Head coach Bobby Hauck has slowly started to turn things around for the UNLV Rebels in his four years on the job. Last season, the Rebels finished the regular season strong with back-t0-back wins before dropping their bowl game against the North Texas Mean Green to finish the year at 7-6. UNLV has developed excellent depth over the last few years which should help the Rebels continue to build a winner in the Mountain West Conference.
But no matter how well UNLV does this regular season, they won’t be going bowling due to NCAA sanctions stemming from the team’s poor APR scores. They are the first program to get hit with a bowl ban due to APR failings (not exactly a badge of honor) which could create some drama around the program this season. Having a cloud like that hanging over the team could undercut some of the momentum the Rebels have built over the last few seasons.
Junior Nick Sherry will get another opportunity to step into the starting quarterback role after losing the job as a sophomore. Following a strong freshman debut, Sherry fell apart out of the gate in 2013 and finished the year completing just 54.7 percent of his passes for 337 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions in five games. He lost his job to Caleb Herring, who graduated, but the job will go back to Sherry for 2014, at least to start.
The running game will have to rely on some inexperienced, but explosive, options in 2014 after losing their top two rushers from last season. Senior Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is the most experience rusher returning this fall after he ran for 418 yards on 47 carries with two touchdowns. Adonis Smith is the only other back in 2014 who carried the ball more than 15 times last season after he rushed for 78 yards on 28 carries.
At receiver, UNLV has a big-play receiver returning with senior Devante Davis leading the charge. Last season, Davis led the team with 87 catches for 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns and will be tasked with being a home-run threat for the Rebels again in 2014. Marcus Sullivan also returns after playing in just nine games last season where he caught 45 passes for 505 yards and five touchdowns.
The interior of the defense will need to be rebuilt after the team loses their top three defensive tackles to graduation. Senior Efrem Clark is the team’s most experienced defensive tackle in 2014 after recording 9.5 tackles in eight games last year. Defensive end is loaded with returning talent, however, led by the duo of Jordan Sparkman and Sonny Sanitoa, who will be tasked with bringing the pressure off the edge and improving on their three combined sacks from last season.
At linebacker, UNLV will also lose their top two linebackers and only Tau Lotulelei returns from their starting linebacker corps. Last season, Lotulelei recorded 22.5 tackles from his weakside linebacker spot. The team will have to find replacements at middle and strongside linebacker, however. Trent Langham and Iggy Porchia are the most experienced options but combined for just 10.5 tackles last season.
The secondary is the strength of the UNLV defense with three starters returning. Strong safety Peni Vea returns after leading the team with 88 tackles last season. Tajh Hasson will be one of the team’s top cornerback with 12 passes defended (including one interception) last season. Kenneth Penney at the other corner was tough against the pass last season, breaking up 18 passes.
The Rebels have a tough non-conference schedule that includes a trip to Tucson to face the ever-improving Arizona Wildcats to open the season and continue their non-conference slate against the mid-major power Northern Illinois Huskies. Towards the end of the year, they also have a tough trip to face the BYU Cougars in addition to their MWC slate of games. There is a very tough stretch in the middle of their schedule with back-to-back games against the MWC Championship Game participants (Fresno State Bulldogs, @ Utah State Aggies) from 2013.
This is a team that has some dynamic playmakers that could make a huge impact on the field in 2014. However, there are also major questions in the defensive front seven, particularly up the middle, which could offset any of the explosive playmaking they get from the offense. There’s also the added factor of the looming postseason ban which could sap some of the enthusiasm from the program during the long days of fall. Look for the Rebels to be solid even without the prospect of playing in a bowl game this December and win six to eight games in 2014.