Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Two years ago, Caleb Herring arrived on the UNLV campus as a skinny kid with braces, carrying the label as the Rebels' quarterback of the future.
Now a redshirt sophomore, this is supposed to be the beginning of that future.
He's bulked himself up some, shed the metal in his mouth and speaks in the confident tone that a starting quarterback should speak.
All what's left to do? Win the starting quarterback gig.
UNLV's fall camp opened Tuesday morning at Rebel Park. The first three-hour practice session of the season saw Herring take the majority of the snaps with the first team offense.
The job is closer than ever for Herring, who appears to be solidly in front at the start of fall camp.
The first steps for the Moreno Valley, Calif., native toward becoming the Rebels' top signal-caller were a bit rough, but they came last season during a trying 2-11 campaign. He never got a chance to start but made appearances in eight of UNLV's games.
It was the first one that assured him he could eventually be Bobby Hauck's top option under center.
In a 30-7 blowout loss at Idaho last September, the Rebels' offense sputtered for much of the night. Herring was inserted into the game in the second half but was roughed up early behind a struggling, overwhelmed offensive line.
"It was my first time really getting out there with the live bullets and taking some pretty big hits from some guys who didn't like me," he recalled. "The other thing I'll remember is the feeling of being defeated. As a competitor, you won't let go of it. There's a bad taste in my mouth from it to this day. It's just as bad."
By the time Herring came in, there was nothing he could do to reverse UNLV's fortunes on the scoreboard, but he did finish the night with a gorgeous 23-yard touchdown pass to Phillip Payne in the final minute. In the grand scheme of the game and the season, the play didn't have any significant meaning, but it meant the world to Herring.
And it still does.
"That throw to Phil definitely boosted my confidence, reminded me that this is what I do," he said. "I'm a quarterback. I throw touchdown passes. This is my job. it just seemed easy after that."
Herring finished the season going 28-of-56 for 365 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
That was followed by a strong spring camp, with Herring continuing to get comfortable in a run-oriented offensive system unlike the one he was recruited to operate under former head coach Mike Sanford.
"What I'd say about Caleb is when I look at his skill set, it's a little more tilted towards being a drop-back guy than it is being a spread guy," Hauck said. "I don't know what everybody had in mind when he was recruited other than he was a good player, but that's what you do. If you get a good player, you take him and temper your offense to suit him.
"He's got good pocket presence, he seems to be grasping things, he's got a good arm, got good delivery, just all of those things that drop-back guys have."
Still, despite all of the tangible positives …
"Whenever we're ready, whenever we get a clear view of who should start at quarterback, that's what we'll do," he said of naming a starter. "Frankly, we've got great battles for second- and third-(string), too, so it'll be fun to watch."
Behind Herring on the depth chart at the moment, reps in practice are being split by junior college transfer Sean Reilly, redshirt freshman Taylor Barnhill and true freshman Nick Sherry.
Last season, in his first fall camp at UNLV, Hauck waited until the week of the season opener against Wisconsin to name Mike Clausen his starter following a lengthy battle with incumbent Omar Clayton. Early indications say that this fall's competition for the top spot won't last all the way up until the final days before the Sept. 1 return trip to face the Badgers.
At the moment, it appears to be Herring's job to lose, and he's sounding like a veteran who understands that.
"From Day 1, when I first got here, I had the attitude of a competitor," Herring said. "(I've always thought) 'That's my job; that's what I'm here for.'"