Rebels in the NFL: The best that never were


Ethan Miller

Former UNLV safety Jamaal Brimmer was a first-team All-American and finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back but was not picked in the NFL Draft. (2004)

Maybe Jamaal Brimmer should have entered the NFL draft.

Following his junior season at UNLV, when the Las Vegas native was a first-team All-American and finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, Brimmer’s NFL stock was at its highest. Despite being projected as a mid-round selection, Brimmer elected to return to the scarlet and gray for his senior season.

But following an average senior campaign in 2004 and running a subpar 4.8 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, Brimmer wasn’t picked in the draft. He signed a free-agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks before being one of the last cuts. He also played in NFL Europe with the Berlin Thunder.

With NFL camps starting last week, one could easily argue Brimmer could still be playing professional football. That’s especially true when looking at his efforts during the Rebels’ 23-5 upset victory in 2003 at Wisconsin. It was arguably the best game by an individual player in school history.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Brimmer had 11 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the game. He went on to be selected the Mountain West Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year for a second consecutive season, making the option of leaving early for the draft an attractive option he ultimately passed on.

Last week, two former UNLV players — offensive linemen Matt Murphy (Atlanta Falcons) and John Gianninoto (Carolina Panthers) — signed undrafted free-agent contracts and will attempt to join the ranks of former UNLV players in the league. Only time will tell if they have better luck than Brimmer in landing a roster spot.

Here is a look at some other highly touted former UNLV players whose NFL prospects never panned out.

    • Jason Thomas UNLV Football
      Photo by Aaron Mayes/Las Vegas Sun

      Jason Thomas (2000-02)

      After being named the Most Valuable Player of UNLV’s Las Vegas Bowl victory in 2000 against Arkansas, Thomas’ stock skyrocketed. A transfer from USC, the quarterback was pegged by several experts as a shoo-in for a professional career. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. was especially high on Thomas, writing: “Fourth-year junior Jason Thomas is, in my opinion, the best quarterback in the country. Thomas has tremendous arm strength, great athletic ability, intelligence and leadership qualities.”

      He was even mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate. But Thomas, who went 12-of-17 for 217 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl victory, didn’t live up to expectations, partially because of a bum shoulder. Thomas wasn’t drafted but had plenty of chances at reaching an NFL camp as a free agent. He could have even switched positions to a tight end. Thomas also tried indoor leagues and the Canadian Football League before retiring.

    • UNLV-Colorado St.
      Photo by Justin M. Bowen

      Ryan Wolfe (2006-09)

      It’s easy to ask “What if?” when talking about Wolfe’s professional prospects. Specifically, what if the receiver didn’t get hurt in practice the week of his final game at UNLV two years ago?

      A broken foot leading up to the finale against San Diego State likely took Wolfe from being a mid-to-late-round selection to not being picked at all. He signed a free-agent deal with the Atlanta Falcons, but was cut last September at the end of training camp and is believed to be out of football.

      That does nothing to diminish his record-breaking career with the Rebels. He led them in receiving his final three years, easily becoming the school’s all-time leader in receptions (283) and receiving yards (3,495).

    • Jon Denton UNLV Football
      Photo by Ethan Miller

      Jon Denton (1996-97)

      Denton shattered 10 NCAA and 10 UNLV passing records during his freshman year of 1996, completing 55 percent of his passes for 3,591 yards and 25 touchdowns.

      However, he battled off-the-field issues during his sophomore year of 1997, missing two games with suspension and passing for 2,586 yards and 18 touchdowns with 17 interceptions.

      He finished his college career at Division I-AA Eastern Kentucky and wasn’t picked in the NFL Draft. Denton was briefly in camp with the Miami Dolphins and was a backup in 2003 with the Las Vegas Gladiators of the Arena Football League.

    • Randy Black UNLV Football
      Photo by Ethan Miller

      Randy Black (1997-2000)

      Black, one of the defensive standouts on the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl championship team, exited the UNLV program as its career leader in tackles with 217.

      A safety, the Clark High School product was invited to the NFL combine and was expected to be a second-day selection.

      He was even listed on TV for several hours as one of the draft’s best available players. Despite all this, Black was never picked and didn’t participate in an NFL camp.

    • Nick Garritano (1991-94)

      Nick Garritano (1991-94)

      The most accomplished place-kicker in UNLV history, Garritano helped the Rebels win the 1994 Las Vegas Bowl and that year connected on five of seven field goal attempts of more than 50 yards in finishing his career as the Rebels’ second all-time leader scoring with 240 points.

