When he hops on his skateboard after UNLV football practices and wheels to the parking lot, Ryan Wolfe has the look of California cool, and the temptation is to stereotype him as a surfer dude who doesn’t take much seriously.
But buying into that belief would mean you haven’t watched Wolfe treat practice as if the conference championship was on the line, or seen him break down video of the upcoming opponent so he would have the critical extra edge on how to exploit the secondary.
Or you wouldn’t have seen him studying as he posted the team’s highest grade-point average last spring (3.83) while earning a bachelor’s degree in kinesiological sciences. Wolfe, now pursuing a master’s in sports education leadership, had an "A" in his one summer-school class.
On top of all that, he might be UNLV’s best receiver ever.
"He’s exactly what you want," Rebels coach Mike Sanford said, "not only for the other receivers, but for your whole football team."
Wolfe’s statistics underscore his importance. He already is the Rebels’ career leader with 209 receptions and 2,735 yards, and could put both marks out of sight with a strong senior season. Wolfe also is 900 yards from surpassing Colorado State’s David Anderson for the Mountain West Conference record.
While acknowledging it would be important to be known as UNLV’s best ever, Wolfe said it would be meaningful only if team success accompanied such recognition.
"No one’s going to remember the guy who had all the catches and all the yards for the losing teams," Wolfe said.
It would be simple to look at Wolfe and see his production, and think he must have been some three- or four-star recruit UNLV stole over a Pacific-10 Conference school.
The truth is Hawaii was the only other place to show much interest in Wolfe at Hart High School in Newhall, Calif., bringing him in for a visit. But even the Warriors didn’t offer a scholarship, and Wolfe went to the one school that did.
Wolfe said it worked out for the best in Las Vegas, but even UNLV wasn’t ready to put him on its roster right away. He grayshirted, and joined the team for the 2006 spring practices.
With little depth at receiver, Wolfe was thrown in with the first team and quickly showed he could handle what’s called "hot sight-adjust," meaning he had to know when defensive pressure was coming. When Wolfe sees that pressure, he shortens his route to allow the quarterback an outlet for a quicker-than-planned pass.
He also must be aware of how the secondary is lined up and how it will rotate when the ball is snapped.
Wolfe has been the primary receiver with such responsibilities since that freshman season, a trust usually reserved for juniors and seniors.
As much promise as Wolfe showed in that 2006 spring session, training camp is where it became obvious he could be an immediate star.
He caught just about every pass in sight in camp, and that season he hauled in 88 receptions for 1,040 yards and six touchdowns to earn conference Freshman of the Year.
That included a nine-catch, 176-yard, two-touchdown effort against New Mexico. On Wolfe’s 75-yard catch and run for a touchdown, he outzipped Quincy Black to the end zone.
Black, who plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was the fastest linebacker at the 2007 NFL scouting combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds.
"In man coverage, (Wolfe’s) pretty good at getting separation, and in zone coverage, he’s good at getting open and letting the quarterback find him to throw him the ball," said Air Force safety Chris Thomas, a preseason All-MWC selection.
"On film, he doesn’t look like he has blazing speed, but on the field, he does well. He’s definitely tough at breaking tackles. He gets good space, and is good at making you miss."
UNLV wide receivers coach Kris Cinkovich emphasizes running immediately after the catch, something Wolfe mastered early. Some of it is Wolfe’s commitment to studying opponents and figuring out what to expect on Saturday.
"He doesn’t just sit (in a meeting) 50 minutes and kill time," Cinkovich said. "He learns, and then he studies on his own. They get DVDs during the week. You can tell he studies it because he knows the guys he’s playing against."
Until now, Wolfe has led by example while fellow receiver Casey Flair was a leader both by actions and words.
With Flair’s graduation, coaches want a more vocal Wolfe, though Sanford cautioned, "It’s got to fit in his personality."
Wolfe is helped by already having won his teammates’ respect. They made him the top vote-getter for the leadership committee, which helps form team policies and tries to set a positive example for the rest of the team.
Flair saw signs of Wolfe beginning to grab that leadership mantle, watching him interact with teammates during the offseason.
"I can definitely see a difference in how Ryan handles himself and how Ryan handles the guys next to him," Flair said. "He talks to them now. He’s in the front of the group. He’s making sure people understand that he is in charge, that he’s one of the leaders of the team, and that he is going to be the one who leads them to win a lot of games."
Flair’s departure, though, leaves Wolfe without an obvious foil. They competed at everything, from who could have the highest bowling score to who could power clean the most weight to who could deliver the most cut blocks in a game.
They even tried to beat each other to the front of the line during practice drills.
Without Flair, someone — indications are it could be Rodelin Anthony — needs to provide the competitive Wolfe with that extra little push.
"That’s going to be really important for (Wolfe)," Flair said.
Also important is how Wolfe sets himself up for next year’s NFL Draft. Cinkovich worries NFL scouts will get too hung up on Wolfe’s 4.5 speed in the 40 and lose focus on the receiver’s total package.
NFL quarterbacks, facing ever-aggressive defenses, have to throw passes quickly, and receivers have to help by running precise, crisp routes.
If scouts emphasize Wolfe’s abilities to run those routes, read defenses and pick up yards after the catch, his draft status should be enhanced.
"So many people are hung up on the stopwatch," Cinkovich said. "That wins track meets. That doesn’t always win football games. He has the ability to get away from people, and so much of that is timing and deception."
Wolfe, of course, has time to worry about the NFL later. He has a college season to play, records to put away and, Wolfe hopes, games to win.
"It’s a game I love, so I’m going to spend every waking moment I can to get the advantage over an opponent," Wolfe said. "That’s something I’ve been working on."
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914.