Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 | 2 a.m.
UNLV is overhauling its defense this season, with a new coordinator installing a new system, but the one place where the Rebels have continuity on that side of the ball is at the linebacker position.
Under new defensive coordinator Tim Skipper, UNLV is expected to play a four-man front with three linebackers at the second level, and there is experience lined up at all three spots. Sophomore Farrell Hester is listed as the starter at middle linebacker after appearing in all 12 games as a freshman, junior Javin White is projected to play strongside linebacker after making the move from safety last year, and junior Gabe McCoy and senior Bailey Laolagi are listed as co-starters at the weakside spot.
Head coach Tony Sanchez believes that group will be well-served by having played together in 2017.
“These guys have played extensively,” Sanchez said after Monday’s practice. “When you’ve played the game and been in those tough situations, you just have a level of confidence when you walk back on the field. Nothing is overwhelming. You’ve played at Ohio State, you’ve played in those big atmospheres, you’ve played in tough games ... So the continuity is good.”
McCoy is the Rebels’ second-leading returning tackler from last season, when he made 80 stops. Laolagi made 62 tackles, while Hester racked up 50 tackles as a true freshman (including a team-high 7.0 tackles for loss). White made 40 stops and distinguished himself as a solid defender in pass coverage, as he intercepted two passes (tied for the team lead) and returned one for a touchdown.
As a unit, the results weren’t impressive in 2017 — UNLV allowed opponents to average 6.3 yards per play, which ranked 111th in the nation — but Hester thinks the linebackers are growing together.
“We all have our own talents and strengths and weaknesses, but we play off each other,” Hester said. “We all flow to fit, we work off each other’s strengths, and every time we do that we have a great practice and that’s when we’re balling out.”
The Rebels want the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Hester to be a sledgehammer in the middle of the field, while White (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) provides coverage in space and McCoy (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) gives the team some pass-rushing juice. Laolagi (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) is the jack of all trades, and Sanchez often lauds him as the only linebacker capable of playing either of the three positions.
With that core group having so much experience playing together, the hope is that the total will be more than the sum of the parts.
“Playing [together] last year and getting the experience helps a lot with this season,” Hester said. “We have four guys coming back. Me, Bailey, Gabe and J-White, we all played a lot last season, so it’s going to help contribute to our defense.”