UNLV football:

Younger Rebels relish chance to prove themselves in extra bowl practices

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Taylor Bern

The Rebels go through practice drills on SMU’s campus in Dallas on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. UNLV is preparing for its first bowl game since 2000 to be played on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, at Cotton Bowl Stadium.

The Heart of Dallas Bowl and the week of events leading up to it are a reward for this year’s Rebels. The work UNLV is doing leading up to the game is what they hope will help make these trips a regular thing.

By the time UNLV and North Texas kick off in Wednesday’s game at Cotton Bowl Stadium, the Rebels will have had more than 15 extra practices than allowed if they didn’t make a postseason game. That’s hours and hours of extra repetitions, extra film study and, most importantly for the future, a lot of extra time for coaches to focus on younger players.

“It gives the players a chance to turn the coaches’ heads and realize that they can play,” redshirt freshman Marc Philippi said. “We finally have an opportunity to be out there and scrimmage and have the coaches be able to notice us.”

Many players said the bowl practices have been a lot more fun and loose than those in the regular season. While true for everybody, that’s probably more the case for veterans than younger players.

These are the final days of collegiate careers for guys like defensive tackle Tyler Gaston and quarterback Caleb Herring. But how big of a difference would an extra month have made earlier in their tenure?

“It could be huge,” Herring said. “It’s an opportunity for them to show what they can do.”

Added Gaston, “You take every moment you can get out on that field.”

For players who redshirted this season, the past few weeks have been their only live work of the year. It’s also a bonus for players still learning a new position, like Philippi and redshirt freshman Troy Hawthorne.

Both guys changed positions during fall camp in Ely, with Philippi going from the secondary to linebacker and Hawthorne flipping from quarterback to safety. This season they combined for 16 total tackles, yet next year they could both be major factors for a defense that must replace at least four starters.

“We’re trying to get experience and get confidence because confidence is really important when you’re out there flying around the field,” said Philippi, a Bishop Gorman grad.

Every bowl game offers extra practice time. However, this game, which will be played more than a month after UNLV’s last regular-season game, comes with more than double what some Mountain West teams were able to fit in before their games Dec. 21.

While that hurts UNLV’s financial bottom line this year — the university had to pay for the extra time living and eating on campus, for example — it’s beneficial to the team’s growth. There’s only so much time the Rebels could spend on one game against North Texas. A bulk of the rest of the time, coach Bobby Hauck said, has gone to individual player development and some live scrimmages for younger guys.

The players say it’s like having two spring practice sessions. The goal for each individual is to make themselves stand apart.

If enough guys do that now, UNLV will be ahead of schedule in 2014.

“We’re a good team now, and it’s exciting to go to a bowl game as a freshman knowing now I have three years to go to a better bowl game or compete for the Mountain West championship,” Philippi said. “We’re setting the goals higher now.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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