Gary Kazanjian / Assocaited Press
Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The UNLV football team has spent much of the week discussing the importance of making USC quarterback J.T. Daniels “uncomfortable” in his first college start. Junior linebacker Gabe McCoy said the No. 1 job of the Rebels’ defense will be “sacking him, getting pressure on him, getting hits on him.” Head coach Tony Sanchez said UNLV has to “move him off his spot.”
If the Rebels succeed in doing that, and Daniels is pressured into making difficult throws on the move — throws he has the pure talent to make — the responsibility will then fall on the UNLV secondary to keep USC’s receivers covered downfield.
Junior cornerback Jericho Flowers said the Rebels have been working through scramble drills in practice, anticipating Daniels’ ability to extend plays and his receivers’ ability to get open.
Flowers said the Rebels are approaching Daniels with the same amount of respect they would give to an upperclassman.
“I look at it the same way if he was a freshman or a senior,” Flowers said. “We have to go in there and attack them like we would do normally. I know it’s a true freshman quarterback. I know it’s his first college game ever, but we’re not putting anything past him or his freshman receivers. We’re giving all our respect to them. We’re just going to go out there and play as hard as we can.”
Sanchez admitted that a true freshman at quarterback makes it more difficult to scout the USC offense, but given Daniels’ passing ability and the Trojans’ depth at receiver it’s safe to assume they’ll spread the field at some point on Saturday and test the UNLV secondary through the air.
Sophomore Tyler Vaughns is USC’s top returning target after pulling in 57 passes for 809 yards and five touchdowns last year. The Trojans also bring back 6-foot-4 junior Michael Pittman, who had 404 receiving yards last year. And the receiving corps is adding an explosive talent in freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, a former high-school teammate of Daniels who caught 72 passes for 1,320 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.
St. Brown was a USA Today All-USA first team selection and is expected to immediately step into a big role for one of the top passing offenses in the country. Last year, with Sam Darnold at QB, the Trojans ranked 16th in the nation in passing yards per game (299.0) and 14th in yards per pass attempt (8.5).
Flowers said the Trojans’ receiving depth would make them difficult to cover no matter who is throwing the ball.
“I would say last year Sam Darnold made them dangerous,” Flowers said. “This year we don’t know what to expect with the quarterback, but they have a lot of dangerous receivers. I respect the receivers a lot. All the receivers are good. They have good athletes; they just have good players in general. We have to play with good technique and play as a team.”
Flowers will likely see a lot of matchups against Vaughns and St. Brown, while senior cornerback Jocquez Kalili will handle the other side of the field. Junior Ty’Jason Roberts will serve as the third corner, while safeties Evan Austrie and Dalton Baker will be tested in deep coverage.
UNLV struggled in coverage last year, ranking 92nd in both opposing passer rating (138.8) and opposing yards per pass attempt (7.7).
On paper, it’s a matchup that goes to USC and its collection of 5-star blue-chippers. And Flowers is fine with that perception, as long as he and his Rebels teammates get a chance to prove themselves on the field.
“A lot of people probably think we can’t play with them,” Flowers said. “I like when people think that. I like when people doubt us, because it brings up our drive way more. We need to start how we finish. If we start fast, finish fast, we’re going to give them a run for their money.”