2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Now entering his third season with the UNLV Rebels, head coach Bobby Hauck probably thought he was stepping up to the big time in college football after leaving Montana in 2009, but the transition has been anything but smooth for him and the program.
In his final four seasons at Montana, Hauck posted a record of 51-6 and had his squad a perpetual threat in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, but those postseason appearances must seem like a lifetime ago after posting a combined 4-21 record with the Rebels and finishing in a tie for sixth place in the Mountain West Conference standings both years.
In 2011, UNLV opened with consecutive road games against Wisconsin and Washington State, outings that took the Rebels to new depths as they fell by a combined score of 110-24 as they surrendered an average of 554.5 ypg. Somehow the Rebels bounced back and doubled-up on Hawaii in the home opener (40-20), but that triumph was followed by three more defeats during which the team was outscored by a combined margin of 119-30, blanked by Nevada (37-0) during the annual battle for the Fremont Cannon and Silver State bragging rights. The Rebels did somehow squeeze out a 38-35 victory over Colorado State at home at the end of October to move to 2-5, but from there on out the squad tasted defeat one week after another.
In all but one contest, the meeting with New Mexico that ended in a 21-14 score, UNLV bowed by double digits, giving up huge numbers to Boise State (48 points), Air Force (45) and TCU (56) in the finale. Overall, the Rebels were just 2-10 and delivered a 1-6 mark in conference play.
The passing offense for UNLV left a lot to be desired as the squad ranked 118th out of 120 FBS programs with an average of just 109.6 ypg through the air. The rushing attack was much more respectable with 164.3 ypg, but overall the team still checked in with just 273.8 ypg which was last in the league and 117th nationally. UNLV did rank third in the MWC and 23rd in the country in kickoff returns with 23.7 yards per attempt, but much of that was a result of the squad scoring a pair of touchdowns in that manner.
OFFENSE: First and foremost for the offense of the Rebels, the teams brings back as many as five returning starters along the line to help control the action in the trenches. Granted, three of them (Cameron Jefferson, Robert Waterman and Brett Boyko) are only sophomores, but experience no matter what a player's age cannot be overstated. The right side of the line will be anchored by seniors Doug Zismann and Yusef Rodgers so that should be the least of the concerns for coach Hauck on that side of the ball.
The quarterback position could have a new wrinkle if Caleb Herring doesn't become more productive. One of the weakest passing offenses in all of college football a year ago, Herring converted just 54.9 percent of his attempts and recorded almost as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns (8). Pushing for playing time will be Nick Sherry who is a hulking figure at 6-feet-5 and 240 pounds, but his freshman status could keep him on the sidelines even if he does have the talent to take the field right now.
Running back Tim Cornett led the team a year ago in rushing with 671 yards and seven touchdowns, but the team also got some good news in August when Dionza Bradford returned to the squad after he left the team during the spring.
"It's good to have him back," Hauck said. "Dionza had some personal issues to deal with this spring and now he's working some things out. He has a ways to go but we're glad he's here."
Bradford was second with 615 yards on 133 carries for the Rebels in 2011.
A couple of youngsters are preparing to star at receiver for UNLV as sophomores Marcus Sullivan and Devante Davis found themselves at the top of the depth chart heading into preseason practice, which means there could be some growing pains for all involved in that area as well.
DEFENSE: One of the changes on the defensive side of the ball comes at the top as former defensive backs coach J.D. Williams was elevated to defensive coordinator. Williams has his work cut out for him, particularly along the defensive line as there are plenty of questions still to be answered.
The middle features some familiar bodies in Alex Klorman, Tyler Gaston and Trent Allmang-Wilder, but along the edges Jordan Sparkman could be someone to keep an eye on after being converted from tight end.
In the middle of the alignment, former junior college transfer and top returning tackler John Lotulelei will be looked to for leadership and guidance as he handles the weakside. Tani Maka is poised to resume action at middle linebacker, while the starting spot on the strongside has been a battle between Tim Hasson and Princeton Jackson, the latter being another juco transfer who happened to be an All-American at Blinn College.
The problem area for the group could well be in the secondary where there is just one returning starter. Junior Sidney Hodge has set the bar rather high for himself heading into this new campaign, having tied for fourth in the nation in fumble recoveries last year with 4.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both kickers are back for the Rebels, with Nolan Kohorst handling the placekicking duties and Chase Lansford, the son of former NFL kicker Mike Lansford, taking care of punts. Lansford was used rather extensively in 2011, averaging more than six punts per game as he averaged 41.2 yards per attempt. Obviously the goal is to cut down the number of times Lansford trots out onto the field, but given the prospects of how the offense will operate, it doesn't look promising.
While Lansford was quite good sending the ball down the field, when it came to returning punts the Rebels were one of the weakest in the nation, averaging less than five yards per return. Had it not been for a long of 21 yards by Michael Johnson on one of his efforts, the numbers would look even more dismal.
OUTLOOK: The Rebels enjoy four straight home games to kick off the 2012 season and while that's certainly good news for coach Hauck as he tries to get the squad off on the right foot, it also means the team will be living on the road quite a bit over the final two months. Long-distance trips to Louisiana Tech and Hawaii bookend stops at Boise State and San Diego State which occur in back-to-back weeks in October, and because of those tough visits UNLV could easily find itself near the bottom of the conference standings yet again.
But aside from all that, the Rebels have to be particularly focused on the October portion of the schedule which lists the visit of rival Nevada to Sam Boyd Stadium. A victory may not be in the cards again this year for UNLV versus the Wolf Pack, but the Rebels at least have to show some signs of life in order to give the fans some optimism moving forward.