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No change in play-callers, but Rebels vow to return to run game

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Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

UNLV Rebels head coach Tony Sanchez paces the sidelines during their NCAA football game against the Boise State Broncos Saturday, October 5, 2019, at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau)

UNLV’s unsettled situation at quarterback is getting most of the attention for the second week in a row, but it’s probably not going to matter unless running back Charles Williams starts getting the ball more often.

Williams is one of the nation’s top rushers, averaging an astonishing 8.0 yards per carry, but the speedy junior got the ball just 11 times in Saturday’s 38-13 loss to Boise State despite the fact that it was a one-score game for much of the first half.

That act of negligence comes on the heels of the Rebels’ 30-14 defeat at Northwestern three weeks ago, when Williams received just four second-half carries as UNLV let the game slip away down the stretch. Williams ran for 132 in the first half of that contest but just 12 after halftime.

Immediately following the loss to Boise State, head coach Tony Sanchez said the Rebels went away from the run too soon and intimated strongly that he might take a more prominent role in the play-calling going forward, if not take over the job completely.

Barney Cotton served as offensive coordinator and called the plays during Sanchez’s first four years at UNLV, but a medical issue forced him to step aside before training camp; in Cotton’s absence, offensive line coach Garin Justice has taken over dual duties as OC and play-caller.

At his Monday press conference, Sanchez said he may have spoken too soon about changing up the process.

“You consider all things, but not really,” Sanchez said when asked if he was thinking about assuming the role of chief play-caller. “I sit in the offensive staff room all the time and I see the game planning going on and I see the execution, and sometimes the lack thereof. Sometimes it is a coach thing, and sometimes it’s a player thing. We’ve got to do a good job of getting the our guys in the right spots, playing hard and executing at a high level. Garin Justice is a darn good football coach. He’s done a good job in a tough situation.”

Justice will continue to call plays, though Sanchez can obviously communicate his thoughts and suggestions (and demands) during the game via the headset radio. If another situation arises like the Boise State game where Sanchez feels the team isn’t committing to the ground game, he has the option to say so in real time.

Sanchez said the entire offensive staff is emboldened to chip in during the game, from receivers coach Cedric Cormier to quarterbacks coach Ron O’Dell, but emphasized that Justice needs freedom to call the offense the way he sees it.

“There’s a lot of collaboration that goes on,” Sanchez said. “I’m communicating with those guys, they’re communicating with me. There’s also collaboration from within the staff. We get into a third-down situation, Ced’s interjecting, Odell’s interjecting — not overly interjecting, but everyone’s interjecting organically. That’s kind of common. But there are times when it needs to be silent and let that guy work.”

Redshirt freshman QB Kenyon Oblad will get the start at Vanderbilt on Saturday, as junior Armani Rogers is still working his way back from a leg injury suffered against Wyoming two weeks ago. Oblad’s inexperience and Vanderbilt’s weakness on run defense should add up to a handoff-heavy game plan this week.

For the season, Vanderbilt is allowing opponents to run for 6.3 yards per carry, the second-worst mark in all of Division I. (UNLV is third-worst at 6.2.)

The Rebels’ willingness to pound the ball on the ground has waned this season. UNLV averaged more than 43 carries per game in each of the last three seasons, but that figure has dropped to 35.5 in 2019. After ranking in the top 30 nationally in rush attempts per game in each of the last three years, UNLV has fallen to 75th this season.

Sanchez knows his team can’t win that way, and he’s determined to make sure everyone knows it this week as they prepare for Vanderbilt.

“The way we’re built, mentality-wise, the way we’ve recruited, we’ve got to be able to run the ball downhill,” Sanchez said. “That’s a big part of who we’ve been the last bunch of years, and the last couple weeks it’s kind of gotten away from us.”

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

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