Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008 | 1:25 a.m.
So much for that preseason storyline.
The focus will now shift elsewhere by default with more than three weeks left until the 2008 season opener, as UNLV football coach Mike Sanford Monday evening put an end to the quarterback question facing his team. Before the first practice session of the summer for his group of veterans, Sanford bestowed the honors upon sophomore Omar Clayton.
At the same time, he covered another base by announcing the move of sophomore Travis Dixon - who figured to be Clayton's top competition for football's glamour gig - to safety. That then slides redshirt freshman Mike Clausen into the No. 2 quarterback slot.
"It's the best thing for our football team, I think there are a lot of things that are win-wins here," Sanford said following Monday's veteran practice.
Sanford said the decision was talked about four or five days ago, but reality went into motion in the last two.
The announcement seemed to put almost a calm over the evening at Rebel Park.
Dixon's move - Sanford said he will be competing for a starting spot - could add some depth in the secondary, while Clayton taking the majority of the snaps with the first team offense set the tone for some normalcy over the next few weeks leading up to the Aug. 30 opener at Sam Boyd Stadium against Utah State.
"I don't think anybody was really expecting that," senior wideout Casey Flair said of the announcement. "You can tell he's playing a lot more free."
Clayton seemed to only get better as the two hour practice wore on Monday. To cap off the night, he hit Ryan Wolfe down the right sideline for a long touchdown strike, flipped a nice pass over coverage right on target to Rodelin Anthony and then reminded everyone of what he's can do with his feet on a couple of nice runs.
Flair pointed out the familiarity all of UNLV's receivers have with Clayton, since he's seen reps with both the No. 1 and No. 2 offensive units. Add in the experience of the returning wideouts, such as the 120 combined receptions last year by Flair and Wolfe, and a groove might not be too tough to find.
Of course, this was all sans pads, and was just one practice. But a positive sign, nonetheless.
"He had the best practice I've seen him have," Sanford said. "Just, he was sharp, he was upbeat, he was accurate. He was having fun, doing a good job leading."
While Sanford and teammates praised Clayton's debut as the clear No. 1 in terms of his poise and presence, the slinger himself agreed for different reasons.
"I think I was more relaxed just because we were back into it," he said. "I always planned on being the starter. That's the only way you can think when you're in a competitive position, so I already planned on starting. Now that that's for certain, it hasn't really changed too much."
That mentality stemmed from the fact that Clayton, well, actually started three games for the Rebels a year ago, and saw action in seven when it was all said and done. He threw for 618 yards on 58 completions with four TDs and five interceptions. He also flashed a bit of the dual-threat billing with 179 yards and two scores on the ground.
Monday's news was another positive note on Clayton's resumé since arriving in Las Vegas. Originally a walk-on, he paid his own way a year ago while commuting an hour each way to campus on the bus from his grandfather's house outside of the city.
"I try not to think of it that way," Clayton said of not looking at the starting job alone as a major accomplishment. "I still feel like I owe the team something - To prove that I'm able to win games, not just be the starter."
Dixon's defensive debut pretty good, too ...
Dixon admitted following Monday's practice that, for the time being, he's mostly going on athletic ability rather than techniques and whatnot in trying to earn a starting spot in the Rebels' secondary.
Largely, that's because he hasn't played defense since the seventh grade.
Though physical contact aside, Dixon got a confidence boost Monday by recording a pick during the latter stages of the practice.
He said he anticipates the leadership qualities needed to play quarterback could now come in handy at a position which unofficially serves as the signal-calling post in the defensive backfield.
Come Friday it'll be better known how Dixon can handle the other major duty that comes with playing safety - hitting.
And not just that, but hitting hard. That'll be seen Friday when pads come into play for the first time.
"Hopefully when we get on pads I can set the tone and let them know I'm not a prima donna quarterback," he said with a laugh, adding that he can now call quarterbacks prima donnas.
And the last time he dished out a hit?
"Not any time recently," he said after racking the brain for a moment.