Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018 | 2 a.m.
For the first three years of his tenure, Tony Sanchez had it easy when it came to the left tackle position. He could sit back, pencil in Kyle Saxelid as the starter at the beginning of every training camp, and rest assured knowing Saxelid would provide rock-solid blocking at the most important position on the offensive line.
That luxury no longer exists. Saxelid graduated after the 2017 season, and for the first time as head coach at UNLV, Sanchez doesn’t quite know what to expect at left tackle.
For a team that anticipates fielding a top-20 rushing attack for the third straight year, figuring out that position is a top priority.
“It’s tough losing a guy like Kyle, but the great thing is we’ve recruited to that problem,” Sanchez said after Monday’s practice. “We have a lot of guys that can play that spot. We’ve got guards that we can kick back out. There’s just a lot more depth, a lot more pieces that we can move around.”
For now, sophomore Donovan Outlaw is listed as the starter. The Coronado product sat out the 2016 season as a redshirt, then played in four games last year as a freshman. At 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, he brings more athleticism to the position than Saxelid, but what Sanchez really wants out of Outlaw is something approaching Saxelid’s reliability.
“He’s just got to show more consistency,” Sanchez said. “He’s a very talented guy. He’s probably the most athletic guy of the bunch. But at that spot, it’s bringing it every day, it’s being mentally [tough], being physical, committing to it, and just taking no plays off. At times we’ve seen him do a little bit of this roller coaster. He’s getting better at it. He’s growing up, he’s becoming more mature.”
The idea of a faster, more dynamic left tackle has to be tantalizing for Sanchez and offensive coordinator Barney Cotton, as any play that has Outlaw leading the way for running back Lexington Thomas or quarterback Armani Rogers is bound to gain yards.
Outlaw thinks his mobility is his best attribute, but he said the offensive coaches want a left tackle who can win individual battles in the trenches.
“They want the left tackle to be able to hold their ground,” Outlaw said. “If there’s a 1-on-1 interaction, you’ve got to be able to hold your ground and block the guy in front of you. Left tackle, being the blind spot, Armani’s a right-handed quarterback, so it’s an important position. At left tackle you’ve got to be a solid player.”
Sanchez said junior Jaron Caldwell is pushing Outlaw for the No. 1 job at left tackle. Caldwell offers a bigger option at 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, and he’s got more game experience after starting eight games at guard in 2017.
Outlaw said he doesn’t expect to win the starting position early in camp and that he’s ready to compete for the next four weeks in order to claim the job.
“You’ve got to want it,” Outlaw said. “There’s other good players behind me right now and I know they’re trying to get the starting spot too, so it’s just dedication and commitment. You’ve got to grind … If I’m going to get the spot, I’ve got to earn it. I’m not going to get it handed to me. It depends on how hard I work. If I work hard, I get the spot.”
For the first time in three years, the Rebels are searching for consistency at left tackle, and whichever candidate is steadier over the course of training camp will likely win out.
In Sanchez’s view, Outlaw is talented enough to serve as the cornerstone of the offensive line — if he performs to his ability level on every play.
“If he’s more consistent in his approach to everything, I think he can be a really good player,” Sanchez said.