Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Ray Brewer and Case Keefer look ahead to Saturday's state championship football game between Bishop Gorman and Reed High.
The UNLV football season ended on Saturday with a disappointing loss at UNR, saddling the Rebels with a 5-7 final record and leaving them one win short of qualifying for a bowl game.
Although the Rebels increased their win total for the third straight year under head coach Tony Sanchez, they admittedly fell short of their goal of earning a postseason berth. That will make the 2018 campaign even more critical for the program.
Will UNLV be in position to improve next year? A look at where the Rebels stand heading into the offseason:
What went right in 2017
For the second straight season, UNLV’s rushing attack was among the best in the nation. The Rebels ranked No. 21 in rushing yards per game (230.7) and No. 17 in yards per attempt (5.3), and most of the primary weapons will be back next year. Superstar running back Lexington Thomas (1,336 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 17 touchdowns) will be a senior, quarterback Armani Rogers (780 yards, 5.3 per carry, eight touchdowns) will be a sophomore, and promising speed back Charles Williams will be a sophomore after receiving a medical redshirt this season. And most of the line will return intact. Expect UNLV to be a top-20 caliber rushing team again in 2018.
Armani Rogers wasn’t perfect as a freshman — his accuracy on short and intermediate passes has to improve — but he displayed enough big-play ability with his arm and especially his legs to assure the Rebels that he’s the man going forward. If he can get his completion rate up to 60 percent (it was 52.4 percent this season), Rogers will make UNLV’s offense nearly unstoppable. His late game-winning drive at New Mexico to keep the season alive in Week 11 may have been a sign of things to come.
Sanchez was extremely conservative in his first two years, too often playing not to lose instead of playing to win. But the in-game coaching decisions got better throughout the 2017 season, and by the end of the year Sanchez was handling punt/go-for-it situations and third/fourth down decisions expertly and helping UNLV win games. Losing to a bad UNR team to conclude the season was disappointing, but there is evidence that Sanchez is growing into the job. The Rebels have increased their win total (modestly) in each year under Sanchez, and their 5-7 mark this season has only been topped three times in the program’s last 23 seasons.
What needs improvement
UNLV actually finished a surprising 45th in the nation in generating turnovers, as they forced 1.6 takeaways per game, but even that good fortune couldn’t disguise the fact that the Rebels have few defensive playmakers capable of changing a game. The defense as a whole was slow and struggled to tackle, and it showed in the stats. UNLV finished No. 116 out of 130 teams in rushing yards allowed per attempt (5.5), and the Rebels were No. 123 in sack rate (3.3 percent). Losing senior defensive tackle Mike Hughes to graduation won’t help the situation. Can the coaching staff bring in talent upgrades at enough positions to improve the entire unit next season? Defensive building blocks like cornerback Jericho Flowers (a junior next year), tackle Nick Dehdashtian (junior) and linebacker Farrell Hester (sophomore) could form a decent core, but more talent needs to be added around them in order for UNLV to take a big step forward in terms of win-loss record.
Armani Rogers was a revelation when he tucked the ball and ran, but the passing game was inconsistent when he was asked to operate from the pocket. He looked like a freshman when forced to read defenses, and the difference was noticeable when senior Johnny Stanton took over for three games and had the Rebels’ offense humming and in rhythm. The hope is that Rogers’ natural development as a passer will see him become more effective next season as he gains experience, but the coaching staff would also be wise to tailor the passing playbook to his strengths.