2019 UNLV Football Preview

— Joe Arrigo, Editor

UNLV Football Review 2019

UNLV Football Preview 2019


In order to truly evaluate the UNLV football program under Head Coach Tony Sanchez, you have to take everything, from his impact on the field to off the field, into consideration. For starters, where was UNLV as a football program prior to Sanchez taking over? Next, where were they on the field (talent, size/speed and athleticism wise)? Also, what type of facilities did they have compared to the other schools in the Mountain West Conference as well as around the country (which plays a key role in player development and recruiting)? What was the realistic timeframe to turn the Rebels around and get them to where they are today in terms of reaching those expectations, namely getting to a Bowl game and having long-term, sustained success on the football field?

On the field, the Rebels won more games than the previous season every year under Coach Sanchez, except in 2018 and they also have yet to reach a Bowl game. Coach Sanchez’s record stands at 16-32 with his seat starting off the 2019 season being slightly cooler than a Las Vegas park bench in the middle of August. This is not what some Rebels fans expected when the school hired Sanchez from Bishop Gorman High School where he achieved as much success (85-5 record) as any coach in high school in the country at that time and brought the Las Vegas high school to national prominence. But the reality is the football program was so bad that most college football experts and former coaches I spoke to told me it was going to be at least a five-year rebuilding process with patience & support needed from the school in order to turn the Rebels around.

It’s now year 5 in the Sanchez era at UNLV and Coach Sanchez expects a Bowl game appearance. He also expects this to be the year that his Rebels turn the corner after years of near misses and heartbreaking loses. Coach Sanchez believes this is the year UNLV becomes the type of program that competes for Mountain West championships and becomes a destination program for players, not just in Las Vegas, but also around the country.

Off the field is where Coach Sanchez’s impact has been felt the most for the Rebels. Sanchez has made an impact so powerful that it will be felt for decades to come. I can make the argument that Coach Sanchez has had more of an impact in this capacity than any coach, or person for that matter, in UNLV football history. Aside from $2 million donated from UNLV, Tony has fundraised every cent of the Fertitta Football Complex, UNLV’s new football only complex located on campus and adjacent to their practice field, Rebel Park. He did this while juggling coaching, recruiting, and media responsibilities.

When Sanchez took over the program 5 years ago the player’s locker room had a couch that had books holding up one end, coach’s chairs were without backs on them, uniforms were not appealing to players, and some suggested that the program move to the Division 2 level, or questioned if it was worth keeping at all. It sounded a lot like the beginning of the ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the University of Miami football program called “The U” just prior to Howard Schnellenberger taking over as head coach. Hiring Schnellenberger and allowing him the time to build his program the right way for the long term and in his image was the turning point for Miami, as he turned the Hurricanes around in 5 years. He started the Hurricanes’ dominance in college football that lasted well over two decades and still impacts the football world today.

The same can be said for Virginia Tech when Frank Beamer took the program over for Bill Dooly, the winningest coach in school history (at that point) in 1986. However, the circumstances were a little different. Dooly had been forced to resign due to numerous NCAA violations. Beamer took over a Virginia Tech football program that had reached six bowl games to that point with Dooly leading them to three of those bowls. Due to Dooly’s violations, the NCAA punished the Hokies by limiting Virginia Tech to 85 total scholarships in 1988 and 1989, and 17 initial scholarships in 1989. The Hokies, under Beamer, went a combined 5-17 in 1987 and 1988. Beamer’s record in his first six seasons was 24-40-2, a win percentage of .385 (conversely Sanchez’s is .333 entering 2019). After the team went 2-8-1 in 1992, athletic director Dave Braine believed in Beamer and thought he deserved more time, which was a wise decision in the grand scheme of things as Beamer turned the Hookies into a national power.

When Sanchez took over, the Rebels talent and depth were thin and it showed on the field against opponents in conference play and in non-conference play. Now the Rebels are as deep as they have ever been and that is because of Sanchez and his coaching staff’s tireless efforts recruiting which is paying off in major ways. They are now starting to out-recruit Power 5 schools for players and are able to not just sell Sanchez’s vision for UNLV, but for the first time are able to show the recruits and their families the fruits of their labor as well.

