John Robinson returns for his sixth season as head coach at UNLV. Will it also be his last?
Robinson, who turns 69 in July, still has two years remaining on his contract. But just a little over a year removed from a heart attack, and with his wife, Linda, still battling to recover from multiple breast cancer surgeries, he has broached the possibility that this could be his last year as a head coach.
"I don't know," Robinson replied when that question arose. "We'll go one at a time."
The Rebels return 13 starters, including All-America safety Jamaal Brimmer, from an erratic 6-6 squad that was two blown short field goals away from an 8-4 mark and a bowl game. And after five full recruiting years, Robinson finally appears to have the kind of quality depth needed to be competitive with the top programs in the league.
"I'm optimistic about the atmosphere we have around here," Robinson said. "It's a veteran team that has a tremendous challenge with the schedule. But there's a kind of quiet confidence growing of, ‘Hey, we've got some players here.' "
OffenseThe lack of a proven backup quarterback came back to haunt the Rebels the last month of the 2003 season when starter Kurt Nantkes, who seemed to finally be getting comfortable at the position, went down with a dislocated pubic bone. Nantkes started 10 games for the Rebels and limped off the bench to throw for three touchdowns in a season-ending 35-24 victory at Wyoming. He skipped spring practice to rehabilitate, and sophomore Shane Steichen, who started two games as a true freshman, took a majority of the snaps. He got high marks for his decision-making and accuracy.
The strength of the offense will be a deep group of running backs led by explosive 5-foot-7 senior Dominique Dorsey. Converted senior fullback Dyante Perkins and Ohio State transfer JaJa Riley both had impressive springs.
Receiver Earvin Johnson is being promoted as an All-America candidate by the school and figures to leave campus as UNLV's all-time leader in receptions and yards. Tight end Greg Estandia also is getting strong looks from NFL scouts. A big key will be the development of a second wide receiver to complement Johnson.
Three starters and several key reserves return on the offensive line.
DefenseThe Rebels switched to a 3-4 defense a year ago to take advantage of a very deep and talented linebacker group that returns intact. Seniors Adam Seward, a two-time first team all-Mountain West Conference pick, and Ryan Claridge, who may be an even better NFL prospect, both return to start at inside linebacker. Seniors John Andrews and Reggie Butler both started every game last year at the two outside spots and will be joined by rugged junior college transfer Bobby Kelly, one of the stars of spring practice.
Robinson's best recruiting job in the offseason may have been convincing Brimmer to return for his senior year. Brimmer anchors what should be a much-improved secondary.
The Rebels hit the junior college ranks hard after losing all three defensive line starters to graduation.
SpecialistsSenior Gary Cook, who averaged 43.4 yards as a junior and had 26 kicks of 50 yards or more, could challenge for All-America honors. The Rebels must replace second team all-MWC placekicker Dillon Pieffer, but redshirt freshman Sergio Aguayo was rated one of the top prep kickers in the nation and appears to be ready to step in.
Tremayne Kirkland led the Mountain West Conference in punt returns with a 12.6-yard average as a freshman.
Final AnalysisThe schedule-maker didn't do the Rebels any favors. UNLV opens with back-to-back road games at two of the toughest venues in the nation -- Tennessee and Wisconsin. UNLV plays just five home games and hits the road for key Mountain West games at Utah, San Diego State, BYU and Colorado State. However, this is a veteran group that actually seemed to play its best away from the bright lights of The Strip a year ago en route to a 4-2 road mark.
The big keys will be the development of quarterbacks Nantkes and Steichen, and the play of defensive newcomers like cornerback Charles Ealy and linemen Mario Hill, Isaac Watts and Isaiah Tafua. If the Rebels can avoid the injury bug, they have the talent to compete with the league's top teams.