Friday, April 20, 2018 | 2 a.m.
How a team looks in spring football is not always an accurate predictor of the following season. There are too many variables — the practices take place five months before the real games begin, the concepts tend to be more basic, and, especially in UNLV’s case, a team’s full roster is not always available in the spring.
So drawing hard conclusions from spring practice has its drawbacks. But there are still worthwhile observations to be made after watching UNLV on the field for the past four weeks, including Saturday’s spring game.
Armani’s next step
Any assessment of UNLV football for the next three years will begin with quarterback Armani Rogers, and this spring was no different. The sophomore appeared to be in command of the offense, and most importantly for his long-term development, his accuracy took a step forward.
After completing just 52.4 percent of his passes as a freshman, UNLV’s internal numbers tracked Rogers at 68 percent in live scrimmage action during the spring.
That may be the single most encouraging sign as the Rebels head into the offseason.
“I thought we really evolved Armani’s game,” Sanchez said. “If you watch his evolution, his level of comfort, he looks really good. We all know he gains his confidence from being an athlete and running the ball and making big plays, but you don’t really have an opportunity to do that in the spring. So for him to be as successful as he was, to have the completion percentage, 68 percent, and he only threw one pick the entire spring, for him to do that and not be the guy that’s making the plays with his feet, that’s a good sign.”
If one were to judge the Rebels’ skill positions solely from the spring game, the picture would be skewed. Not only was senior big-play receiver Kendal Keys out with an injury, but running backs Lexington Thomas (senior) and Charles Williams (sophomore) were kept under wraps to preserve their bodies.
Even without those key performers, Sanchez still liked the players on the field. Though some catchable passes were dropped in the spring game, junior wide receiver Brandon Presley is poised to step into the No. 1 role, and sophomore receiver Drew Tejchman had a breakout spring. And third-string running back Xzaviar Campbell broke a pair of long runs.
The supporting cast is important for a young QB’s development, and when the Rebels’ skill guys are healthy, Rogers should have plenty of weapons at his disposal.
Sanchez brought in new defensive coordinator Tim Skipper this season in hopes of installing a more aggressive, attacking mindset on that side of the ball. And though Skipper didn’t bring any all-out blitzes during the spring game — Sanchez said there were only two defensive play calls during the entire game, with the rest being vanilla coverages — the groundwork was laid during the four weeks of practice.
“When we did team passing and things like that, he really let it fly,” Sanchez said. “By the time we got into the third week of spring, they were giving our O-line fits. They were coming and bringing all kinds of [pressure].”
For a team that only recorded only 11 sacks registered a sack rate (3.3 percent) that ranked 123rd out of 130 Division I teams, any kind of pressure on the QB — even in spring practice — is music to the ears.
If the Rebels want to turn up the pressure on opposing offenses, they’ll need defensive playmakers to force the issue. Those types of players have been lacking on recent UNLV rosters, but Sanchez thinks a few candidates emerged during the spring, naming junior linebacker Javin White, junior defensive end Nick Dehdashtian and senior linebacker Gabe McCoy as players who could specialize in splash plays this season.
White, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder, is a linebacker in name only, and more practically will serve as a hybrid DB/LB/slot defender who should be able to help the Rebels match up better against fast, spread offenses.
Though White missed the spring game with a. hand injury, Sanchez said he solidified himself as a key cog on the new-look defense during the spring.
“He’s the kind of ‘backer where he was a safety, now he’s in the box,” Sanchez said. “Having him have the ability to not have to change personnel, [we can] leave him on the field and have him go over and cover a slot [receiver]. He can do that. He’s a physical guy, plays well with his hands. That was really good to see.”
The one area where UNLV has never struggled under Sanchez is the offensive line, and while the 2018 crew will have a different look, it should be just as effective as past units.
Right guard Justin Polu and right tackle Nathan Jacobson are known quantities, and junior center Sid Acosta was slated to be the starter last season before a knee injury sidelined him for the year. Senior Zack Singer started in Acosta’s place, and after a solid spring, Singer is now penciled in as the co-No. 1 left guard along with experienced junior Jaron Caldwell.
The big change comes at left tackle, where longtime stalwart Kyle Saxelid has graduated. Perhaps the biggest surprise of spring came when Sanchez placed sophomore Donovan Outlaw atop the depth chart at left tackle following the spring game.
At 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, Outlaw has all the physical tools to be a standout blindside protector. Sanchez hopes he’ll live up to that potential.
“This guy, we have so much belief in his ability,” Sanchez said. “He’s got to become an elite competitor and an elite worker every single day. He’s by far the most talented offensive lineman we have and it’s not even close, but he hasn’t been the most focused and intense guy about his gifts. He is good. His feet, his size, his athleticism, it’s elite. He’s really, really good. And by the end of spring he showed he could be our starting left tackle.”