UNLV Athletic Director Desiree Reed-Francois is on record stating that Coach Sanchez needs to get to a Bowl game this season or she will take a hard look at whether or not she will retain him and his staff in 2020. Sanchez was not Reed-Francois’s hire and she would like to see the Rebels’ football team have the type of success on the field that Sanchez has had off of it. The Caesar Palaces Sports Book (as of July 7th, 2019) has the Rebels total win total at 3.5 wins for the 2019 season. Looking at the Rebels’ schedule, and I may be in the minority, but I believe barring significant injuries to key players, UNLV will make a Bowl game which means the Rebels will win more than 6 games in 2019.

Considering the UNLV offense will be returning almost all their key contributors and with an expected improvement on the defensive side of the ball, coupled with the other Mountain West Conference teams losing key players, Sanchez expects UNLV to be able to compete with any team in the Mountain West this year and beyond. With that being said, nothing can come easy for UNLV, and the Rebels were dealt a huge blow on July 18th when offensive coordinator Barney Cotton announced that he had to step aside due to his need for a heart transplant. Coach Cotton directed a Rebels’ offense that finished in the top 20 overall in rushing nationally in 2018 and it was expected that the Rebels would do even better in 2019. Cotton’s loss will not just effect the team on the field, but in the locker room and also in recruiting where Cotton is beloved by the staff, players, recruits and their families. Offensive line coach Garin Justice will take over as the OC for the Rebels in his second season with the team, something Coach Sanchez said he was prepared to do should Coach Cotton have any type of health issues. Justice will incorporate an offense that will have the fingerprints of Lane Kiffin, Jimbo Fisher and Rich Rodriguez, all of whom he coached for in the past, to go along with what coach Sanchez and Cotton already have in place.

The Rebels offense will be run by 2017 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year Armani Rogers, who started off well last season for UNLV before going down with a turf toe injury in week 4 versus Arkansas St. and missing 6 games in total as the Rebels went 1-5. Rogers, unarguably, is one of the best running quarterbacks in all of college football and has a rocket for an arm, but he needs to improve his accuracy and show he can stay healthy. When he is on the field, UNLV is a different team and he gives opposing teams fits. If he can remain healthy and relaxed, the Rebels have a chance to beat teams that many feel they don’t have a chance against. Max Gilliam and Kenyon Oblad were expected to battle for the spot of Rogers’ back-up in 2019, but Gilliam injured his foot and will be out until mid-September. Gilliam, who did do a good job when Rogers went down in 2018, is more of a rhythm passer who is sneaky athletic had an edge heading into camp over Oblad. But Oblad, who arguably has the best overall arm talent on the roster, needs to show he can handle the college pass rush while remaining confident and poised in the pocket. If he can do that and is forced into action, the UNLV offense would have to change which leads to Marckell Grayson and super athletic incoming freshman Travis Mumphrey, (who is expected to redshirt) potentially getting on the field. They will now be expected to battle for the third quarterback position until Gilliam returns. This could be a positive situation for UNLV from the competitive standpoint with the three back-up quarterbacks pushing for the right to back up Rogers and for playing time.   

The Rebels’ strength on offense will once again be their running game and is now led by red shirt junior running back, Chuck Williams, who led the Rebels in rushing his freshman year in 2016 with a school freshman record 763 yards. Williams enters fall camp as the starter and is poised to have a break-out season in 2019. He is fully healed from the 2017 ankle injury and is ready to lead the running back group that continues to have depth under Sanchez. Redshirt sophomore Tariq Hollingsworth, sophomore Chad Magyar, Junior Tyree Jackson and freshman Courtney Reese will be competing for playing time behind Williams. UNLV also added Juco transfer Darren Williams, who finished third in the nation with 1,427 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. They also added former Bishop Gorman star and Cal running back Biaggio Ali-Walsh, who had to appeal the NCAA’s decision to deny his transfer waiver to play in 2019. These two are expected to make an impact. Each back brings something different to the table, but I expect Williams, Magyar, Jackson, and Hollingsworth to get the bulk of the carries. Ali-Walsh is also in that mix after the NCAA reversed it’s course and cleared him to play this season on August 20th.

