UNLV Rebels (2000: 8-5)
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Coach and programIt didn’t take John Robinson long to turn around the moribund UNLV program and transform it into a bowl-winning one ready to challenge for a Mountain West championship. Just two years removed from a winless season, the Rebels produced an 8-5 record last year and concluded their season with a 31-14 victory over Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Robinson, who turns 66 in July, is already a hero in Las Vegas, where in April he was rewarded with a contract extension that runs through the 2005 season. He’ll receive $150,000 base salary with a total of $500,000 per year.
“The last month of the season was stuff for storybooks,” Robinson said. “There were some moments that were as much fun as I have experienced in my career. It was amazing when you remember that we had the injury to [quarterback] Jason Thomas and then a disastrous loss to Utah but then won out."
Unlike a year earlier when the Rebels lost five home games by 28 points or more, the losses in 2000 were usually close, a one-pointer to MWC champion Colorado State, a three-pointer to Brigham Young and a three-point loss at Mississippi in overtime. The only big losses came in the opener at Iowa State and to Utah when Thomas was out with an injury.
How has Robinson been so successful so quickly? To the veteran coach, there’s no secret to his success.
“You just come in and start flailing away and hope something good happens,” Robinson told the Associated Press. “We've been able to recruit a few players who have made an impact, and I think that has been the key.”
Last year’s success seems to have given the program instant credibility, as evidenced by the fact that the Rebels’ first three games will be televised by ESPN. They open with Arkansas, the same team they defeated in the Las Vegas Bowl with a Thursday night game in Little Rock on Aug. 30, then play Northwestern and defending league champion Colorado State the following two Fridays.
OffenseJunior Thomas (6-4, 230) is being touted for all-America honors and even the Heisman Trophy after a stellar sophomore season. Thomas transferred from USC after his freshman season with high expectations and met most of them, despite sitting out a couple of games with a foot injury. He was voted MWC Newcomer of the Year after completing 53 percent of his passes for 1,708 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 599 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“Jason Thomas may be the most gifted athlete I’ve ever coached,’’ Robinson said.
That’s saying a mouthful for a man who has coached the likes of Marcus Allen, Charles White and Anthony Munoz.
But the Rebels lost three players who were responsible for nearly 2,000 rushing yards, including Jeremi Rudolph (1,005), Kevin Brown (798) and James Wofford (189).
The guy the Rebels are counting on to take over for Rudolph and Brown is senior Jabari Johnson (5-11, 200), a transfer fromWashington. Last year he saw only mop-up duty with 58 yards in 17 carries, but he’ll shoulder a huge load for the Rebels this year.
The production of Nate Turner will be difficult to replace, but the Rebels think they have some talented young players ready to pick up the slack. Junior Troy Mason (5-10, 170) is the top returning receiver after catching 27 passes for 492 yards and one touchdown (with a team-leading 18.2 yards per catch) a year ago.
Defense and special teamsLeading the way is senior defensive end Anton Palepoi (6-4, 275), who came in as a junior college transfer a year ago and finished second in the league in sacks with eight. Palepoi had 37 tackles on the year, including 11 for loss.
Junior Ahmad Briggs (6-3, 230) is expected to start again on the right side. Although he isn’t that big, he makes up for it with his speed and quickness. He saw extensive action last year when he made 33 tackles -- six for loss -- and 4.5 sacks.
The Rebels suffered a setback in the spring when senior linebacker James Sunia (5-10, 240) re-injured a leg that forced him to sit out half of the 2000 season. Sunia suffered a torn MCL/ACL after making 22 tackles and two sacks in five games. And how did he injure his knee this spring? Would you believe moving a box at his home?
.Senior cornerback Kevin Thomas (5-11, 180) has been a first-team all-conference selection each of the last two years. Thomas has already smashed the UNLV record for career pass breakups with 45, 18 more than the No. 2 player on the list. He has seven career interceptions.
Senior free safety Sam Brandon (6-3, 195), a converted receiver, was the defensive MVP last year. He led the team with 82 tackles, including 52 unassisted.
One of the surprises of last year’s team was the emergence of sophomore Dillon Pieffer (5-11, 175) as the starting place-kicker. Pieffer made 19 of 20 extra points the rest of the season and six of seven field goals.
Bottom lineIf the Rebels can survive their first five games, they could be on their way to an exceptional season. If they start something like 1-4, it could set the tone for a tough year.
“It’s going to be an exciting September around here,’’ Robinson said. “When you first see the schedule, you have to see it as a negative for us. But our program has had to play the long odds a lot. If we win four or five at the beginning, we’re nationally prominent. We can’t shy away from that now.’’
It’s unlikely the Rebels will win all five of their games before the end of September, but if they win the majority and knock off CSU and BYU in Las Vegas, they could be on their way to the MWC championship.