Inside the football offices at UNLV, the program’s massive rebuilding process enters Year 2 under head coach Tony Sanchez. The first season was a modest success, with some exciting victories on the field (winning back the Fremont Cannon at Nevada-Reno was a particular high point) and some positive signs off the field, but there is still a lot of work to be done before the program can be considered a winner (or anything close to it).
To win at a high level, UNLV and Sanchez are going to have to recruit at a higher level than the program has ever operated at. And that effort is going to have to start close to home.
Geographic recruiting is old-fashioned in some sense, considering the way the country is shrinking because of the internet and social media, but college football teams are still largely built on local talent. Among the 120 players listed on Florida State’s 2016 preseason roster, 77 are from the Sunshine State. USC counts 71 California natives among its 107 roster players. Even a downtrodden program such as Syracuse still collected 34 of its 101 players from Northeast states.
Despite the fact that Las Vegas pumps out a decent amount of Division I prospects, UNLV lags behind, with only 20 Nevada prep products among the 90 players on the preseason roster. Sanchez has made some progress on the local front, as 13 of the team’s 20 Las Vegans are freshmen and sophomores who have committed in the past two years, but because of the program’s lack of cachet, it’s going to take some time to turn on the pipeline.
“UNLV has to recruit their hometown Vegas kids,” Arbor View High School head coach Daniel Barnson says. “In some parts of the country, kids grow up wearing the T-shirts and their dads wear the T-shirts, and they’ve known that’s where they’ve wanted to play since they were little kids. UNLV is not like that. Tony has done an unbelievable job in his 18 months of pushing the local kids. Now, are the local kids magically going there after one year? Not yet. But it seems like he’s getting a couple more. It’s like if you take the top 25 kids in Vegas, and you’re UNLV, you say ‘OK, let’s go get three of them this year.’ Next year, get five. The year after that, get six. You’re not going to get all of the top 25. Even at USC, there are kids leaving. So UNLV has to chip away.”
To that end, Sanchez has ramped up the Rebels’ presence on the local scene. His brother, Bishop Gorman head coach Kenny Sanchez, says the effort has been obvious.
“The thing I’ve noticed is they’ve reached out to all the local high school coaches, trying to get them more involved, inviting them to practice,” Kenny Sanchez says. “The UNLV assistant coaches have been out here [to Bishop Gorman] more than any other UNLV staff has in the eight years I’ve been here. And I’m hearing that from other coaches, that they’re really getting on campus and trying to put their footprint across the city and trying to recruit our local kids hard.”
How can UNLV go about locking up more Las Vegas recruits? Vegas Seven surveyed 16 local Division I prospects to get their anonymous thoughts on the process and UNLV’s presence on the recruiting trail.
Here’s what they had to say:
Seven of 16 players surveyed said their biggest concern about the UNLV program was a lack of winning. “Poor legacy, no winning tradition,” one respondent wrote. Another respondent was worried that there was “Only a so-so chance of turning the program around.”
More wins on the field would go a long way toward calming those fears, so it’s important for the Rebels to improve on last year’s 3-9 record, at the very least. Six wins and a bowl game appearance in 2016 would be a huge step forward for the program and help secure commitments from some of the top local talent who are currently hesitant to sign on with a longtime losing program.
Of the 16 players surveyed, 13 said a new practice facility would make them more interested in UNLV as a destination. Twelve of 16 said a new stadium on or near campus would make them more interested in attending UNLV. One uncommitted recruit said a new practice facility “would definitely persuade me to go there.” Another said, “I would consider UNLV to be a top college” if they built a new practice facility.
Erecting stadiums is tricky business, so a new gameday home isn’t likely to happen soon. But a practice facility can probably break ground as soon as the financial considerations are shored up. And players are just as responsive to the promise of a fresh facility, since that’s where they spend most of their free time. Look for Sanchez to kick his fundraising efforts into overdrive until he has a shiny new practice field to show off to potential recruits.
This is where Sanchez has already made the biggest impact. He has hit the local recruiting trail and built positive momentum among the tight-knit fraternity of the Valley’s top prospects. Twelve of the 16 surveyed said their opinion of UNLV has changed for the better in the past year, with almost every respondent attributing their positive perception to Sanchez. “They have a new coach who I believe will turn the program around,” one player said.
Sanchez’s next task will be channeling that increased enthusiasm into hard commitments. The good news is that momentum is building. Thirteen of the 16 players surveyed said they had a friend who has committed to UNLV, which in turn makes it more acceptable to consider the Rebels as a college choice.
“These kids, with all the combines and clinics nowadays, they hang out,” Desert Pines head coach Tico Rodriguez says. “The top 20, 30 players, they all talk. There are group texts with a bunch of kids. They ask where they’re going and talk about their top fives. With social media, they’re always communicating with each other … [UNLV] is building that relationship with local players. Once you get one, then you can get two or three. When you already have kids that are [on the team] from Vegas, that really helps.”
If UNLV can continue to make progress in all of those areas, the local recruits will come to see the Rebels as a true hometown team.
“It’s a combination of everything,” Rodriguez says. “It’s winning, it’s facilities, and then having winning players already on the roster. Building up their facilities and winning six, seven, eight games would really help with the local talent.”