The Rebels offense has a ton of playmakers on it and the receiving core added another big one, this time from USC in redshirt sophomore, Randal Grimes, who stands 6’4″ and weighs 210 pounds. Grimes will provide size, speed, and athleticism plus be a big time red zone threat for Rogers. The receiving core lost Brandon Presley for the season with a torn ACL, but they will return Tyleek Collins, the electrifying receiver coming off a very good freshman year (31/422/6) and redshirt senior Darren Woods Jr. who is looking to breakout in 2019. UNLV also added three players in this recruiting class, high schoolers Stevie Jenkins and Malik Wesley, along with speedy Juco receiver Jacob Gasser, who will have three years remaining at UNLV. The Rebels are also returning AJ Collins, who has had a great offseason working out with former NFL and CFL wide receiver Daniel Robinson of 25/8 Elite Training in Las Vegas. Robinson was trained by legendary receiving coach Charles Collins and shares the same height and speed as AJ Collins. Redshirt freshman, Pat Ballard (who the staff has high hopes for), Mekhi Stevenson, and Jeremy Clark will also be looking to make an impact on the field in 2019. Gio Fauolo Sr. is the starting tight end for UNLV and is a jack of all trades willing to do the dirty work. He is the leader in the tight end room as well as voted a team captain. The Rebels will expect Noah Bean, who came on string towards the middle of last season, Shelton Zeon III, who red shirted but has all kinds of talent and Jamaal Neal, who also will see time at H-Back, to play key roles throughout the season. Adam Meyer and Taylor Yoder will round out the Rebels tight ends.

The Rebels are deepest up front and that’s because of a heavy focus on getting bigger and stronger at the offensive line position. When Sanchez took over, the offensive line averaged 6’2″/265 so the offensive line became a point of emphasis for him and Coach Cotton. Now the Rebels have the biggest and strongest line in school history and maybe the best in the Mountain West Conference in 2019. UNLV returns starters redshirt sophomore, Justice Oluwaseun, redshirt junior, Matt Brayton, senior center, Sid Acosta and Justin Polu, Ashton Morgan will get the first opportunity to start at left tackle for UNLV in 2019. Amani Trigg-Wright, Justin, Ryan Tantum, Eric Brown, Leif Fautanu and transfer Jackson McCoullough will compete for playing time and try to crack the starting lineup for the Rebels and give them outstanding depth across the board. UNLV also returns Michael Bray, Julio Garcia, Jackson Reynolds, Dyan Bryan, Bryan Catchings and Nate Oishi. The Rebels offensive line looks to be a dominant group built off the success that they have had in the past. Justice is one of the best offensive line coaches in the Mountain West and will have his group ready to go to in a critical season for the Rebels and the offense he will be calling.        

The Rebels will need the biggest jump to come from the defensive side of the ball in 2019. Sanchez and second-year defensive coordinator Tim Skipper know it. Last season, the Rebels defense gave up 37 points per game and didn’t have the depth to overcome the amount of injuries they suffered during the season. That isn’t the case this season and if it is it won’t cut it if the Rebels hope to play in a Bowl game after this season. What the Rebels do have going for them heading into Skipper’s second season as defensive coordinator is Skipper will actually have guys that fit into his scheme, unlike last year where the defense wasn’t nearly as athletic or fast as the scheme dictates or Skipper wants. Skipper was only able to recruit two players in the Rebels 2018 recruiting class due to how late he was hired and missing the early signing period in December when he was still at the University of Florida. Skipper’s impact recruiting in the 2019 class was felt and a message was sent, not just to the entire Rebels’ defense, but the Mountain West Conference as well.   

Sanchez and Skipper pulled a coup when UNLV was able land a huge impact player in Juco linebacker Vic Viramontes whom UNLV tried to get on two other occasions… once when he was a 4 star QB coming out of Norco high school and again as the top Juco QB coming out of Riverside Community College, where he came from this time as well. Viramontes, who switched to linebacker last season at RCC, is the highest rated defensive player ever to commit to UNLV (the third highest recruit ever in school history) and he gives the Rebels a vocal “alpha male” who will not only talk a big game, but back it up as well. He is a player who has high character and a natural leader who has quickly earned the respect of coaches and teammates with his work ethic on and off the field.

