team Davis, they will pay for it.
■ The Rebels were aggressive about addressing defensive tackle and the entire line, getting transfers from UCLA and Washington and moving junior Sonny Sanitoa (6-3, 260) from end to tackle.
The line, including the tackles, have practiced like they will be a strength. At linebacker, sophomores Trent Langham (6-2, 210) and Marc Philippi (5-10, 220) have made plays in practice, and sophomore Tau Lotulelei (6-1, 220) should be improved after starting five games last season.
■ The Rebels don’t need a kicker to make 50-yarders, and junior Jonathan Leiva (5-11, 175) proved his ability to make field goals last season by converting 7 of 9 at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif.
Beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Arizona, the Rebels will show what the correct answers truly are, and there is no doubt this is a confident bunch.
Hauck has told anyone who will listen he believes in this team.
“I think we’re going to have a good team,” he said.
“From last January till now, these guys have worked hard. They’re a good unit. They’re together.”
Last season ended a 13-year wait to appear in a postseason game, with the Rebels receiving a bid to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
That appearance was validation that all the hard work was worth it.
“The guys now have a whole different attitude,” senior cornerback Kenneth Penny (5-11, 175) said. “It’s a whole different atmosphere out here. You’ve got more urgency, more confidence. I can see it in not only the defense, but the offense as well.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.
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