Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 | 4:11 p.m.
UNLV came so close to making a bowl game this season that it’s easy to see one more strong recruiting class pushing the football program across the finish line in 2018 and in future years.
On Wednesday, the team announced its early 2018 class, and coach Tony Sanchez expressed optimism that the group includes several future difference-makers.
“We’re excited about [the class],” Sanchez said. “We’re now working on year four and really building the roster up over the last couple years…It’s a talented group of young men.”
Thirteen players signed letters of intent with UNLV during the early period, with seven offensive players and six defenders making up the group. Sanchez said he expects as many as 12 additional players to sign in the spring, which would give UNLV more than 80 scholarship players for the 2018 season.
The early headliners include a pair of junior college safeties who should be able to step in and contribute right away. Myles Plummer, a cover safety from Coffeyville Community College, and Luca Vartic, a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder originally from Hawaii figure to log a lot of snaps in a defensive backfield that needs upgrading.
Among the true freshmen, defensive tackle Chris Manoa may be the most promising incoming recruit. The 6-foot, 325-pound Arizona native could contribute as a first-year player and eventually be a long-term replacement for the Rebels’ top defender in 2017, graduating senior Mike Hughes.
Manoa is a three-star prospect who earned all-state honors as a senior after posting 56 tackles and 12 sacks.
“Chris is a big, physical guy,” Sanchez said. “We’re excited to have him in the program. He is a guy that comes in with a physical presence that will allow him to be able to play from Day 1.”
Incoming freshmen Bryce Jackson and Phillip Hill will add depth to the defensive backfield, while defensive lineman Tim Mosley (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) could be a future pass rusher.
Sanchez said the defensive side of the ball was a priority with this recruiting class.
“Obviously, we felt like we needed to get better there,” Sanchez said. “That’s an area we need to address as coaches and through recruiting and through culture. We have six guys here that we’ve signed, and we’ll have a lot more to sign by the time this recruiting class is done. But this class does have to have an impact on that defensive unit.”
Offensively, local star quarterback Kenyon Oblad is an exciting addition, as the Liberty grad joins UNLV as the state’s all-time leading passer. A redshirt year could be in his future, as the Rebels are locked in with sophomore Armani Rogers as the starting quarterback next season.
Chad Maygar, a powerful, 6-foot-2 running back from Southern California is an explosive ball carrier who may also have to wait a year before getting an opportunity, as UNLV is loaded in the backfield with senior Lexington Thomas and sophomore Charles Williams.
Bay Area native Austin Ajiake is an athlete who excelled at running back, linebacker and safety at Bellarmine Prep (San Jose, Calif.). Sanchez said he’ll get a chance to earn playing time at running back, but that he could end up contributing in a variety of roles.
Wide receiver Patrick Ballard (Houston, Texas) and offensive lineman Bryan Catchings (El Dorado Hills, Calif.) round out the rest of the true freshmen.
UNLV also got a signed letter from junior college quarterback Max Gilliam, who should compete for the No. 2 job in spring practice and fall training camp.
Offensive lineman Keenen King, a Las Vegas native, completes the class, as he’s transferring in from Washington State with three years of eligibility remaining.
Sanchez said there are still some positions the team is recruiting for the spring signing period, including tight end, cornerback, defensive tackle and linebacker.
For now, Sanchez is confident that the 2018 class will make UNLV better right away.
“We’ve got great guys on the roster, and [the incoming recruits] are going to have to compete against them,” Sanchez said, “but we want to see some of these guys push the envelope with them. I think overall, we’re at a point now where we’re competing with some high-level athletes. They’ll come in and they’ll fight to compete every day. And every year there are surprises. I think over the last couple of years, you’ve seen some freshmen that have come in and jumped off the page real fast.”