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How Tony Sanchez built one of the best UNLV recruiting classes of all time

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez runs onto the field with his players as they take on Boise State on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The Rebel Room

Football in February

The basketball Rebels have Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer bummed out, so after getting into their latest issues, Sun reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern help Brewer delve into football coach Tony Sanchez's impressive recruiting class.

It was moments after the UNLV football team’s most humbling loss of last season. The Rebels ran out of quality players and were trounced in late November by 38 points against Mountain West champion San Diego State.

Players and coaches were slowly filing out of the locker room, still trying to digest the loss, when coach Tony Sanchez delivered a message to a few of his assistants: “Keep recruiting. Keep recruiting,” he enthusiastically said.

They apparently never stopped. Despite finishing with a 3-9 record and losing six of their final seven games, they kept getting interest from quality players.

Today, on national signing day, the Rebels will have arguably their best recruiting class of all time, adding more than 20 players in a haul Rivals.com ranks as the second-best in the Mountain West behind league power Boise State. With 10 three-star recruits, UNLV’s class ranks 63rd nationally.

It’s the most three-star commits since eight recruits, including eventual key contributors Caleb Herring, BJ Bell and Bradley Randle, signed in 2009. It equals the number of three-star signees in the past three years combined — Sanchez, just six weeks on the job, signed five in 2015; former coach Bobby Hauck signed two in 2013 and three in 2014.

“They filled a ton of needs,” said Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for FOX/Scout.com. “This is the best class they’ve had in … I can’t tell you how long. It’s been a while.”

There were just 14,738 people at Sam Boyd Stadium for the San Diego State game and many left early. But in the crowd, just like each home game, were about 15 recruits, those players Sanchez needs to overhaul the roster and provide much-needed depth.

Regardless of the outcome of one game, whether it was beating UNR in the Fremont Cannon game or the defeats to close the season, Sanchez was well aware recruiting doesn’t stop. He never slowed and he made sure assistants followed suit.

“As soon as I met coach Sanchez I knew he was a good coach,” said Dave Tate Jr., a three-star linebacker from Fresno, Calif, who picked UNLV over Colorado, Colorado State, Fresno State and Utah State. “He’s got all of that energy. He’s building something special.”

A different culture

It’s a few minutes after classes end at Bishop Gorman High when Jaron Caldwell’s phone rings. On the other line is UNLV offensive line coach John Garrison.

Caldwell, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound offensive tackle, is one of the prized recruits of the class. UNLV lacked size on the line and there’s a chance Caldwell, one of three locals expected to sign, could contribute early in his career.

Two weeks before signing day, and with college coaches nationwide jockeying for players, Garrison was doing his due diligence in tracking Rebel prospects. He’s always in contact, Caldwell says.

“That’s my guy,” Caldwell said. “He used to coach at Nebraska and that’s a factory for NFL linemen.”

When Caldwell and Gorman teammate Julio Garcia II committed within hours of each other last February, some 11 months before signing day, it came as a bit of surprise. While early commits are commonplace nationally, it rarely happens at UNLV — fans on social media were stumped trying to determine the last time the Rebels secured an early commit.

But Sanchez didn’t stop.

He has offered numerous high school juniors and sophomores, especially locals, and hosted multiple recruits during spring practice. He’s used the “New Era” rallying cry to sell prospects on his version of UNLV football — everything from plans to construct a training facility on campus, new uniforms and eventually winning games.

“Coach Sanchez talked to me about how UNLV is on the rise and how it is a new era,” Tate said. “I want to be part of that. It just felt right.”

He’s the future

Of all the positions UNLV struggled at last season, none were more troublesome than at quarterback. Starter Blake Decker battled injuries all season and backup Kurt Palandech struggled throwing the ball, especially down field.

The lack of depth likely cost the Rebels a few wins, and arguably a bowl berth.

Not only did UNLV get its quarterback for next season in junior college transfer Johnny Stanton, a former four-star recruit who was previously at Nebraska, the Rebels got their quarterback of the future in Armani Rogers of California. Rogers, a dual-three quarterback rated as California’s No. 44 overall prospect by ESPN.com, was originally committed to Cal and had scholarship offers from five Pac-12 schools.

Yet, he picked UNLV.

“They got the quarterback they wanted,” Biggins said. “That’s big. The guy can really, really play.”

The 6-foot-5 Rogers, a three-star recruit by Rivals and four-star by ESPN, passed for 18 touchdowns with just one interception last fall in completing 64 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 431 yards and six touchdowns on 71 attempts.

Today, he’ll become the highest-profile UNLV recruit since quarterback Jason Thomas, who in 2000 led the Rebels to one of their three all-time bowl victories.

Winning recruiting battles against league foes

Monday night, about 36 hours before signing day, defensive tackle Toa Iafeta flipped his commitment from Wyoming of the Mountain West to the Rebels. Others, such as Tate who canceled a visit to Utah State after committing the week prior to UNLV, have also agreed to sign with the Rebels over more-established programs in the league.

Iafeta posted a message on Twitter announcing his pledge with a rendering of a billboard on the Las Vegas Strip featuring his photo and reference to one of Sanchez’s catch-phrases, “The New Era has arrived.”

The Rebels beat Colorado State, Fresno State, UNR, New Mexico and Wyoming for the three-star recruit Leveel Tatum of Fresno. Rogers picked UNLV over Fresno State, where he visited the weekend after his UNLV trip. Wide receiver Mekhi Stevenson of La Mesa, Calif., was originally committed to San Jose before decommitting and eventually picking UNLV over Colorado State and Utah State.

Donovan Outlaw of Coronado was minutes away from the airport on the way to a camp at in-state rival UNR this summer when he saw a billboard promoting UNLV and canceled his trip. A few hours later, he committed to the Rebels.

“They have been aggressive and relentless,” Biggins said. “At USC or UCLA, you can get away with being lazy in recruiting. At UNLV, you have to outwork people, and from what I see from Tony’s staff, those guys are grinders.”

More players

UNLV in mid-December signed a program-record nine junior college transfers, beefing up its roster with players expected to be contributors in the fall. Each is enrolled and will take part in spring practice.

“It may not always be like this (signing nine midyears), but right now there were some immediate needs,” Sanchez said in a December statement. “We were close in so many games, which showed that we’re not that far away, so these guys will come in and give us immediate help in getting over the hump.”

Intent letters from 14 high school players are expected today, bringing the class to 23 — slightly high considering schools have 85 scholarships at their disposal.

The class, if verbal commitments are fulfilled, will include five offensive linemen to address one of the program’s biggest weaknesses. Last season’s makeshift line averaged less than 300 pounds, which was smaller than the line Sanchez had in 2014 when he coached Bishop Gorman to the mythical national high school championship.

They also expect to sign a pair of offensive standouts Stevenson and running back Charles Williams from Fresno. Williams rushed for 2,039 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015, and as a junior won track’s 200 (21.55 seconds) at the section meet. Stevenson had 36 catches for 775 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall.

“It’s a rebuilding process. We are going to attack it as a family,” Williams said in December. “We are going to do some big things and make some noise in Las Vegas.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21

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