As the UNLV football team practices on a rare gloomy, wet day in Las Vegas during its off week, the mood at Rebel Park is much brighter than the weather. Receivers and defensive backs work in one-on-one blocking and tackling drills during the downpour while coach Bobby Hauck shouts words of encouragement to his players.
The spirited atmosphere on the field seems at odds with the Rebels’ performance this season, which has resulted in six one-sided losses in seven games, but Hauck says his team’s mindset at the midway point of the season remains largely positive despite its struggles on game day.
“The attitude has been good. We’ve had good persistence out of our older guys and a willingness from our young guys to learn,” he says. “The idea is to get better and we’re going to have to keep working at it, because we’re not there certainly as evidenced by our record.”
Hauck knew he was coming into a dire situation when he was hired in December to replace Mike Sanford as UNLV’s coach—with a roster lacking experience, speed and size; and a schedule loaded with top 25-caliber opponents—but things have unfolded even worse than most Rebel fans would have imagined.
Part of the Rebels’ problems this season stem from an unusually large dependence on freshmen. UNLV has played 23 this year—including 14 true freshmen, which is fifth-highest total in the country—and six of them have started at least one game. Hauck says it’s been tough to evaluate some of his first-year players, some of whom have been thrust into the lineup because of a multitude of injuries that have hit the Rebels, because of the difficulty of the team’s schedule.
“When you ask that question, it’s more as do we grade them as freshmen or do we grade them as guys that are playing at an elite collegiate level, which is where we forced them into,” he says. “I think they’ve been competitive, but any time you’re playing the number of freshmen we’re playing, it’s never going to be really great.”
There have been some youngsters, though, who have shown promise for UNLV. Running back Tim Cornett leads the Rebels in rushing, gaining 237 yards while averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and quarterback Caleb Herring has completed 59 percent of his passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in limited playing time. Kicker Nolan Kohorst has made all 15 extra-point tries and is 6-for-8 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 47 yards, and defensive backs Sidney Hodge and Eric Tuiloma also have been heavy contributors.
“We’re not playing the young guys just because we want to get them experience,” Hauck says, “we’re playing them because they’ve won the job, either via outright winning it competitively or somebody’s hurt. … We aren’t a real veteran team in terms of numbers, and a lot of the older guys are banged up.”
UNLV has done a relatively good job of taking care of the football, with QBs Omar Clayton and Herring combining for just four interceptions, but the Rebels also have lost six fumbles, some of which have come at crucial points in games.
“We’ve had a couple of games where we didn’t play as well as we needed to to be in them, in particular on the road,” Hauck says. “We haven’t played well on the road at all except for the first half at Utah. That’s been particularly disappointing.”
While road losses against ranked opponents such as Utah and West Virginia weren’t surprising, blowout defeats at Idaho and Colorado State were. In the 30-7 loss to the Vandals, the Rebels were outscored 24-0 in the first half, and the Rams pounded UNLV 43-10 on Oct. 16 even though they carried a 1-5 record into the game and hadn’t beaten a Mountain West Conference rival since November 2008.
Even when the Rebels have played well, they have not be able to sustain it, except in their lone win, a 45-10 home victory on Sept. 25 against New Mexico, which is ranked by ESPN.com as the worst team in the country. Against ranked teams Wisconsin, Utah and Nevada, UNLV put up a good fight in the first half before costly mistakes and turnovers quickly turned the games into routs.
There also has been some position changes by players since the season started, most notably junior Mike Clausen, who started at quarterback against Wisconsin in the first game of the season before moving to safety, and junior Deante’ Purvis, who has made the switch from cornerback to running back, and now is the Rebels’ third-leading rusher with 145 yards on 35 carries (a 4.1- yard average).
Add to that the suspension earlier this month of receiver Phillip Payne, arguably the team’s most talented player, for allegedly criticizing Hauck on Twitter, and the coach has had plenty to deal with.
“I think you have to have a little Dr. Phil in you when it’s not going well,” Hauck says. “You can really push harder when you’re winning than when you’re losing, so we’ve had to temper things a bit at times, but we haven’t had to change a whole bunch.”
Payne will likely return to the lineup for the Rebels’ Oct. 30 home game versus No. 4 TCU, which will enter the contest as the second highest-ranked opponent in UNLV’s history, trailing only No. 2-ranked Tennessee, which rolled behind Peyton Manning to a 62-3 victory in 1996.
With UNLV reliant on so many young players and facing a formidable Horned Frogs team that might need to run up the score at every opportunity in an attempt to reach the BCS National Championship Game, the Rebels possibly could experience a thrashing even worse than the Volunteers gave the program in ’96.
“We were realists coming into [this year],” Hauck says. “We knew what our schedule was and what we going to be up against in terms of having to play young guys, and then the injuries have compounded that. We had hopes that the record would be better than this, obviously, but it is what it is.”