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Analysis: What can the Rebels expect from Max Gilliam?

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Steve Marcus

Quarterback Max Gilliam carries the ball during the UNLV Rebels Spring Showcase at UNLV Saturday, April 14, 2018.

Sophomore quarterback Max Gilliam is going to play a huge role in whether UNLV qualifies for a bowl game, so it’s fair to say the success of the season now rests largely on a junior college transfer who has attempted one career pass at the Division-I level.

Before Gilliam takes the field for his first start on Saturday against New Mexico, I went back and watched three full games from his time at Saddleback College in 2017. For the season, Gilliam put up pretty good numbers — 101-of-148 passing (69.7 percent), 1,185 yards, 10 touchdowns, seven interceptions — but actually watching the games can help give an indication of how he’ll perform in UNLV’s offense.

The games I reviewed were Gilliam’s three highest-attempt games of the year. He went 63-of-86 (73.3 percent) for 713 yards with three touchdown passes and three interceptions, and he ran for a TD. Going beyond the surface statistics, however, Gilliam looked capable of quarterbacking a Division I team — under the right circumstances.

Gilliam has a different style of play than Armani Rogers. That becomes obvious very quickly. But it doesn’t necessarily mean UNLV will have to change its offense entirely.

The biggest thing Rogers brought to the table was his ability to dominate in the running game. He’s 6-foot-5, built like a tank and fast enough to outrun defensive backs; Gilliam is 6-foot-3, built like a regular football player and just fast enough. So the Rebels’ running game will look a little different with Gilliam at the controls.

At Saddleback, Gilliam did carry the ball on some designed runs, and he acquitted himself nicely. He’s not as explosive as Rogers, but he reads his blocks well, and he’s athletic enough to get the edge and turn the corner on slower defensive linemen:

Max Gilliam designed runs

Division I defenders might be fast enough to take away Gilliam’s angles on the outside and turn some of those 12-yard gains for Saddleback into 5-yard gains on Saturday, and he likely won’t break away for long, open-field runs. But if UNLV wants to continue calling zone-read plays and QB sweeps, Gilliam can execute those plays and gain yards.

While no one can replace Rogers’ running ability, Gilliam has a good chance to upgrade the Rebels’ passing game — if he is managed carefully.

Gilliam threw the ball at Saddleback, but it was a very controlled passing attack. Of his 86 attempts in the three games I watched, 17 were wide receiver screens and 26 were swings/screens to the running back. So exactly half of his throws were safe, easy completions at or behind the line of scrimmage. UNLV didn’t run many quick screens with Rogers, but the Rebels could add a little of that into this week’s game plan to help Gilliam get comfortable:

Max Gilliam screens

Gilliam’s best attribute as a passer is his feel for the position. He doesn’t have the sheer arm strength of Rogers, but he has good accuracy and timing, and that mostly makes up for what I would consider to be a weak arm.

His ball placement on drags, slants and in-breaking routes allows receivers to catch the ball in stride and run after the catch, which is something the Rebels weren’t getting with Rogers at QB:

Max Gilliam ball placement

Receivers like Brandon Presley and Tyleek Collins could benefit from those types of throws, as they’re two of the Rebels’ better runners after the catch.

Gilliam has to be super accurate and make all his throws on time because of his limited arm strength. When he makes late throws over the middle, the ball tends to stay in the air for a long time, allowing defenders to converge. Even on some of Gilliam’s pre-set throws to the outside, the ball loops and hangs in the air, allowing defensive backs to jump in front of receivers aggressively:

Max Gilliam arm strength

When Gilliam lobs the ball to the outside with low velocity, Rebels’ fans will be holding their breath until the pass is out of danger.

Despite the soft-tossing, Gilliam throws a good deep ball. UNLV has struggled to beat defenses over the top this season, but Gilliam did it regularly at Saddleback, putting arc on his throws and leading receivers perfectly for several touchdowns:

Max Gilliam deep ball

Gilliam can’t launch the ball 60 yards down the field like Rogers, but he compensates by letting go of the ball earlier and giving his receivers a chance to run under it. It wouldn’t be shocking to see UNLV take a deep shot against New Mexico, and maybe even early in the game if the coaches feel like Gilliam has a hot hand.

As covered above, Gilliam is capable but not explosive when asked to carry the ball. But he is a good athlete, and that translates to him being pretty elusive in the pocket. Saddleback’s offensive line didn’t help him out very much, and he was under pressure on a lot of his dropbacks. But his mobility allowed him to escape consistently and save the team from lost yardage on sacks:

Max Gilliam escaping pressure

Another big difference between Gilliam and Rogers is evident when Gilliam gets outside the pocket. While Rogers pulls the ball down and takes off, Gilliam scrambles while keeping his eyes downfield for passing opportunities. And he can make those throws on the move:

Max Gilliam throwing on the move

If no receivers were able to uncover downfield for a big play, then Gilliam would pull it down and run. But when extending plays, Gilliam’s preference is to hit the long gainer.

Gilliam was not a true pocket passer last year. At Saddleback, he ran a ton of designed quick screens. On true dropbacks, he usually made one read downfield, and if the receiver wasn’t open, Gilliam would look to escape the pocket and extend the play with a downfield throw. If that wasn’t available, he would run. That’s not so dissimilar to what UNLV was doing with Rogers at QB, though the two have major differences in arm strength, accuracy, speed, power and feel for the game.

Can UNLV win with Gilliam? He certainly seems to think so, and he might be right. Gilliam isn’t perfect — he doesn’t have the arm to stand in the pocket and rifle the ball all over the field — but he’s smart, he can place the ball in a way that allows his receivers to make plays, and he may even surprise once in a while with a big play outside the pocket.

And of course, quarterback play is secondary for the Rebels, who still have senior running back Lexington Thomas to lead one of the best rushing attacks in the nation. If the UNLV coaches protect Gilliam and don’t ask him to stretch his arm with line-drive throws into the teeth of the defense, the Rebels should be able to move the ball consistently enough to keep the season alive for the next six weeks.

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

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