Steve Irvin’s new boss describes him as one of college football’s most promising young coordinators. More important for UNLV, its cornerbacks coach is a native Las Vegan and Rebel graduate.
Irvin, formerly the defensive coordinator at the University of San Diego, is one of four new defensive coaches to join the program in the offseason and tasked with helping overhaul the team’s struggling defense. The process begins Tuesday as the Rebels open the 15-session spring practice.
“Steve was one of the up-and-coming young coordinators in the country,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said in a statement. “He did a phenomenal job at USD. He has a lot of experience with cornerbacks, has recruited Texas before and is a UNLV and Eldorado alumnus.”
Irvin, 41, is believed to be the third former UNLV player to return as a full-time coach, according to UNLV. Wayne Nunnely, who eventually became the Rebels’ head coach, is the most notable.
Irvin finished his playing career as a walk-on in 1998, when the Rebels didn’t win a game in Jeff Horton’s final season.
“It is unusual to be able to work at home,” said Irvin, who was part of Eldorado’s 1991 state championship team. “It’s something you never think is going to happen. For it to happen is a dream come true. I grew up being a Rebel fan and to get to work for your team is something in its own.”
Irvin’s road back to Las Vegas, where his mother still resides, included stops at College of the Desert in California, three seasons as the cornerbacks coach at Texas State, and the past four seasons at San Diego. He also spent a year at Montana State and two years as a graduate assistant at San Diego State.
San Diego in 2017 went 10-3 and won an FCS playoff game. Irvin’s defense held opponents to 17 points per game and surrendered just six rushing touchdowns.
UNLV’s defense, meanwhile, surrendered 31 points per game to rank 91st nationally. It yielded 458 yards per game and had just seven interceptions.
But, Irvin says, there are reasons to be optimistic. While he’s only been back with the program for about a week, he’s been impressed with the athleticism.
“I am excited because I see some talent,” Irvin said. “The guys who started and played last year have some definite ability. I think it is normal growing pains of maturing and developing. We’ll be OK.”
Spring practice, which concludes at noon April 14 with the Spring Showcase, will be the one of the first chances to formally tinker with the defense. Whether it’s rushing the passer, slowing down the run game or preventing long passes, the Rebel defense hasn’t been as effective as its high-scoring offense.
Bringing in a fresh set of coaches to deliver the message could be the change to spur improvement, Sanchez previously said.
“I try to be a teacher first and then take it how it comes,” Irvin said. “You have to figure out when to yell and when not to yell, and who needs the yelling and who doesn’t need the yelling. But we want to teach first and figure which direction the athlete needs.”
Irvin attended many UNLV games during his childhood. His knowledge of the program and city, whether that’s the annual high school Cleat Game between Chaparral and Eldorado, or past successes for the Rebels, “are all pluses,” Sanchez said.
The feeling is mutual.
“I root for Vegas,” Irvin said. “Anytime you have a head coach who leads the way (cheering for Vegas), it is exciting for the city and the community. UNLV didn’t have that feel before. It kind of felt like a California college.”