Analysis:

Bern’s-Eye View: First impressions from UNLV football’s practice field

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck smiles during the Heart of Dallas Bowl game against North Texas Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. North Texas won 36-14.

In the midst of March Madness and the impending start of Major League Baseball, it’s easy to forget that there are football developments going on across the country.

I missed the first two weeks of UNLV’s spring practices while covering the end of the Rebels’ basketball season. Now that the door’s shut on that campaign, it’s time to turn to the gridiron.

First off, any revelations gleaned from a spring football practice should be taken with more than a few grains of salt -- just because a player looks good on a particular day in March doesn’t guarantee anything about his future.

That said, I thought it’d be useful to share some first impressions from my first look at the 2014 Rebels. Since approximately 90 percent of the on-field offseason questions about this team will be about the quarterback, I figured we’d start somewhere else:

• The running back race is the more entertaining backfield competition

All-time leading rusher Tim Cornett is gone. In his place are four candidates looking to fill the top slot; three of them seem capable of doing it.

Despite his fumbling problems, senior Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is probably the favorite. He finished the 2013 season with an absurd 8.9 yards per carry thanks to several breakaway touchdowns.

But I didn’t see much of him. The guy who impressed most, just as he did last spring, was senior Adonis Smith. A slightly smaller version of Cornett, Smith looked great this time last year and was making even better runs on Monday. Of course, he barely got on the field in 2013 and couldn’t do much when out there, so I’m still cautiously optimistic about his chances for a breakout season.

The other guy who could end up on the top of the pile is sophomore Keith Whitely, who was primarily a returner last season.

However, the guy who looked the best of all of them on Monday was redshirt freshman Henri Jussila. The Finland native, listed generously at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, is probably too small to be an every-down back but he’s the type of guy who is making a play every time you look up. And part of that probably has to do with what I think is the key to UNLV’s season…

• Returning five starting offensive linemen is absolutely huge for the Rebels

On one play, senior left tackle Brett Boyko picked up and slammed down a poor defensive end with such force that I could only laugh. The guy never had a chance.

From left to right, Boyko, Cameron Jefferson, Robert Waterman, Ron Scoggins and Andrew Oberg will be the reason this offense succeeds or fails this season, no matter who ends up playing quarterback.

If they build on last season, this group can anchor the team’s efforts to build on the tremendous offensive production from last season. That success may even play a role in their development as the team has a noticeable confidence that lacked in past seasons.

“Everybody feels good about themselves and the group’s really firing on all cylinders now,” Waterman said. “We had confidence in ourselves and each other before but the wins really made that happen.”

• OK, I’ve stalled enough. Let’s talk quarterbacks

Junior Nick Sherry is the former starter. Junior Black Decker is the junior college transfer. Both are getting about equal reps in practice and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, which means we aren’t going to get a definitive answer to the definitive question for quite some time.

“The quarterback position is the focal point and it needs to be,” said coach Bobby Hauck.

If I had to guess the Day One starter today I’d say Decker, based mostly on the fact that he seems to fit the spread attack UNLV used with success last season and he had some decent deep balls on Monday. Plus, the coaches wouldn’t bring him in if they didn’t expect him to contend seriously for the starting position.

That said, I’m not counting out Sherry just yet. His sophomore season was about as bad as it gets, but from what I saw Sherry made the better, more consistent passes during practice. Last year I mostly ignored the fact that Caleb Herring was the better quarterback throughout spring and fall because I “knew” the job was Sherry’s. This year I think I know who’s going to be the Rebels’ quarterback, but a quick shake of salt reminds me it’s far too early for any declarations.

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

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