From the long walk off the football field at Hawaii following the 59-21 loss to end last season to the much longer flight home, UNLV’s James Dunlap couldn’t escape the gnawing feeling that he could have done more.
That was a feeling, Dunlap decided, he didn’t want to experience as a senior.
“I wanted to put my all out there for my last hurrah,” he said.
Though UNLV (2-8, 1-4 Mountain West Conference) is finishing another disappointing season, Dunlap should have few regrets about his play — or his effort.
Dunlap, who has benefited from a move from defensive tackle to end, walks into the football offices minutes before 7 a.m. Monday through Thursday to study videotape for an hour. He and fellow end Matt Kravetz also meet daily with assistant coach Michael Gray.
The result, entering Saturday’s 7 p.m. game against San Diego State (6-4, 3-3) at Sam Boyd Stadium, is a season in which Dunlap is second in the Mountain West with 13 tackles for loss and is tied for third with 6½ sacks.
He is the Rebels’ best hope for all-conference honors. Perhaps their only hope.
“It took him a little time to get with the program, so to speak,” coach Bobby Hauck said. “But he’s a guy at the end of last season who really committed himself to making himself better and making everyone around him better. It’s really showed up both in the locker room and on the field, and that’s the practice field as well as the game field.
“I’m really enthused and proud of the way he’s done things and the direction he’s gone since last December. I don’t think phenomenal is too strong a word for what he’s done.”
Dunlap arrived at UNLV in 2009 after playing a season at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif. He played in all 12 games as a sophomore and became a starter the following season under the new coaching staff when the Mike Sanford-led regime was let go.
Dunlap (6 feet 1 inch, 260 pounds) wanted to remain at his more comfortable position of defensive end, but was switched to tackle because of injuries to the interior line.
He finished with one tackle for loss and no sacks.
“Even during the season last year, I was talking to Coach Gray that hopefully he would recruit some D-tackles in here so I could play D-end,” Dunlap said. “I wanted to play where I could shine.”
Though Dunlap tried to make the best of playing tackle, he wondered if he did all he could to succeed.
During that walk off the field in Honolulu and the flight to Las Vegas, Dunlap had time to consider that question.
He studied video, but only when required to be there. Now, he shows up early in the morning before classes begin to watch on his own.
Dunlap also realized he needed to understand the game from a coach’s perspective, not just what he would see and hear in team and position meetings. In individual talks, he could delve deeper into why coaches made certain personnel decisions, implemented certain strategies.
Time between classes? Extra time in the weight room.
“The kid wanted it,” defensive coordinator Kraig Paulson said. “He wanted to finish it up right. The beauty is everyone else sees him in there working hard.
“I really believe he’s one of those guys who looked at his senior year and said, ‘I’m going to get the most out of it’ and backed it up with the work.”
Perhaps as important was the move back to end. Dunlap had an outstanding spring followed by a terrific training camp, and then the results showed up on the field beginning in Week 2 at Washington State when he made two tackles for loss, including his first sack.
On Oct. 29 against Colorado State, Dunlap recorded 4½ tackles for loss, including two sacks, and forced a fumble to earn conference co-defensive player of the week.
“He can walk away saying he turned over all the stones,” Paulson said. “For us (as coaches), what we like about it is that ain’t some kid up there talking.”
Paulson said the work ethic Dunlap discovered will pay off beyond the field. “He’s seeing the benefit,” Paulson said.
Dunlap agreed, but the communications major also had a message for UNLV’s returning players.
“I wanted to leave an impression for the younger guys, leave them something to build on (when they) see me working hard,” Dunlap said. “I encourage them every day to start now. Don’t start your senior year, don’t wait till the last minute, that if this is what you want to do, then do it to the fullest.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.