Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Maika Mataele is bouncing around and nearly jumping out of his shoes on one practice field at Rebel Park. It’s a Tuesday morning, one day before UNLV holds its first official day of practice, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what has the senior receiver so excited.
Mataele’s been running around all morning, so part of it could simply be the fun he’s having leading drills at the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl Youth Football Clinic, which drew a record 550 kids ages 6 through 14.
The biggest reason for his happiness is the same reason he’s still here: the NCAA’s decision to give Mataele an extra year of eligibility. Mataele started his college career at Oregon State in 2010, but through 2013 he had actually participated in only two seasons. Though the announcement came weeks later, Mataele said he got the news during this year’s NFL Draft.
“I felt like I got drafted back to the team I was playing for,” Mataele said.
And then there’s the reason that has put a bounce in many steps around Rebel Park. The bowl ban reversal, which means at most two additional games, was less impactful to Mataele, who was thrilled to get 13 more games. But that possibility combined with the general optimism of a team coming off a breakthrough seven-win season that’s led by mostly veterans is going to provide a much different feel to the start of practice than in recent years.
“Now,” Mataele said, “the sky’s the limit.”
Or, perhaps more accurately, the receivers are the limit.
The focus throughout camp will understandably be on the quarterback battle between juniors Nick Sherry and Blake Decker. But no matter who wins the job, he’ll have an arsenal of weapons to throw to as UNLV’s receivers feature the team’s best player — senior Devante Davis — and perhaps its deepest position group. If the group lives up to expectations, it could be another banner year for the Rebels’ offense.
“I think we have a really good receiving corps,” coach Bobby Hauck said. “By leaps and bounds, it’s the best we’ve had.”
From last year’s roster, the Rebels return 83 percent of their total catches, 90 percent of their receiving yards and all but one receiving touchdown. Most of those numbers come from a trio of seniors: Davis, Mataele and speedster Marcus Sullivan.
“I’d put my money on Marcus outrunning anyone or anything, animal or whatever,” Davis said. “That’s what he does; he’ll just beat you deep.”
If that trio was all they had, it would be pretty good group, but there’s also potential in junior Anthony Williams and a couple of freshmen who could make big impacts this year in Kendal Keys and Devonte Boyd.
Keys and Boyd were part of last year’s recruiting class but weren’t eligible, so they used grayshirt years that don’t count against their eligibility. Now they have things in order, and the potential for the tall — both are at least 6-foot-2 — and athletic receivers is as high as they can leap.
“Kendal looks like he’s got it in him,” said safety Peni Vea, who added the secondary will get better simply by practicing against this group.
Boyd is even getting some in-home training as he lives with Davis and constantly picks the brain of one of the nation’s top returning receivers.
“I teach him everything I know because I know next year they're going to expect him and a couple of others to be the guy,” Davis said.
After amassing 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, Davis isn’t going to sneak up on anyone. He’ll be the secondary’s primary focus every week, and the task for the rest of the group is to play well enough to force defenses out of constantly overloading Davis’ side.
Last season, that was helped by having Tim Cornett, the program’s all-time leading rusher, in the backfield. Hauck is a proponent of keeping the offense balanced and will attempt to do the same this year, but there’s clearly going to be more opportunities for the passing game to carry the team. All the receivers have to do is catch it.
“If you try to take one person away, there are so many others that are going to beat you,” Davis said. “You have to pick your poison.”