SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Team Previews - from Athlon Sports

  UNLV Rebels

 
The Lowdown
Coach: John Robinson (5th year, 20-27)
2002 record: 5-7
Mountain West finish: T-5th
2002 offensive stats:
Rush: 214.4 ypg
(2nd in Mountain West, 15th in nation)
Pass: 195.1 ypg (5th, 71st)
2002 defensive stats:
Rush: 159.1 ypg (4th, 62nd)
Pass: 234.7 ypg (6th, 84th)
Projected Starters
Offense (5 returning starters in bold)
WR   8   Michael Johnson   Sr.  
WR   4   Earvin Johnson   Jr.  
LT   71   Matt Williams   Sr.  
LG   76   Marcus Johnson   Jr.  
C   73   Dominic Furio   Sr.  
RG  56  Joe Critchfield  Jr. 
RT  68  Zach Gorham  So. 
TE  94  Ryan Clifford  Sr. 
QB  Kurt Nantkes  Jr. 
TB  Larry Croom  Sr. 
FB  35  Andrew Faga  Sr. 
Defense (5)
DE   47   Chris Eagen   Sr.  
DT   91   Dietrich Canterberry   Sr.  
DT   99   Joe Oniwor   Sr.  
DE  98  Leon Moore  So. 
WLB  32  Reggie Butler  Jr. 
MLB   55   Adam Seward   Jr.  
SLB  49  Ryan Claridge  Jr. 
CB  37  David Olsen  So. 
CB  22  Jason Rogers  Fr. 
SS   27   Jamaal Brimmer   Jr.  
FS  45  Joe Miklos  So. 
Special Teams
95  Dillon Pieffer  Sr. 
16  Gary Cook  Jr. 
PR  Larry Croom  Sr. 
KR  Larry Croom  Sr. 
2003 Schedule
Aug. 30  Toledo 
Sept. 6  at Kansas 
Sept. 13  at Wisconsin 
Sept. 20  Hawaii 
Oct. 4  at Nevada 
Oct. 11  at Air Force 
Oct. 18  Utah 
Oct. 25  BYU 
Nov. 1  at New Mexico 
Nov. 8  San Diego State 
Nov. 22  Colorado State 
Nov. 29  at Wyoming 
For the first time since he took over as head coach at UNLV five years ago, John Robinson won't have a quarterback named Jason Thomas with him on the sidelines.

Thomas, who opened a number of recruiting doors in southern California when he decided to transfer from USC to UNLV in 1999, redshirted during Robinson's first year in Glitter Gulch. He then started the next three seasons, including a 2000 campaign that ended with a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arkansas.

But Thomas has moved on. Enter 23-year-old junior Kurt Nantkes, a much more polished passer who spent two years as a minor league pitcher in the Oakland Athletics farm system before deciding to give football another try. Robinson is high on his new QB, and why not? Nantkes came off the bench to replace an injured Thomas and closed an otherwise forgettable 5-7 season in 2002 in spectacular fashion, leading the Rebels to a stunning 36-33 upset of No. 13-ranked Colorado State.

Robinson is hoping Nantkes and 10 returning starters can carry over the momentum of that victory into 2003. "We all left Fort Collins with the feeling that yes, there is the kind of athlete at UNLV that can win against a good team," Robinson says.

OFFENSIVE KEYS:

The transition from Thomas to Nantkes at quarterback should be made smoother by an impressive group of skill players. Leading the way is Larry Croom, a transfer from Arizona who rushed for 605 yards and averaged 7.2 yards per attempt in a backup role last season. Explosive junior Dominique Dorsey and senior Deon Burnett, who rushed for 974 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman at Washington State in 1999, also will see plenty of action as the Rebels will incorporate more two-back offense. And Alvin Marshall, one of the premier junior college running backs in the nation last fall, will also be in the mix.

Earvin Johnson, a second team All-Mountain West Conference pick who caught 51 passes a year ago, could be the best possession receiver in the conference.

Robinson made a big effort to upgrade the size and strength of the offensive line. He landed two highly touted mid-year junior college transfers, guard Joe Critchfield and 6-foot-7, 285-pound tackle Tyler Crandal. Both could start.

DEFENSIVE KEYS:

The Rebels have a starting linebacking unit that can match up with any team in the league. Junior Adam Seward, who led the MWC in tackles last season with 133, returns at middle linebacker. He'll be joined by junior Ryan Claridge, a 2002 preseason all-conference pick who sat out the entire season with a torn abdominal muscle. Rounding out the group will be either speedy junior Reggie Butler or junior college All-American John Andrews of Compton (Calif.) College. Don't be surprised if the Rebels use some 3-4 defensive alignments to better utilize those linebackers.

The key to the defense will be finding two dependable corners to complement 2002 MWC Defensive Player of the Year Jamaal Brimmer and highly touted junior college transfer Willie Tagoai at safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Both senior placekicker Dillon Pieffer and junior punter Gary Cook return after solid seasons. The big focus here will be upgrading the return game, which woefully underperformed in 2002. UNLV finished a dreadful 88th nationally in kickoff returns and 103rd in punt returns.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

UNLV's hopes for a winning season and earning a bowl bid for the first time in four years will hinge a great deal on the health and development of Nantkes. A revamped offensive line will need to keep Nantkes' jersey clean, because none of the backups has taken a college snap. The running game will have to pave the way on offense. Defensively, Seward, Claridge and Brimmer must come up with their share of big plays. The Rebels, who host perennial conference heavyweights BYU, Colorado State and Utah this year, could make a run at the Mountain West title.

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