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October 1, 2022

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Take 5: Players and stories to keep an eye on as UNLV opens fall football practice

The quarterback battle and the sophomore class’s progress are just a couple of developments worth monitoring at Rebel Park

UNLV Spring Football Game 2012

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry directs his teammates during the Rebels spring football game Friday, April 20, 2012.

On Monday, the UNLV football coaching staff and returning players spent a muggy and rainy morning at Rebel Park running kids through various drills at the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas NCAA Youth Football Clinic hosted by UNLV.

On Tuesday, the real work begins.

While most of the team was out having fun with the kids, the incoming players spent their time passing various medical checks and getting cleared for the first official day of practice. Now they’re ready to go. The returners, too, are ready. And the coaches can’t wait to get started with five days of practice before the group packs up and leaves for 11 days in Ely.

As the team prepares for its on-campus fall practices, which run from 8 to 10:45 a.m. and are open to the public, we’re taking a look at some of the story lines to keep an eye on throughout camp.

Who will be the starting quarterback?

As long as there’s any question at signal-caller, it’s going dominate any discussions about the team. That’s because quarterback is the most important position on the field since he can have the biggest impact (positive or negative) of any single position player on the team.

Redshirt freshman Nick Sherry is the favorite to get the starting nod, slightly ahead of junior Caleb Herring. Senior Sean Reilly is at third string.

Sherry, 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, was impressive in spring drills and modest about his expectations. As his own biggest critic, Sherry knows he still has work to do to secure the top spot and an even longer journey to becoming a successful college quarterback.

The argument for Herring, who last year threw for eight touchdowns and just more than 1,000 yards, is that he already has worked in the system and may offer a better chance to win in the short term versus Sherry’s unavoidable freshman mistakes. But Herring definitely has the lower ceiling.

Faces in new places

The most notable position changes from the offseason have a pair of quarterbacks on defense.

Sophomore Taylor Barnhill shifted over to middle linebacker at the beginning of spring, giving him a good amount of time to get acclimated to the position. Junior transfer James Boyd’s move was much more sudden.

After participating all spring with the quarterbacks, Boyd ditched the yellow jersey for the spring scrimmage and looked solid at defensive end. Now Boyd will compete at that spot with redshirt freshman Sonny Sanitoa and sophomore Jordan Sparkman, a converted tight end who has a chance to be a breakout star for the Rebels.

The former quarterbacks don’t need to be stars on defense, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to have some depth at those positions.

Similarly, senior Eric Johnson could be a nice addition to the running backs, but at this point, it’s not like he’s expected to carry the load. Johnson started taking reps as the third running back after Dionza Bradford left the team, and entering the fall, Johnson is expected to be a versatile offensive weapon. He could see time at running back, receiver and punt returner.

Will any newcomers play major roles?

Boyd and fellow junior-college transfer Parker Holloway will get a chance at significant playing time at defensive end. While Boyd’s move thus far hasn’t offered much in the way of evidence, Holloway recorded four sacks in eight games at Trinity Valley Community College.

Another new face who could compete for immediate playing time is freshman Nick Gstrein. A 6-foot-4, 275-pound tight end, Gstrein enters fall second on the depth chart behind redshirt freshman Jake Phillips.

Tight ends are often thought of as a young quarterback’s best friend, a theory that could be put to the test if Sherry gets the starting nod.

Will sophomores avoid slumps?

Nearly half of the spring two-deep offensive and defensive rosters (10) are sophomores, many of whom were thrust into prominent roles as freshmen last year.

Ideally, that experience will make them better this time around, though that’s certainly no guarantee. Older doesn’t mean wiser unless the requisite work is put in to get to that level.

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck is confident the kids are doing that work. He’s seen it firsthand this summer as a large contingent of the team spent many hot hours out on the practice fields.

A couple of regressions or players staying at their previous level is to be expected, but the Rebels need big improvements from some of these sophomores if they’re going to get better as a team this year.

A lot of the sophomores took a redshirt, which means they were Hauck’s first recruiting class and are entering their third year in his system. It would instill a lot of confidence to see progression from the guys Hauck first brought into the program.

Will academics hold anyone back?

Losing a player to injury is second only to losing somebody to academic ineligibility on the frustration scale. With an on-field injury, at least it was in the midst of competition. With academics, a player loses time, maybe even an entire season, because of something that was entirely within their control.

Last year, the Rebels had to go without dynamic kick returner/receiver Marcus Sullivan and safety Dre Crawford because they were academically ineligible. Both players returned in spring and are expected to qualify this fall.

However, it’s inevitable that somebody else will have some issues taking care of their classes. The goal for UNLV is to keep that number at a minimum and help the student-athletes complete as much of their requisite coursework as possible.

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

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