With Sanchez facing bowl or bust in 2019, UNLV enters critical offseason

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Wade Vandervort

UNLV Head Coach Tony Sanchez celebrates after his team defeats UNR 34-29 during the Fremont Cannon rivalry game at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.

Wed, Dec 5, 2018 (2 a.m.)

After wrapping up a disappointing 4-8 campaign on a high note with a win over rival UNR, the UNLV football team is heading into one of the most important offseasons in recent memory.

Head coach Tony Sanchez has been put on notice by athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois that anything less than a bowl appearance in 2019 will cost Sanchez his job, which means the next 12 months will determine the long-term course of the program. With those stakes serving as the backdrop, let’s take a look at the biggest issues for the Rebels heading into the offseason.

The Good

Armani in place

The Rebels are locked into Armani Rogers as the starting quarterback, and if his junior year looks anything like the performance we saw against UNR (13-of-20 passing, 172 yards, three touchdowns, 46 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns), he could be a major difference-maker in carrying UNLV to bowl eligibility.

Of course, there was an expectation that Rogers would improve as a passer this season, but that didn’t materialize until the finale, so there is some question as to whether the UNR game was a mirage. But if he comes back as a more refined passer in 2019, the coaching staff can afford to be less reliant on calling running plays for Rogers, which in turn might keep him healthy for a full season.

Sanchez said he expects Rogers to be better across the board in 2019.

“I think he’s naturally going to improve just based on experience, just based on age, skill development, mechanical development,” Sanchez said. “There’s some things he’s got to work on with us and outside of being with us. He’s got a lot of time, he’s really got to focus on that. I think being in the system now for three years, he’s got a great grasp on it. And we need to call it to his strengths.”

Offense intact

In addition to Rogers, most of the offense will return in 2019, including the entire receiving corps (minus Kendal Keys) and the entire offensive line (minus Nathan Jacobson). That’s a pretty good sign for a team that averaged 28.8 points per game while playing with a backup quarterback for half the season.

Defensive returnees

Unlike last offseason, when most of UNLV’s defensive core graduated, the Rebels will bring back some key defenders in 2019. It’s a small group, including edge rusher Gabe McCoy (senior), cornerback Jericho Flowers (senior), linebacker Javin White (senior) and safety Demitrious Gibbs (senior). The Rebels will also get junior lineman Nick Dehdashtian back after missing the entire 2018 season due to injury.

It’s not a unit that is overflowing with talent — UNLV allowed 37.2 points per game this season, 120th in the nation — but it does give defensive coordinator Tim Skipper something to work with heading into his second year in charge.

Total coaching stability

In addition to Skipper, Sanchez said he expects no coaching turnover this offseason. With every position coach returning, that should give UNLV a continuity advantage as they prepare for spring football. It’s a little thing, but it could make a difference for a team that is so close to being bowl-caliber.

Recruiting

According to 247Sports.com, UNLV currently has the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the Mountain West for 2019. Juco receiver Andrew Parchment is the headliner, and a trio of 3-star linebackers (Seth Robinson of Arizona, Jacoby Windmon of Louisiana and Liberty product Kyle Beaudry) can at least give the Rebels some hope on the defensive side of the ball. This could end up being Sanchez’s best class at UNLV.

The Bad

Next Lex?

UNLV is losing a ton of production at the running back position, with Lexington Thomas graduating as the school’s all-time touchdown leader and No. 2 rusher. Sophomore Charles Williams didn’t look quite the same this season coming off his ankle injury, and he couldn’t have been happy with his limited touches, either (65 carries to Thomas’ 215), so he may be a transfer candidate.

Where does that leave the Rebels’ backfield? Possibly in the hands of incoming freshman Courtney Reese, a running back from Miami who profiles a lot like Lexington Thomas. Reese is a similar size (5-foot-9), with the kind of track-star speed that made Thomas so explosive running behind the UNLV offensive line.

It’s dangerous to rely on a freshman at such an important position, but if Williams leaves (or doesn’t return to pre-injury form), that may be the best option.

Defense in need of overhaul

While there are some good players coming back, UNLV is still facing a severe talent deficit on defense. The secondary was particularly exposed for its lack of speed and athleticism in 2018, and unless the recruiting class includes some instant-impact types (either in the form of veteran transfers, jucos or extremely advanced freshmen), this could be a weak point again in 2019.

Receivers on the fritz

Aside from freshman sparkplug Tyleek Collins (31 receptions, 422 yards, six touchdowns), no other Rebels receivers performed up to expectations this year. It’s tough to say how much of that was attributable to the quarterback situation, but regardless, it’s a position group that needs a talent upgrade.

Parchment could help, as he’s a polished juco product with the kind of size (6-foot-3) to play on the outside and complement Collins’ skill set. But the team will need internal improvement from seniors like Brandon Presley (35 receptions, 434 yards, three TDs) and Darren Woods (24 receptions, 355 yards, five TDs).

The Unknown

Schedule looks tougher

After getting a good draw in 2018 based on the Mountain West’s rotating schedule, things could get considerably more difficult in 2019. UNLV will host Boise State after dodging the Broncos this year, and the slate will also include road trips to Colorado State and Wyoming. And the UNR matchup will be played in Reno, making that a more difficult task.

The non-conference schedule gets tougher as well. Instead of two “gimme” games against cupcakes like UTEP and Prairie View A&M, the Rebels will only have one favorable non-con matchup next year: hosting Southern Utah in the season opener. After that it’s a home game against Arkansas State, then road trips to Northwestern and Vanderbilt.

Strength of schedule is tricky — teams that are expected to be good can fall off a cliff and become winnable games, and vice-versa. But for now, it looks like UNLV is going to have to earn its six wins if it wants to play in a bowl.

The pressure is on

Because Reed-Francois’ statement left no doubt about Sanchez’s fate if UNLV misses a bowl next year, it’s hard to predict what kind of effect that will have on the players. Will they respond positively to knowing that their coach’s job is on the line? Or will the pressure make it more difficult to focus on the task at hand each week?

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

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