The UNLV football team did the unthinkable last year: After a trio of miserable two-win seasons to kick off the Bobby Hauck era—not to mention two ugly losses to start the 2013 campaign (combined score: Foes 109, UNLV 36)—the Rebels rebounded to post a 7-6 record and earn their first bowl berth since 2000. UNLV even went up to Reno in late October, knocked off UNR and brought home the Fremont Cannon for the first time since 2004.
Dare we predict that last season was not, in fact, an aberration, but rather the start of a new trend? Time will certainly tell. But if nothing else, Rebels fans at least have reason to be legitimately optimistic entering the season, which starts August 29 at Arizona. Here are seven things for those fans to watch for this fall:
Devante Davis will be playing on Sundays soon enough, but for one more season he’ll serve as the centerpiece of UNLV’s offense. The 6-foot-3 wide receiver passed on the NFL Draft after racking up 1,290 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior. If preseason practices are any indication, Davis could be in line to surpass those numbers in 2014. He’s got the size, speed and preternatural ball skills to be a legit contender for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation’s top receiver.
Hauck in Control
At this time last year, Hauck was feeling the heat. He had won just six games in his first three seasons, and after the Rebels got clobbered in their first two games of 2013, it appeared his days on Maryland Parkway were numbered. But his offensive system finally clicked (29.9 points per game), the Rebels won seven of their final 10 regular-season games, and Hauck was rewarded with a two-year contract extension that will keep him at UNLV through 2016. This being Hauck’s fifth season, it means he recruited every player on his roster. In other words, this is now his team in every sense of the word.
Ground and Pound
Star running back Tim Cornett and his 3,733 career rushing yards (most in school history) are gone, and there probably isn’t one player in the UNLV backfield capable of replacing his production. But Hauck believes in the value of a strong running game, and junior David Greene has the tools to do the heavy lifting. After two years on defense, the 6-foot, 210-pound Greene switched from safety to running back during spring practice, and he looked impressive in the summer.
The Rebels opened preseason practice with a two-man QB competition between junior college transfer Blake Decker and junior Nick Sherry, but by the time the team broke camp in Ely, Decker had clearly won the job. Decker fits the Mountain West profile: He played in a pass-first (and pass-second) offense at Scottsdale Community College, throwing for 4,241 yards and 47 touchdowns last year, so he knows how to pilot a wide-open attack. Hauck likes to run the ball (UNLV actually attempted more rushes than passes last season, 507-483), but if Decker is the real deal, the Rebels may be inclined to open up the offense. Somewhere, Davis is smiling.
As many points as Davis and the offense produced last year, the defense actually surrendered more (31.8 ppg). That should change in 2014 now that the secondary has a bit more experience, which is important in the aerially oriented Mountain West Conference. And that defense got a late boost when transfer Josh Shirley, who had 18 sacks in three years at Washington, was cleared to play, giving the defensive line another effective pass rusher.
Bowl Hopes Alive
After the Rebels fell short of the NCAA-mandated APR (Academic Progress Rate) score during the offseason, the program was punished with a bowl ban for 2014. But just when it looked like all of the team’s momentum was destroyed, the school’s number-crunchers sprang into action, uncovering some grades that were mistakenly scored too low. The recalculated score was deemed APR-qualifying, and the bowl ban was lifted. Now UNLV has to finish 7-6 or better to become bowl-eligible.
Protecting the Cannon
It took just a shade under a decade, but UNLV finally reclaimed the Fremont Cannon. As big as last year’s win in Reno was, this year’s meeting could be even more crucial. That’s because UNR will be at Sam Boyd Stadium on November 29 (Thanksgiving weekend) for both teams’ regular-season finale. If UNLV needs a second straight victory over the Wolf Pack to earn a second straight bowl berth (for the first time in school history), it could be the Rebels’ most anticipated home contest in years.