Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 | 5:15 p.m.
UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez unveiled his fourth recruiting class Wednesday on national signing day.
Having already signed 13 players during the early signing period on Dec. 20, Sanchez announced nine more recruits on Wednesday to bring the total 2018 class to 22.
The Rebels fell just short of a bowl game in 2017, and Sanchez hopes this year’s class takes them over the hill.
“Freshmen are so much more impactful in the game of college football than they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago,” he said. “Guys are coming in and making immediate impacts and playing.”
Look no further than the national championship game on Jan. 8 when Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to freshman receiver DeVonta Smith.
Here’s a look at the class
Defensive line overhaul
UNLV was ranked 122nd in the nation in rushing defense in 2017 by allowing 238.9 yards per game on the ground. The Rebels lost key contributors Mike Hughes Jr., Jason Fao and Mark Finau to graduation, so expect a very different front four in 2018.
To bolster that unit immediately, Sanchez brought in a trio of junior college transfers in Dominion Ezinwa, Montrice Johns and Tavis Malakius.
“We definitely wanted to address that issue,” Sanchez said. “The depth was a little low there and we wanted to create some length. That defensive line is going to be something to be reckoned with.”
Hughes and Fao combined for 91 tackles last season, and the three transfers will likely be asked to help fill that void this season. This class consists of six defensive linemen, so Sanchez hopes his team is much deeper at the position than in years past.
“That’s a position where you play a lot of guys,” Sanchez said. “The way pace of play is nowadays and the way people play you have to roll six or seven guys throughout the course of a game. Sometimes when you’re not as talented you are limited to how many guys you can roll, so you end up getting stuck with four guys the whole time and by the end of the game you have no gas left.”
One freshman who has a chance at breaking into the rotation is Chris Manoa. The three-star prospect earned all-state honors as a senior at Chandler High School in Arizona after posting 56 tackles and 12 sacks.
“He’s a pretty special guy when you watch his film and his physicality,” Sanchez said. “Early on we brought in a lot of guys that were developmental that we had to put weight on to get them strong. This is a guy that comes in already a powerful guy and carries the weight that he needs to have and I expect him to fight to be in that rotation from day one.”
UNLV’s biggest issue on the defensive line last season was rushing the quarterback. The Rebels finished tied for 126th nationally with only 11 sacks.
“We have some good run stoppers but we all know we have to get better at rushing the passer,” Sanchez said. “We put an emphasis on guys that can put their hand in the ground and go and get him.”
UNLV lost senior quarterbacks Johnny Stanton and Kurt Palandech to graduation, returning only first-year starter Armani Rogers and redshirt freshman Marckell Grayson.
And while the plan is clearly to have Rogers entrenched as the starter, Sanchez knows as well as anyone it usually takes more than one quarterback to get through a season.
“We want a culture of competition,” Sanchez said. “We know how talented (Rogers) is and what he’s capable of doing but he will be the first one to tell you, ‘Bring people in that are going to push me and let the best man win.’”
Sanchez added local star Kenyon Oblad, who became Nevada’s all-time leading passer in his four years at Liberty High School, and junior college transfer Max Gilliam, who started his career at Cal.
“When you look at the two guys that we’ve brought in so far they are really good,” Sanchez said. “Oblad is a great player and that was a hard guy to get. When you watch him throw the ball it just spins so naturally off his hand.”
“We wanted someone who had experience at the Division I level,” Sanchez said. “(Gilliam) led (Saddleback College) to a playoff appearance last year so he has college snaps under his belt.”
Playmakers in the secondary
UNLV ranked 102nd nationally with only seven interceptions last season. Sanchez hopes to change that this season with the injection of some speedy playmakers at the cornerback position.
“That’s an area where we’re going to need some young guys step up and be impactful,” Sanchez said. “(It will depend on) the work they put in from now until they show up in the summer, and then the work they put in in the summer and how well they pick things up.”
Bryce Jackson may lead the charge at the position. Sanchez highlighted the two-star prospect from Chandler High School in Arizona as a possible player to make an impact early in his career at UNLV.
Another possibility is local product Octavian Bell, who tallied 52 tackles and two touchdowns as a corner and free safety at Liberty High.
“Had a tremendous career and did a really good job at cornerback,” Sanchez said. “He’s played for a team that has had a lot of success. We’ve gotten a chance to know Octavian over the years and we’re really excited to keep a local guy home. We think he’s going to be a really impactful player and he’s got a big ceiling.”