Viramontes chose UNLV over offers from USC, Florida St. TCU, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas. “Vegas Vic” is competing to be one starter at inside linebacker at either “MIKE” or “WILL”. Junior Farrell Hester Jr. is also competing to start at “MIKE” and there is the possibility that Viramontes and Hester will play alongside each other later in the season, something Skipper didn’t want to show during spring ball but has intentions of doing at some point, just not early on in the year. Hester has made the biggest jump of any player on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. He started going to an Olympic chiropractor to gain more range and flexibility and it showed all spring ball. Hester has become so valuable that he is now viewed as a 3 down linebacker and a player that Skipper trusts to run his defense. Javin White will start at his “SAM” position where he will once again be the Rebels’ emotional leader and playmaker. The versatility and energy White brings to the defense gives Skipper even more options and the defense feeds off of it.  Demitrious Gibbs, who Skipper moved from safety linebacker in the offseason, has the same frame as White but needs to produce on the field, something he showed flashes of last season but not consistently.

The other linebacker spot is up for grabs. Florida grad transfer, Rayshad Jackson, will add versatility and familiarity to Skipper’s scheme since he played for him at Florida. Jackson comes in and will battle for a starting role at inside “WILL” backer with Viramontes, “MIKE” with Hester or with Gabe McCoy, another leader for the Rebels, at the “BUCK” position. McCoy looks great and is excited to get back to putting pressure on the quarterbacks, something he did well coming out of high school. Incoming freshman, Jacoby Windmon, also has a chance to make an impact early on as a “BUCK” backer. He has added weight while maintaining his athleticism and speed. He plays with passion, adds toughness and attitude to the defense, and has the coaches excited about what he could potentially do this season, calling him “a Sunday player.” Another incoming freshman to watch, this time from Liberty HS in Las Vegas, is Kyle Baeudry. He will be one of the backup inside backers and has a chance to be a special player for Skipper’s defense. Malakai Salu, who redshirted last season, also has the staff feeling like he has a very bright future. Malcolm Johnson, who also had a tremendous offseason and is expected to make an impact in his sophomore season, and Austin Ajiake will also be competing for more playing time in 2019. Johnson will be battling McCoy, Windmon, and possibly Jackson at the “BUCK” position and has a chance to be another impact player for the Rebels.

The Rebels defensive line will be led by redshirt junior Nick Dehdashtian, who was expected to play a major role last season before being lost for the year to a foot injury in fall camp. “Dash” took the time while rehabbing his foot to reshap his body and looks like he is poised for a really big year for UNLV. He is a player the coaching staff views as another leader and impact player. Kolo Uasike is another Rebels lineman that had a really nice 2018, but the team expects him to have an even bigger ’19 being a disruptive force inside. Juco signee, Tavai Tuitasi, who missed spring ball with a foot injury he got during his season at San Francisco City College, is a player that Rebels fans need to keep an eye on. He is an ideal fit for Skipper’s defense coming off the edge and creating pressure on the quarterback. He is a disruptor and will be ready for the start of the season.

Another incoming freshman to watch is Naki Fahina, who one coach called a “War Daddy.” Fahina is a guy that may end up being the Rebels’ best recruit in this class when it’s all said and done. Fahina is already up to 270 pounds (of muscle) entering fall camp, AS AN INCOMING FRESHMAN, and is a guy that is attempting to make an impact from day 1. Tavis Malakius, the former “Last Chance U” star, has also been impressive and will be competing for a starting spot up front. Malakius has the size the Rebels would like more of up front and is a powerful man that can disrupt plays any time he is on the field. Juco transfer Eliel Ehimare, who is another under-the-radar player UNLV added in the ’19 recruiting class, hopes to live up to his twitter handle “@yourQBisDEAD” and Dominion Ezinwa moves to nose tackle after having a solid offseason where he improved. Chris Manoa is another name to watch for UNLV. He redshirted last season after starting the season opener at USC as a freshman. Manoa has all the tools to be a disruptive force up front and play at the next level if he can put it all together.

UNLV hasn’t had much of a pass rush in recent years and feels that will change in 2019. Between Tuitasi, McCoy, Uasike, Fahina, projected starter at the other defensive end, Nate Neal, Tim Mosely, Johnson and Juco transfer Noah McGregor, UNLV should have more success disrupting the QB which should translate to sacks, turnovers, and opposing quarterbacks making mistakes that the Rebels could capitalize on.

