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Spring practice giving Rebels chance to tighten passing game

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV Rebels quarterback Armani Rogers (1) stands in the pocket eyeing his next target versus San Jose during their game at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday, September 30, 2017. .

UNLV fielded an explosive offense in 2017, with big plays in the passing game and running game propelling the Rebels to an average of 28.8 points per game. But it was not always a consistent offense.

While quarterback Armani Rogers proved he could make the highlight throws down the field as a freshman, there were times when the Rebels would have been better served by moving the chains. For the season, UNLV converted on 40.9 percent of its third-down opportunities. Rogers completed 52.4 percent of his passes, which ranked 11th in the 11-team Mountain West. He ranked ninth in passer rating (122.9).

As Rogers enters his second season as the starting quarterback, the UNLV coaching staff is using spring practice to refine his passing and help him realize the value of high-percentage passes.

Offensive coordinator Barney Cotton said having a returning incumbent quarterback in spring camp — a first for the Rebels under Sanchez — will allow the coaching staff to focus on nuances like passing efficiency.

"One of the big points of emphasis this spring is we'd like to be a little bit more accurate throwing the football," Cotton said. "We're really trying to spend a lot of time on the passing game … We've got to become more accurate and do a better job on third down."

One way to increase Rogers' completion percentage could be to design more "safe" throws into the game plan. That could include short passes and throws to the running backs, with the goal being to get the ball in the hands of playmakers and letting them pick up yards after the catch.

Throwing to targets out of the backfield has not been a major factor in the Rebels offense under Sanchez and Cotton. Last year, running back Lexington Thomas caught just eight passes in 12 games. No other back caught a ball all season.

Thomas, a senior who ran for 1,336 yards last year, said developing his receiving skills is his "No. 1 offseason goal." And while the shifty running back caught just eight passes last year, they went for a whopping 143 yards (17.9 yards per catch).

Cotton would like to see Rogers and Thomas hook up in the passing game over the remaining spring practices.

"That's also been a point of emphasis," Cotton said. "We'd like to get the ball into [Thomas'] hands and some of the other backs in space and see if they can make somebody miss and get him in some one-on-one situations out there."

If shorter passes end up raising Rogers' completion percentage while still producing big plays, the UNLV coaches are all for it. As is Thomas, who couldn't contain a smile at the thought of being targeted more in the passing game.

"If they start throwing me the ball," he said, "some amazing stuff is going to happen."

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

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