Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Three days before the beginning of his third season at UNLV, football coach Bobby Hauck is a lot more relaxed than a man with a 4-21 record should be. Honestly, it’s the way he has seemed almost the entire offseason.
Of course there were days after a bad practice — or curse-filled rants during those practices — that painted a different picture of the coach, but they were the exception. Confidence is the norm, as strange as that seems. Because, you know, 4-21 and all.
“Nobody here is happy with our record,” Hauck said Monday.
UNLV begins the 2012 season, its third under Hauck, with four consecutive home games at Sam Boyd Stadium, starting with Thursday’s opener against Minnesota at 8 p.m. on CBS Sports Network. Unlike the Rebels’ past two season-opening games (both against Wisconsin), this one is winnable.
Whether UNLV can pull off the upset is the first of many questions about this year’s team. Is Hauck’s job safe? Is freshman Nick Sherry the answer at quarterback? Why will this season be any different from the last two?
To try to answer the latter, it’s best to go to the team’s veterans, the few impact guys still left from the Mike Sanford era.
“(This year’s) just a different atmosphere than what I’m used to,” senior offensive lineman Yusef Rodgers said.
The differences include but are not limited to: better recruits, more competitive practices and a visible confidence that didn’t exist in Hauck’s first two seasons. All three of those are related.
Changing a culture often starts with bringing in players who buy into the vision of what you’re trying to create. This isn’t a place like Ohio State, Hauck said, where there may be changes with each new coach but the pieces are pretty much in place to have some success.
“I don’t think anyone would say that was the case here,” Hauck said. “We had to acknowledge that this was a complete makeover, and I think, listening to these guys, they would agree that we’re in progress on that.”
The change in practice can be seen in a number of ways. On Monday, under the lights of a night practice at Rebel Park, there were barely any Rebels in blue, non-contact jerseys. Injuries may seem like a case of randomness year to year, and to a degree, they are, but when the players coming into the program want to work as hard at getting better in practice as they want to play in games, those jerseys have a way of disappearing. There’s nothing to be done about a severe injury, but minor aches and pains are easier to overcome amidst position battles for a team that you actually believe can achieve something.
All of that leads to the confidence permeating off this team since spring drills. Junior cornerback Sidney Hodge said that, on defense at least, that feeling comes from an attitude adjustment from the previous seasons.
“We’re going to go out there and try to knock some heads off,” Hodge said.
The confidence didn’t make much sense when it showed up in spring, and until they produce on the field, it still won’t — not entirely. The Rebels, including Hauck, walk around with a look that suggests they know something you don’t.
UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood said that’s one of the things he likes most about Hauck and the coaching staff. It’s confidence, not cockiness, Livengood said, and they can be that way because they don’t carry around the weight of their losses.
“We’ve learned from the past, but we haven’t tended to focus or get too consumed by it,” Livengood said.
In September, Livengood gave Hauck a two-year extension that keeps him under contract through the 2014 season. That would be Hauck’s fifth season in scarlet and gray. Five years used to be the benchmark for proving yourself at a football program, but coaches rarely get that long anymore. The patience — whether it’s from the fans, boosters or administrators — simply isn’t there.
Livengood said he’s different. He has no problem being patient as long as he sees signs that the program is headed in the right direction. This year should prove if his faith is in the right place.
“I believe in Bobby, and I believe in what he’s trying to build,” Livengood said.
Would that belief hold if the Rebels get blown out against Minnesota or, worse, if all of the perceived progress from this offseason and this recruiting class results in another two-win season? Probably not.
Hauck isn’t in The Year, the one where it’s at least a bowl game or bust, but he’s not far off. Everyone around the program will say there have been numerous improvements since Hauck took over, even though it hasn’t shown up in the form of victories. And while that certainly looks to be the case — the Rebels are far more talented on paper than in 2010 — eventually, that doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t add up in the left column.
“This is a year all about progress,” Livengood said. “… We really need to show that we’ve improved and gotten better.”
Livengood and Hauck won’t speculate on how many victories the team needs this year. The players won’t, either. To a player, even some of the more realistic ones, almost every game on the schedule should be a victory, so their predictions would make a bettor run to the sports book to get the over on UNLV’s season wins total, which is three at most places.
That line is based on a lot of things, not the least of which is recent history — two-win seasons in six of the past eight years. There’s also Sherry, a redshirt freshman, at quarterback, a move that wasn’t official until last week but has done little to persuade outsiders either way on UNLV.
This decision has been expected for a long time, and no one around the team sees it as a limitation on this season. Hauck acknowledged the Rebels will have to accept Sherry’s freshman mistakes, but the pieces around him are in place. Junior Tim Cornett leads a strong running game; Sherry’s former roommate, Jake Phillips, a freshman tight end, may lead the team in receiving; and the offensive line returns all five starters, including Rodgers, who isn’t willing to end his career with another abysmal record.
“We’re really looking to this year to win,” Rodgers said.
There are plenty of question marks, too. The receivers, already a perceived weakness, may be without sophomore Marcus Sullivan and senior Eric Johnson on Thursday. The defense needs to get a lot more pressure on the quarterback this season, and the guys mainly responsible for that are largely unknown quantities. And there’s always a chance Sherry’s learning curve will be too steep for him to be able to manage the game this season.
Sherry said he understood Hauck’s message that he doesn’t have to win games by himself. Especially early on during UNLV’s four straight home games, Sherry needs to fight the natural urge to throw all over the field and just try to make enough plays to win.
That’s all the Rebels think they need from him right away because he’s got support elsewhere on the field — not just from the other young players who are learning beside him, but also the veterans sprinkled throughout the roster. They’re the ones who have most seen the transformation under Hauck, and they’re the ones who have led this surge of confidence. Even if it’s only for one final season, guys like Rodgers want to be part of the group that changes the UNLV culture.
“Over the last three years, we’ve come such a long way, and I think this year we’re ready to unleash and explode,” Rodgers said.
Livengood likened the situation to hitting restart on a video game. All of the past squabbles and failures are erased from memory, leaving only the confidence in the potential of the present.