UNLV Rebels appear ready to rise

The belief began last year for the UNLV football team, when it put together its best season since 2003, and that confidence has carried over.

It’s apparent in how players attack practice, beginning and completing drills quickly and with few mistakes.

"I think last year the majority of the team felt like for a change we could win, and this year people have it in their heads we will win," quarterback Omar Clayton said.

The test, of course, will be whether the increased confidence yields positive results. UNLV begins to find out with Saturday’s 7 p.m. season opener against Sacramento State at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The Rebels went 5-7 last season, ending a slide of four consecutive two-win seasons.

Though encouraging, they now must show the improvement was indicative of where the program stands. To prove that, they must take the next step and become bowl eligible.

UNLV came close last season but was shocked 42-21 in the finale by a San Diego State team that claimed only one other victory — over Idaho.

"With our entire bowl hopes on the line and everything we put into that game," wide receiver Ryan Wolfe said, "and for us to not come out and play like we know we can play kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth that probably won’t go away until the first game comes up."

The San Diego State game sticks out most, but it wasn’t the only loss that kept the Rebels from a possible bowl bid.

They lost three consecutive games in October while leading in the fourth quarter, falling to Colorado State, Air Force and Brigham Young.

Win any one of those, and the Rebels might’ve made the postseason for the first time since beating Arkansas 31-14 in the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl.

"I think there’s a process of learning to be able to take the next step and do the things you need to do to finish games," coach Mike Sanford said.

UNLV returns a veteran team, along with some newcomers who will play immediately, especially on defense.

That defense needs an upgrade after allowing 32.6 points and 423.2 yards per game. It failed to adequately stop the run, rush the quarterback or defend the pass. Or anything a defense is called to do.

UNLV signed four junior college defensive backs, as well as junior college rush end B.J. Bell. Cornerback Mike Grant and safety Alex De Giacomo impressed the most in preseason camp and figure to play central roles.

The Rebels bring back Jason Beauchamp, who led the Mountain West Conference with 127 tackles last year. Primarily a linebacker then, he now is expected to play mostly end to take advantage of his athleticism on passing downs.

There weren’t as many questions on offense, which improved by about a touchdown to average 25.6 points in 2008.

Most of the offense returns, including Wolfe, who caught 88 passes for 1,040 yards and six touchdowns. He heads the conference’s top receiving corps, though the Rebels lose Casey Flair.

Clayton comes off a season in which he completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 1,894 yards, with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions. He will operate behind an offensive line that allowed only 14 sacks and returns four starters.

But the Rebels must replace tailback Frank Summers, who rushed for 1,668 yards over the past two seasons. UNLV might go with a tailback-by-committee approach, with Channing Trotter, Chris Brogdon and Bradley Randle sharing time. Once C.J. Cox returns from a hamstring injury, he could take the lead.

So there are some questions, but there also is hope.

Now it’s a matter of whether hope translates into reality.

"I’m more antsy for a season to start this year than I have since I’ve been here," said Wolfe, a senior. "We’ve got all the pieces in place and all the guys in place to really make a run at this."

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Read the latest UNLV football updates at lvrj.com/blogs/unlv_sports.

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