UNLV’s Sullivan adds flash, poise in receiver’s role

ELY – Marcus Sullivan took the dump-off pass on the left side, juked a group of defenders to run right, faked out another group to go left and then put on another quick move to the right and streaked into the end zone.

The 40-yard touchdown during UNLV’s practice Monday morning highlighted what the sophomore can do with even the smallest of openings.

It was the kind of play Sullivan made routine on kickoff returns last season when he averaged 27.9 yards, and the kind of playmaking he showed at wide receiver during the spring.

But it hasn’t been easy for Sullivan as the Rebels prepare for their season opener at Wisconsin on Sept. 1. He must prove he can make the same big plays at receiver during games that he does in practice.

The potential, though, is obvious.

“(Sullivan) is very good with the football in his hand, and he knows it,” coach Bobby Hauck said. “He likes having the ball in his hands, whether it’s a kickoff return or on the offensive side. He’s really gotten to the point that in order to get the football, you’ve got to be able to work within the scheme. That’s something new to a lot of kids coming out of high school.

“He’s worked hard at learning it. A year ago, he didn’t understand offensive concepts. He didn’t understand basic formation things. So he’s come a long way in a year.”

Sullivan (5 feet 9 inches, 190 pounds) had to adjust after starring at running back at Cheyenne High School. He was the Sunset Offensive Player of the Year in 2008 after rushing for 1,626 yards and averaging 11.4 yards per carry.

By moving to wide receiver at UNLV, he had to learn how deep to run routes and how to read man-to-man and zone coverages. Deep into last season, Sullivan was still trying to figure out the nuances.

His learning curve on kickoff returns was much easier. Sullivan had returns of 36 yards or more in six of the last eight games, and his returns of 60 and 73 yards at San Diego State earned him Mountain West Conference special teams player of the week.

He caught only six passes for 102 yards, but his two touchdown receptions came late in the season — a 24-yarder at Brigham Young on Nov. 6 and a 41-yarder against Wyoming a week later.

Those were the first strong signs he was truly understanding all the details of excelling at receiver.

“I had to get used to the game at first to see what was going on, to make sure it was clear,” Sullivan said. “It was difficult for me.”

The late-season production was enough to give Sullivan confidence entering spring practices, where he made a habit of appearing with the ball in the end zone and leaving a trail of defenders in his wake. It’s becoming a common scene during training camp as well.

“Every time Marcus touches the ball, I get excited,” wide receivers coach Cedric Cormier said. “His mental errors are down. He doesn’t have many mistakes out there on the field. He’s just going. He’s playing so fast, it’s just fun to watch right now.”

Cormier had more fun Monday, when it seemed like all 11 defenders couldn’t stop Sullivan.

“When the ball’s in his hand, it’s special,” Cormier said. “I want him to play like that all the time. Play to that speed, but also be under control. He can go full speed, but you also have to control it, and that’s the point of taking it to the next level. Become a dominant player. Become a Phillip Payne-type guy.”

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

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