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It seemed only natural that when Urban Meyer announced he had decided to take the head coaching job at Florida, highly touted offensive coordinator Mike Sanford would be promoted to take his place. But it turned out that Sanford had his mind focused on another Mountain West Conference coaching job.
Sanford, who played and coached for the retiring John Robinson at USC, decided to move down I-15 to take over a struggling 2-9 UNLV program instead of filling Meyer's big cleats at Utah.
Sanford, 50, became just the ninth head coach in school history when he was named to replace Robinson in early December.
"The main thing from the beginning, when coach Robinson announced he was going to retire [in late September], was UNLV," Sanford said. "To me it's a sleeping giant. I think it's got a great future. Its proximity to Southern California I feel makes it a great base for recruiting that area. I think Boise State is a good example of a program that has been able to capitalize on that."
Sanford has spent the last 27 years coaching in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers and in college at schools like USC, Notre Dame, Stanford and Purdue. He is best known for recruiting and developing three future NFL first-round picks at USC in wide receivers Johnnie Morton, Curtis Conway and Keyshawn Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick, in 1996.
"I've been preparing and looking for this moment for 27 years," Sanford said. "I'm fired up."
Sanford, takes over a UNLV team that won just two games and ranked 95th in the nation in scoring offense (20.8 ppg).
One of Sanford's first recruits was quarterback Jarrod Jackson of junior college powerhouse Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif. Jackson (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) may be viewed as undersized, but he was 21-2 as a starter at Grossmont and helped lead the Griffins to a national title as a freshman. He's also a good runner, which is a big plus in Sanford's spread option offense.
Junior Shane Steichen, who started five games last season but threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (7), is expected to battle Jackson for the starting quarterback job.
MWC rushing champion Dominique Dorsey graduated, but junior Erick Jackson looked like the team's best back at times in practices last fall. Jackson has also emerged as one of the Rebels' team leaders. He'll be pushed by senior JaJa Riley, an Ohio State transfer coming off of knee surgery.
UNLV also must replace Earvin Johnson, one of the most prolific wide receivers in school history. Senior tight end Greg Estandia, explosive sophomore wide receiver Tremayne Kirkland, improving junior Donell Wheaton and senior Alvin Marshall all should thrive in the spread option passing attack.
The offensive line, which had three starters miss spring practice while recuperating from surgeries, must replace starting center Marcus Johnson and powerful guard Joe Critchfield.
The Rebels plan to use multiple fronts, with both four- and three-man line formations.
A deep and veteran line should be the strength of the defense. UNLV welcomes back two starters -- end Leon Moore and slimmed-down noseguard Howie Fuimaono -- as well as end Pete Dunbar, a projected starter in '04 who missed the season with a knee injury.
The Rebels, however, lose their top six linebackers, including Mountain West Conference career tackles leader Adam Seward and '04 MWC sacks leader Ryan Claridge. Sophomore Beau Bell is the top returnee.
The secondary loses three starters, including All-American safety Jamaal Brimmer. Senior safety Joe Miklos, who averaged eight tackles per game and forced four fumbles last season, will anchor a unit that will be counting heavily on two mid-year junior college transfers -- John Guice and E.J. Whitley -- at cornerback.
Brian Pacheco, a second-team junior college All-American who arrives in the fall from Glendale (Ariz.) College, should replace Gary Cook at punter. Sophomore placekicker Sergio Aguayo is back after nailing 11-of-15 field goals and all 27 of his extra points last year.
Opposing defensive coordinators have spent the offseason figuring out ways to stop Sanford's vaunted spread option attack that was so successful last year at Utah. The big key for UNLV will be finding a quarterback to run the offense efficiently. The Rebels would seem to have just about everything else on the offensive side of the ball to be successful.
Defensively, a revamped secondary and linebacker corps must grow up in a hurry. UNLV plays five of its first seven games on the road. If the Rebels can somehow survive that stretch, three of their final four games are at home.