Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017 | 2 a.m.
In October of last season, the UNLV football team traveled to Fresno State and picked up a 45-20 win, one of four victories the Rebels would compile on the year. But even in triumph, the team’s Achilles heel was ominously present: though Fresno State quarterback Virgil Chason completed just 16-of-45 passes (35.6 percent), three of his connections were deep balls that went for 52, 38 and 80 yards.
UNLV cornerback Tim Hough remembers his role in those defensive breakdowns vividly. On one second-quarter play, a receiver ran past him on a deep corner route and reeled in a 52-yard bomb.
“That was on me,” Hough said. “It was a deep ball when I pressed [at the line of scrimmage] and should have been playing off. But that was another example of me not being prepared, because they ran that play about four times.”
The Rebels have made defending the deep ball their No. 1 priority heading into the 2017 season, and Hough is taking the challenge head-on. The junior was recently elevated to No. 1 on the cornerback depth chart in the wake of Darius Mouton’s offseason dismissal, and Hough is determined to eliminate the big-yardage completions that plagued UNLV last year.
If Hough had recognized the play that Fresno State was running, he may have been in better position to stop it. Miscues like that have sent the 5-foot-10 Las Vegas native to the film room throughout the offseason in hopes of improving his understanding of the game and the way offenses are trying to attack him.
Though Hough fulfilled his obligations when it came to watching game tape in the past, he’s taking it more seriously now and believes he’s truly learning how to be a better defender.
“I was a film guy, I just didn’t understand,” Hough said. “Learning how to watch film on your own is really time [consuming]. I used to go in and watch film, but I would just end up watching myself and what I did. But when I go in now, I’m looking at formations, I’m looking at everything on the offense instead of just paying attention to myself.”
Hough said cornerbacks coach David Lockwood approached him over the offseason and helped him understand the intricacies of watching film.
“Me, I was the type of guy who came into practice and didn’t really watch the whole film,” Hough said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s my teammates, what do I need to watch film for?’ And now, watching film on my teammates makes me realize that everybody runs the same plays, and that’s how you prepare. So it’s getting me prepared. Ever since then, film has been my best friend.”
If Hough can take a step forward in the No. 1 role, it will go a long way toward solidifying the Rebels’ secondary. He started three games last year and finished with 28 tackles, but making the jump from nickel back to full-time No. 1 corner will not be easy. Hough will be challenged by the best wide receivers in the Mountain West on a weekly basis, and opponents will take their deep shots.
Head coach Tony Sanchez believes Hough has the attitude to perform under that kind of pressure.
“He’s tough,” Sanchez said. “First of all, he loves Las Vegas. He’s a great ambassador for our city and he just brings a sense of toughness. He’s one of those horses you’ve got to say, “Woah” all the time, because he’s always talking and fired up. So when you get him calmed down and he plays within himself, he does a pretty good job.”
That willingness to scrap with receivers (and sometimes teammates) is something Hough takes pride in, and he’s hoping it spreads to his fellow defensive backs.
“It just comes from growing up in a scrappy environment,” Hough said. “I never went to a school that didn’t have fights all the time. Even on my teams, we used to fight all the time. Even us, here [at UNLV], we’re going to fight it out. When we do one-on-ones in the offseason, we fight. We might go home mad at each other, but the next day we’re friends. Me, Kendal Keys, Devante Boyd, Darren Woods, we fit into that fight. Jericho [Flowers] and Robert [Jackson], they’re going to fight. When we do three-on-three, we’re fighting all day. We’re going to battle. I’m more of the rowdy one, so I get them started. They’ll just be doing regular one-on-one, and I’m talking mess, because I’m trying to get them riled up so we can get better.”
Hough said the Rebels don’t have a team-wide philosophy when it comes to defending the deep ball. Defensive backs are given the freedom to turn their heads to try to track the throw in the air if they feel like they can make a play on the ball, and if they’re trailing a receiver they may have to face-guard and try to break up the pass when it hits the receiver’s hands.
Hough says the coaching directive on deep balls is to “just play ball and make plays,” and he enjoys having the freedom and the responsibility of being on that island. But there will be a lot of pressure on the secondary to come through this season — Hough, Flowers, Jackson and the rest of the defensive backs may decide whether UNLV qualifies for a bowl game or slogs through another sub-.500 campaign.
Hough thinks he and his fellow corners are ready to elevate their play.
“I feel that you have to be a leader on and off the field and help the younger guys, because we’re only as good as our weakest link,” he said. “We’re all out here competing. I feel Rob can be a No. 1 [cornerback], Jericho can be a No. 1, Ty’Jason [Roberts] can be a No. 1. The only way for me to get better is them pushing me, and the only way for them to get better is me pushing them.
“We’ve got a lot of dogs in the secondary,” he continued. “They don’t really need me to hype them up. They just haven’t come out of their shell yet, but when they come out of their shell we’re going to be something special.”