Friday, Aug. 24, 2018 | 2 a.m.
UNLV is going to have a strong running game this season, just like last year (240.2 yards per game, 18th nationally) and the year before that (241.5, 16th nationally). It’s practically a foregone conclusion, with everyone from head coach Tony Sanchez to offensive coordinator Barney Cotton to the running backs and the offensive linemen touting the ground attack.
It’s going to be a strength, and opponents realize it too. That will mean lots of defensive game plans focused on crowding the line of scrimmage and stuffing up the Rebels’ running lanes.
Rather than run into brick walls every Saturday, Sanchez would rather loosen up defenses by putting the fear of the deep ball in the back of their collective mind.
As training camp draws to a close this week and the team transitions into its game-week preparations for the season opener at USC, Sanchez believes the Rebels’ have the ability to make opponents pay for keying on the run. Deep throws were a point of emphasis throughout camp, and though they weren’t connecting often enough early on, Sanchez likes what he is seeing now.
“You saw in that middle portion [of camp] we really struggled with the deep ball a lot,” Sanchez said after Wednesday’s practice. “And then as of late, the last week or so, we’ve been really on the money with the deep ball, from the scrimmage all the way through this week. It’s good to see that timing happen in the back end on those throws that are 15-plus.”
Junior Brandon Presley, the Rebels’ leading returning receiver, said getting open behind the defense is a big part of his job.
“The deep ball is always going to give us an opportunity to score quickly and that’s a positive thing,” Presley said. “It’s also spreading the field and getting the defenders to back up instead of just always biting down and loading the box on us. That’s a key.”
The quick-footed Presley doesn’t fit the mold of a typical deep threat at 6-feet, 180 pounds, but he led UNLV last year by catching nine passes of 25 yards or longer.
Presley said there’s more to hauling in long bombs than being tall and fast.
“At first I came in as just a speed guy,” Presley said. “I was trying to run past everybody. But as I progressed, I’ve learned I need to get in better positions to make catches easier but also get more open and make it easier for my quarterback to get me the ball.
“Speed is obviously a key thing, but technique is all that you really need,” he continued. “If you can get corners’ hips flipped so that they’re not facing the right direction, you’ll be able to run by them. It’s basically all about positioning and getting the right angle and timing with the quarterback.”
Sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers struggled with his deep accuracy last season — he completed 33 percent on passes that traveled 21-to-30 yards in the air, and he connected on just 17 percent of throws that traveled more than 30 yards in the air — but his weapon-grade throwing arm opens up the entirety of the field.
Presley said Rogers’ arm makes it easier to get open downfield.
“It’s great because I can hit DB’s with certain moves, and if I need to I can run outside and not have to worry about Armani not being able to get the ball out there,” he said. “I know that I can beat my defender either way and Armani will have the arm to get it out there.”
In addition to Presley, the Rebels can also target junior Darren Woods and sophomore Drew Tejchman as deep threats. Woods caught five passes of 25 yards or longer last year, while Tejchman caught two.