2017 Is The Most Important Season In UNLV Rebel Football History
Tony Sanchez and the UNLV Rebels football program has to take a significant step forward in 2017.
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No Mountain West Conference team needs to show progress more than the 2017 UNLV Rebels
The third year of head coach Tony Sanchez’s tenure in Las Vegas is the most critical in the underwhelming history of the UNLV Rebels football program. If the Rebs are going to get any share of capturing college football interest on the national level, it’s going to happen now. If it doesn’t happen in 2017, wallowing in Mountain West Conference obscurity is a reality you can resign yourself to indefinitely.
Year one of the Sanchez era represented unprecedented change at UNLV. In 2014 the football program was rudderless. Bobby Hauck resigned after a 15-48 mark in five seasons, and the head coaching position was not an attractive one even by Mountain West standards.
Enter Sanchez, who made headlines by jumping straight from high school coaching to a NCAA Division 1 gig. Prior to UNLV Sanchez spent six years at famed Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, winning 85 of 90 games, and capturing the Nevada 4A championship each season. His hire was made in the first full year Tina Kunzer-Murphy’s tenure, then the athletic director at UNLV.
With expectations low, the Rebels’ first season under Sanchez went better than expected. UNLV’s three wins bested the over/under set by Las Vegas sportsbooks, a barometer of success in Southern Nevada if nowhere else. Flashy new uniforms, a renewed interest in recruiting among the Rebel faithful, reclaiming the Fremont Cannon from Reno, and the same old dusty Sam Boyd Stadium characterized 2015.
In 2016 the bar was raised, and while the results on paper may be more appealing, those watching UNLV on Saturdays would be hard pressed to say the Rebels took a significant step forward. The Rebs won four games, but the season was defined more by the team’s tendency to play down to their opponents. Central Michigan was three touchdowns better than UNLV on September 17th, and a week later the Rebels fell to Idaho at home in overtime.
The final week of the season the Rebels were crushed in front of their home fans, 45-10, at the hands of Nevada. A win against the Wolf Pack may have painted a markedly different picture for the state of the UNLV program. Nevertheless, the story of the last year for the Rebels has been what’s occurred off the field, and the supports that are being put in place for long-term success.
If Las Vegas is an attractive destination for high-level recruits, UNLV has not been, and head coaches before Sanchez have largely failed to tap into the natural geographic advantage the Rebels are provided. That’s changing though, in a very tangible way.
Last fall Sanchez and staff were treated to the news that the program was receiving much-needed reinforcements in the college football recruiting arms race. Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta are buying what Sanchez is selling. The billionaire brothers, who in 2016 sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship, pledged $10 million towards the construction of a state of the art football facility. Lorenzo and Frank are Bishop Gorman graduates.
The 73,000 square foot project will ultimately cost $26 million and will be named the Fertitta Football Complex. When construction of the training facility was announced last September, UNLV president Len Jessup wasn’t shy when speaking publicly about the goals that have been set for the football program.
“Once this is complete, and we still have to finish off fundraising and get it built, this facility puts us in the top level of the Mountain West and allows us to compete well with many programs from Power 5 conferences,” Jessup said.
The strategic planning is about academics and athletics. They go hand in hand. The objective is to be good enough to be a Carnegie Level 1 (research) university and be eligible for a Power Five conference. We need both, and I think we’re on the path.”
Power Five aspirations may sound a tad ambitious for a program that’s put together just two winning seasons since the turn of the century. The Rebels haven’t won a bowl game since the 2000 season, a year that predates Boise State’s inclusion by a decade when the conference housed just eight teams. The Fertittas aren’t alone in betting on gridiron success in Las Vegas, though.
The Raiders are coming if you’ve not heard. In March of this year owner Mark Davis received permission from other NFL owners to relocate his franchise from Oakland to the Vegas valley. The construction of a new stadium, to be located just west of Mandalay Bay, will be completed by 2020. Along with the Raiders, there’s no shortage of events that the new Las Vegas stadium will host, including UNLV Rebels football.
2020 may seem like a long way off, particularly for an 18-year-old, but it would be foolish to suspect the new stadium isn’t the first thing out of Sanchez’s mouth when he enters a recruit’s living room. Likely those conversations were occurring before news of the Raiders was official. There’s certainly never been a bigger recruiting card to play in UNLV football history. But if the Rebels tread water, remaining irrelevant until that 2020 move, will the new pad even matter?
The journey Sanchez had to navigate at the quarterback position in 2016 was not a straight line. He opened the season against Jackson State with Johnny Stanton under center. The Nebraska transfer threw for 217 yards and three scores in a 63-13 UNLV victory.
Stanton’s play went from uninspiring to troublesome in the three weeks that followed, all Rebel losses. The guesswork at quarterback was removed with the report that Stanton had suffered a knee injury in the loss to Idaho and would miss extensive time.
The first game following that news was the start of the brief, but compelling, Dalton Sneed era. Sneed led UNLV to a 45-20 drubbing of Fresno State. His performance, which included 147 yards on the ground, made its way onto the SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays. He played three more full games at quarterback, his effectiveness falling off dramatically, before being replaced by Kurt Palandech in the San Jose State game.
With it quickly becoming evident that he was not UNLV’s future at QB, Sneed tried his hand at receiver before the season ended. Last winter, he announced his intention to transfer from the program.
And so the Rebs limped to the finish line with Palandech under center. The most veteran of UNLV’s signal callers performed admirably in the final quarter of the season given the circumstances. He guided the Rebels to their most impressive victory in recent memory, a 69-66 triple overtime thriller against Wyoming.
That said, the biggest story at quarterback for UNLV last season was who didn’t play. Early and often conversation swirled around the program regarding if and when Sanchez would pull the redshirt from freshmen QB and prized recruit Armani Rogers.
His patience paid off. Sneed is gone, Stanton and Palandech remain, but Sanchez has already revealed who will be taking the snaps for the Rebels this fall.
“Armani Rogers is going to be the starter going into fall camp,” Sanchez said on AM 720 KDWN. “He did a great job this spring. We just felt like he had a little bit of a nod ahead of those guys.”
It’s impossible to understate how important Rogers is to the UNLV program during this transitional time. Whether or not they desired to see his redshirt pulled last season, Rebel fans have allocated much of their enthusiasm to Rogers and the impact he can have on the Rebels both in the immediate and long-term.
In 2017 he’ll have an All-Mountain West talent at wide receiver in Devonte Boyd, an impressive stable of running backs and arguably the top offensive line in the conference. For fans, it can be difficult to temper expectations with so much talent on paper.
Looking towards the future can be equally encouraging. Rogers would be entering his senior season in 2020, and the prospect of playing with a top-tier dual threat quarterback in an NFL stadium could be a very attractive package to a prospective recruit.
One can further dream. UNLV already has Arizona State inked for a game in Las Vegas during the 2020 season. A historically middling Pac-12 school could end up being the perfect opponent for Rogers, Sanchez, and whoever is joining them for the next era of Rebel UNLV football.
But that’s a long way off, and so many things have to happen if Sanchez is to turn the Rebels into an even moderately successful program. It cannot be denied though, that the tools are there. Money, talent, a conference were competing quickly is a realistic goal and a city that is ready to support a winner. The Rebels even have a new athletic director, with the introduction of Desiree Reed-Francois in April. Everything is new.
Except for Sam Boyd Stadium. There are just three years remaining in the 47-year-old relic as the home of the Rebels. If UNLV is going to capture any interest moving forward, it’s going to start in 2017 on East Russell Road.