Las Vegas Sun

December 3, 2021

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UNLV IN ELY:

Ely report card: Grades show balance between offense, defense

Positive additions on defense don’t go unnoticed, while Clayton remains steady

UNLV in Ely: Day 3

Ryan Greene/Las Vegas Sun

UNLV coach Mike Sanford offers instruction to his receivers and running backs during a morning practice earlier this month at Broadbent Park in Ely.

“Balance” was the key word for UNLV’s football program after a week of training in Ely and returns to Las Vegas.

Last season, the Rebels staff had a hunch that there could be depth and consistency issues on the defensive side of the ball when they left Ely. This time around, things felt different.

“I think what I would say is our defense is making it harder on our offense,” UNLV coach Mike Sanford said. “It’s harder to complete passes, harder to make first downs, I think I like how our secondary is competing and I think that’s definitely an improvement. I also like how our defensive front is rushing the passer and defending the run, too.”

If Sanford were filling out a report card for his team’s performance up in Ely, it sounds as if any parent would have been pleased.

“There’s nothing that’s been disappointing,” he said. “Nothing.”

With that said, here is a glimpse at the Sun’s 2009 Ely report card.

Offense: B

Junior quarterback Omar Clayton looks the part of a veteran quarterback now, as he was accurate and poised throughout camp up north. Senior Ryan Wolfe will be the top receiver in the Mountain West, and sophomore Phillip Payne looks like he’s on track to being a steady No. 2. Senior receivers Jerriman Robinson and Rodelin Anthony also were outstanding in camp.

The offensive line — with four of five starters back — looks steady and reliable. However, depth upfront could become an issue if there are injuries.

Questions around the running game keep this grade from being an A. Junior Channing Trotter clearly is the best healthy back UNLV has right now. But what will C.J. Cox bring when he’s back to full health? How fast will Bradley Randle be brought along? Will a tailback-by-committee approach work?

Defense: B+

The defense gets a higher grade than the offense? Believe it.

The Rebels seem to have fewer questions right now on the defensive side of the ball.

Junior college transfers such as Mike Grant, Alex De Giacomo and Warren Zeigler have added playmaking into the mix for UNLV in the secondary. The shift of positions on the defensive front shows plenty of promise. Senior Jason Beauchamp and junior Malo Taumua bring speed to the ends, and the Rebels’ bulk in the interior between junior Isaako Aaitui and senior Martin Tevaseu — who weigh roughly a combined 650 pounds — should open things up for the linebackers.

Speaking of linebackers, juniors Starr Fuimaono and Ronnie Paulo are back to 100 percent in terms of health.

All that makes this defense very dangerous, which still sounds weird considering how patchy it was just one year ago.

Special teams: Incomplete

Sanford won’t award the kicking and punting duties until right before the Sept. 5 opener.

Of course, we could speculate, but we haven’t seen enough to do even that.

Senior kicker Kyle Watson — who handled shorter field goals and extra points last year — showed nice range in practice, but junior Ben Jaekle hasn’t quite recovered from June back surgery, meaning this competition won’t pick up until probably next week.

Punters Brendon Lamers and Watson appear to be neck-and-neck.

The Honor Roll

• Omar Clayton, junior quarterback — Our camp MVP showed poise and command during drills in the mountains.

But was something former UNLV receiver Casey Flair — on-hand for Saturday’s scrimmage — said that tells Clayton’s true value. When Clayton rolls out of the pocket to throw, his eyes are always fixed downfield and he never panics. This forces his receivers to keep working to get open, since a play is never dead with him at the helm.

Expect him to keep UNLV in almost every game this year.

• Ryan Wolfe, senior receiver — Already the school’s all-time leading receiver, Wolfe practices like a pro and is a model example for younger receivers. He even fought through a stomach virus earlier in the week to keep going.

• Matt Murphy, junior left tackle — The anchor of a veteran offensive line was steady throughout, earning the black jersey honors twice at camp.

• Rodelin Anthony, senior receiver — Expect Anthony to top his current career-high for receptions (19) this year. His hands look as reliable as ever, and at 6-foot-5, he will give opposing defenses fits across the middle. His week was cut short by a mild concussion, but he’d done more than enough to impress up to that point.

• Malo Taumua, junior defensive end — For the second year in Ely, Taumua stood out more than anyone on the defensive side of the ball, both for his production and his über-vocal nature. It should carry over into the regular season this time around, as his size and speed make him better suited as a defensive end than tackle — where he played last year.

• Ronnie Paulo, junior linebacker — Paulo has the potential to be UNLV’s most vicious hitter. He was productive last year despite a constantly aching lower body, and he’s back at full health. The Western High product made plays left and right in the backfield over the last week, and could flourish behind a pair of mammoth defensive tackles.

• Mike Grant, junior cornerback — While Sanford won’t be naming starters in the secondary until closer to the opener against Sacramento State, Grant appears closest to locking down a spot at cornerback. The juco transfer is the most physical of the Rebel corners at the line of scrimmage, and ended with a bang, breaking up a fade pass to Phillip Payne during Wednesday morning’s practice — just a few reps after recording an interception.

• Alex De Giacomo, junior safety — De Giacomo, a ballhawk and a big hitter, appears to sit atop the depth chart at safety. If full contact were allowed during all drills in Ely, De Giacomo and Paulo would have been neck-and-neck as far as who put down the most nasty shots.

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