      Nicknamed “The Kick,” Garritano was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s top kicker in his senior season in 1994. But Garritano learned how difficult it is to break into the NFL as a kicker, having a tryout with the San Francisco 49ers before retiring.

      Also a baseball player in high school at Chaparral, Garritano returned to the diamond and is one of the Las Vegas Valley’s most respected baseball coaches. He won two state titles as the head coach of Green Valley High before leaving last fall after more than a decade to take over nationally respected College of Southern Nevada.

      He still attends UNLV football games, sitting in the stands behind the field goal posts — which is fitting for someone who still holds the school record for the longest field goal made at 54 yards.

    • Dominique Dorsey UNLV Football
      Photo by R. Marsh Starks/Las Vegas Sun

      Dominique Dorsey (2001-04)

      At 5 feet, 7 inches, Dorsey’s small stature was always his biggest roadblock in reaching the NFL. But the diminutive frame didn’t stop him from shining on the professional gridiron.

      Dorsey, who was UNLV’s leader in all-purpose yards in 2003 and ’04, enjoyed a storied career as a kick returner in the Canadian Football League. And in 2008, after being named the league’s most outstanding special teams player, Dorsey finally received a shot at the NFL.

      He was in training camp with the Washington Redskins in 2009, but was cut after four preseason games. His career is highlighted by a record-tying 129-yard return for a touchdown off a missed field goal during the 2007 CFL season. At UNLV, Dorsey rushed for a team-best 1,261 yards in 2004.

    • Joe Kristosik
      Photo by Aaron Mayes/Las Vegas Sun

      Joe Kristosik (1995-98)

      In 1998, punter Kristosik was named the first consensus All-American in school history, leading the nation with a 46.2-yard-per-punt average.

      The Bishop Gorman High graduate was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame. Despite the gaudy numbers — the ’98 totals were the second-highest in NCAA history at that time for a punter with at least 75 career attempts — he never got a fair crack in a professional league.

    • John Greer (1997-2000)

      John Greer (1997-2000)

      Offensive lineman John Greer went from walk-on to one of the program's best linemen in recent memory. He anchored the line of the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl team, eventually earning a spot in training camp with the Seattle Seahawks.

      An excellent student, Greer was also part of several all-league academic teams. He just didn’t make it in the professional ranks.

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    1. Well a really small percentage of college players really make it in the big time - UNLV has tools to develop a decent program but that doesn't seem to be in the works. Kudos to these pretty good players - and good luck in the future.

    2. I hate to say it but this article just makes our program look worse. It's always hard to make it in the NFL, but even the modest Mid-Major teams and some Div. II teams seem to have more pros coming out of their programs. I hope Hauck does something great to make this team finally break out of this sub .500 win season slump.

    3. If it makes the program look worse, you don't understand what the article is about. It's about near-misses, not the history of UNLV in the NFL.

      UNLV has had excellent players in the NFL, such as Randall Cunningham, Mike Thomas, Ickey Woods and Keenan McCardell. But that's not what this article is about.

    4. Imagine how many near misses would be sure things with a more consistent program.

    5. " sub .500 "? I would love to see UNLV at .500 after the last two seasons.

    6. Hi Ray, John Greer is a good buddy of mine, and I know he'd be honored that you mentioned him as one of the great Rebels. If I can add a bit more detail, he was playing with a back injury for 2+ years at UNLV (slipped disc in his back, I think), but was All-Conference both years, if I'm not mistaken. I think he only gave up one sack his whole career, which is pretty amazing given how sad some of those teams were. He was also Playboy All-America his senior year, and on various All-Academic teams pretty much the whole time, as you said, he was a great student.

      After he was picked up by the Seahawks the injury was discovered and he was cut immediately. He had surgery, but was unable to get back to his playing form. He's still living in Las Vegas.

    7. Winning programs have players that go into the NFL. Just the way it usually is. Look at the guys even on this list, they were on those winning teams, and some got their shots, but didn't make it. There were also some that did, but this article isn't about those that did.

    8. Relax...yeah, we're not an elite program, but let's not forget that Larry Croom played a few years recently in the NFL, same with Greg Estandia, Adam Seward, Dominic Furio and a bunch of others that weren't as highly touted as the guys on this list, at least not publicly, but behind the scenes they were for sure.

      The one guy you really missed out on is Jeremi Rudolph....I thought he really should've been in the league at some point.

    9. ...heck, even Martin Tevaseu played in the Superbowl last year....its not like you're not going to the NFL if you're at UNLV.