The Rebels’ secondary could be completely revamped in 19’. The Rebels will have former receiver Drew Tejchman, who had multiple ACC offers as a defensive back, starting at one safety spot. Tejchman made the transition late last year and became an instant impact player for UNLV. Tejchman is a ball hawk who also isn’t afraid to hit. Farrell Hester described him as a player who “brings the BOOM”–an enforcer. The other safety position is up for grabs with Evan Austrie, Phil Hill, Greg Francis, Christian Minor, and Soli Afalava all competing for the right to start. Incoming freshman Austin Fiaseu, from Liberty high school in Las Vegas, will red shirt due to a shoulder injury. Austrie played well late last year and should be the favorite to start the season. The coaches like the physicality Hill brings to the team as well as his football IQ. One coach described “Downhill Phil” as “just a football player who now understands how to play at the college level and loves to hit.”

The cornerbacks could have a different look in 2019. The talented senior Jericho Flowers, a 2 year starter will return as one starter, but he could be pushed by Juco transfer Jamel Hamm, a 6’4″, 200-pound cornerback who at one point had an offer from Ohio St. but when Urban Meyer left the staff decided to move on. Hamm also had Virginia until they flipped a Va Tech commit and then UNLV swooped in to land him. Myles Plummer, who also has played well in spring ball, will be competing for the other corner spot. Hamm and Plummer are both taller corners compared to what UNLV has had in previous years and this is what Skipper prefers. Juco transfer, Aaron Lewis, is another player who has impressed and is battling to start outside but will also be starting at nickel back for the Rebels and coaches love him. They have called him “a natural at the nickel spot and a program-changing player with high character.” Lewis is a technician and is an uber competitive player who has a no non-sense approach to playing the game. Bryce Jackson will also play the nickel role as well and possibly see time at safety. Kyle Moses had a great fall camp and has earned playing time while Alex Perry, who transferred in from Arizona St. and started 5 games last year for the Rebels, is coming off an injury and will be forced to redshirt in 2019.

As for the specialists, Hayes Hicken, one of the nation’s best punters, returns to the Rebels. He had an outstanding year last season and gives the Rebels a weapon that could change field position in the Rebels favor. UNLV did lose their kicker to graduation and the kicking competition is wide open with Daniel Gutierrez the likely kicker to start the season. With Presley out for the year, Collins could see the majority of time as the kick returner for UNLV with Reese, Woods, and possibly Jenkins as other options for running back’s coach and special team’s coordinator Travis Burkett and the Rebels. Tejchman handled punt returning duties at times as a freshman, but that also seems to be a wide open competition with Woods, Collins, Jenkins, Reese, and Williams as potential candidates.

Under Tony Sanchez everything has changed… from the state of the program to the facilities to the type of players UNLV can now recruit to the team’s expectations. Coach Sanchez knows and openly admits that this season is a season that the Rebels need to take that next step that will put them into a yearly Bowl Game bid and to be in the hunt for the Mountain West Championship. Sanchez knows that there have been almost a dozen games that could have changed the Rebels fortunes in the past 3 years but feels this team, the 2019 UNLV Rebels, are the team to change decades of misfortune. Sanchez is one of two coaches to beat the University of Nevada (Reno) twice as UNLV head coach. He ended a 17-year road losing streak to San Diego State last season. He also has the deepest team with no expectations to win outside of Las Vegas, Reed-Francois, UNLV fans, and alumni. Coach Sanchez also isn’t paying attention to the “Bowl or Bust” ultimatum nor does he care. He is confident and focused in his ability to coach the Rebels this season and beyond and to be the person to lead UNLV to a Bowl game.

UNLV has the potential to be a very good team and surprise a lot of people. But they have to win games that they should win and not lose games to teams that they shouldn’t lose to. The Rebels also cannot afford to have injuries to key players, Rogers in particular. While the depth is the best and deepest it has ever been, it also is not quite where it needs to be compared to other teams around the country. If the defense improves, Rogers stays healthy, and they avoid any other major injury, the Rebels could be the surprise team, not just in the Mountain West Conference, but in all of college football for the 2019 season. This is the year that could potentially make UNLV a team to watch in the future. If that is in fact the case, they will send Sam Boyd Stadium off in grand fashion in 2019. Plus, Tony Sanchez and his staff will receive contract extensions as they open the new Allegiant Stadium on August 29th 2020 versus the Cal Bears in true Las Vegas style with new and greater expectations for years to come.


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