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Gabe McCoy enjoying breakout season for rebuilt Rebels defense

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Steve Marcus

UNLV’s Gabe McCoy (25) sacks UTEP quarterback Kai Locksley during a game at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

Gabe McCoy doesn’t look like a typical linebacker. Measuring in at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, the junior from California is the Rebels’ lightest player at the position, but that hasn’t stopped him from emerging as one of the team’s most productive defenders.

Through three games, McCoy has already accumulated 6.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks, and his havoc-inducing ability to get into the opponent’s backfield has elevated the entire defense. Last year, UNLV notched 11.0 sacks and allowed 31.8 points per game; this season, the Rebels already have 8.0 sacks and are allowing 28.0 points.

At Monday’s weekly press conference, head coach Tony Sanchez attributed a lot of the improvement to new defensive coordinator Tim Skipper, who has brought a more aggressive approach to that side of the ball. But Sanchez was also sure to parcel out praise to the players themselves for improving within that scheme.

McCoy is at the front of that line. He was OK as a sophomore in 2017, totaling 56 solo tackles, but the splash plays were lacking — he recorded just 3.0 tackles for loss and zero sacks. Under Skipper’s tutelage, McCoy is being asked to be more of a playmaker. He is lining up closer to the line of scrimmage on a regular basis, and on certain plays he is tasked only with getting into the backfield and using his athleticism to make something happen.

McCoy is happy with his new job description.

“Just be a playmaker,” McCoy said. “That’s my main job. They put me in the right situations and my job is to make the plays for the team ... Sometimes I’m on the line bringing pressure, sometimes I’m at linebacker. Just a lot of different areas, being versatile.”

He showed that playmaking ability against Prairie View A&M, racing into the backfield to blow up a first-quarter running play in UNLV’s 46-17 win:

Gabe McCoy vs. Prairie View A&M

Plays like that were sorely lacking last year, when UNLV’s leader in tackles for loss was defensive tackle Mike Hughes with 7.0. McCoy has nearly matched that number already, and he is showing no signs of slowing down.

“I love being in the backfield,” McCoy said. “In high school I was in the backfield a lot, playing D-end. I’m comfortable [in that role].”

McCoy will be a key player on Saturday, when the Rebels travel to Arkansas State for their final non-conference game. The Red Wolves run a pass-heavy spread offense, so putting pressure on senior quarterback Justice Hansen (58.1 percent, 754 yards, seven touchdowns, two interceptions) will be a priority.

Arkansas State has protected Hansen well, allowing just 5.0 sacks on 128 dropbacks. For comparison, the UNLV pass rush has produced 8.0 sacks on 110 dropbacks.

If McCoy can continue his breakout season with a big game at Arkansas State, UNLV will have a good chance of winning despite going in as a 7.5-point underdog.

McCoy believes the team-wide defensive improvement is for real.

“I think that has a lot to do with coach Skip,” McCoy said. “He’s been real aggressive this year. Last year we got a little conservative, but now we’re going to go get you. We’re going to come after you.”

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

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