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Heading into fourth season, Sanchez believes Rebels on verge of breakthrough

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Steve Marcus

UNLV head football coach Tony Sanchez speaks with reporters during the Mountain West Media Day at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas Wednesday, July 25, 2018.

Mountain West Media Day

UNLV running back Lexington Thomas, left, and defensive end Jameer Outsey speak with reporters during the Mountain West Media Day at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas Wednesday, July 25, 2018. Launch slideshow »

Tony Sanchez is never short on energy.

The 44-year-old is heading into his fourth year as head coach at UNLV, and while the task of improving the Rebels from two wins to five wins during that span may not seem monumental, those who understand the history of the program realize what a stamina-sapping accomplishment it is.

So it was probably a good sign that Sanchez was still his normal, upbeat self at the Mountain West media summit on Wednesday, preaching his usual optimistic view of the Rebels’ chances for 2018.

That’s not to say Sanchez is impervious to being worn down.

“There are some days I’m going, ‘How long have I been here?’” Sanchez said, laughing, during his meeting with the media at the Cosmopolitan. “And there are other days where it feels like a flash. It’s a grind. It’s a good grind though. I knew coming in there were going to be some hurdles and things we had to overcome, and you sit back and look and there’s a reason that UNLV struggled for a long, long time. It’s a daily fight. It’s daily, get up and fight and grind. There’s always something to do.”

Sanchez believes four years of hard work may be about to pay off in a big way. After going 5-7 last year and missing out on a bowl berth due to a last-minute loss to UNR in the final game of the season, the Rebels are poised to break through with a winning season (and a postseason appearance) behind one of the conference’s most powerful offenses.

Senior running back Lexington Thomas was voted to the preseason All-Mountain West team, while sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers is widely viewed as a star-in-waiting due to his big arm and explosive rushing ability.

Thomas rushed for 1,336 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, while Rogers passed for 1,471 yards and ran for 780 yards in 10 games. With those two driving the offense, UNLV scored 28.8 points per game and racked up 230.7 rushing yards per contest (19th in the nation).

Sanchez knows that returning such offensive firepower has raised the bar for the Rebels and that a bowl berth should be a reasonable goal.

“You feel the buzz around here,” Sanchez said. “People recognize we’ve gotten better and we’ve got a talented roster coming back and there’s high expectations.”

While the offense is postseason-caliber, the defense will enter training camp with everything to prove. The Rebels were terrible on that side of the ball in 2017, allowing 6.3 yards per play (111th out of 130 teams). That performance cost defensive coordinator Kent Baer his job, and Sanchez brought in former Florida assistant Tim Skipper to lead the defense this year.

Will that be enough to turn UNLV into a winning team in 2018? Sanchez is optimistic, of course.

“Defensively, obviously we’ve had a lot of issues on that side of the ball,” Sanchez said. “We’ve made some changes. I think Tim has added really good energy and done a really good job of getting these guys going. And we’ve got a lot of returners, seven guys coming back with extensive playing time…There’s a lot of guys that put us in position to be different on that side of the ball.”

It wouldn’t take a ton of defensive improvement to make a difference in the Rebels’ win total. UNLV lost three games by seven points or less last year, including that crushing, season-ending 23-16 loss at UNR.

Sanchez lamented those defeats as missed opportunities and said the 2018 Rebels will have to figure out how to win those critical battles if they want to achieve their bowl goal.

“We did some really good things and did some things that just kind of got in our way of coming over that hump,” Sanchez said. “But [the players] know how close we are. They know all the strides we’ve made and all the progress we’ve made in the program. I tell you what, they feed off that stuff. They’re a great group and they’re ready to roll.”

Thomas was part of Sanchez’s initial recruiting class, and the Houston native has been at UNLV for the length of Sanchez’s tenure. Thomas said that while Sanchez has evolved as a coach, he’s still got the same energy he brought to their first practice four years ago.

“He’s still the same coach from my freshman year, the same guy that’s going to get on you for the little things,” Thomas said. “He’s an energy guy that’s going to make sure, energy-wise, everything’s going good with the team. He’s a very good coach.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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