Monday, March 3, 2014 | 2 a.m.
He was a quarterback during his final season of high school football.
Two quick years later, Brett Boyko was starting at offensive tackle for the UNLV football team in its 2011 opener at Wisconsin — a daunting task for any red-shirt freshman.
Not only was Wisconsin Boyko’s first college game, it was also his first game of American football. Growing up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Boyko played the Canadian brand of football — longer and wider fields with a deeper endzone, and one less down to advance the ball on offense. And his favorite team wasn’t from the NFL; it’s the hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
“I have been bleeding green all of my life. You ask anyone from Saskatchewan and it’s a passion for the green and white, definitely,” he said.
When the Rebels begin their 15-session spring practice today at Rebel Park — looking to build off their breakthrough 2013 season, in which they reached a bowl game for the first time in more than a decade — the 6-foot-7, 310-pound Boyko will be leading the charge.
Spring drills will be the start of a quarterback competition between returning junior Nick Sherry and junior college transfer Blake Decker, and between four running backs competing to replace Tim Cornett as the Rebels’ featured back. Both positions aren’t expected to be decided until the fall.
Regardless of who is throwing the ball or running it, the Rebels’ offense — last year, they scored 30 points per game — is again expected to be a strength. That’s a credit to Boyko, who was a second-team all-league selection last year and considered one of the Mountain West’s best pass blockers.
“It was a projection to recruit him, but not a hard one,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “He was a big and physical guy. We watched him run around and he was probably the best athlete on the field.”
Like most first-year players making the transition from high school to college, Boyko needed time to get acclimated. He quickly figured it out, becoming one of the leaders up front almost instantly. He played defensive line two years in high school, helping ease the learning curve.
“When I think back to my first year, I thought I was pretty bad playing the offensive line position,” Boyko said. “It was an overall adjustment. Everything was brand new. But maybe it was to my advantage that I learned here and didn’t pick up bad habits.”
This year’s spring practice will be different. And not just because Boyko’s a seasoned veteran.
The Rebels should benefit from playing Jan. 1 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, receiving practice time in December to prepare for the game — and, most important, the next season. Reserves and practice squad players, those who will be fighting this spring to crack into the depth chart, got a head start in proving themselves.
“The younger guys were able to play in our scheme and get some reps,” Hauck said. “It was a big thing for us utilizing those bowl practices, one for the game, but also to get the younger guys a look. It should really help our younger guys out.”
Having an example such as Boyko will also help younger players.
He’s taken great ownership in being one of the team’s leaders, joining other veterans last season in rallying the team after it started with two defeats. They could have easily had another two-win season; instead, they won their next four games and finished with seven wins.
“We were tired of losing and weren’t going to let it happen anymore,” said Boyko, who has already graduated with a degree in psychology. “Everyone knew we were going to turn it around at some point and get in a groove. We managed to mesh together pretty good.”
Today, they’ll try to continue what they started.
“We don’t expect anything less than going back to a bowl,” Boyko said. “That has to be the mindset going into the season.”