Monday, July 21, 2008 | 8:01 p.m.
A 6-29 combined record over the past three seasons make getting amped for this year's installment of UNLV football a labor of love. That's not the case for head coach Mike Sanford, who has found reasons to be optimistic heading into the 2008 slate. The preseason media poll has the Rebels picked to finish ninth (out of nine teams) in the Mountain West Conference. Sanford took some time to answer some questions Monday afternoon at first of two conference football media days at the Green Valley Ranch about the team he returns and why he thinks expectations could be exceeded.
Ryan Greene: What are the big points that make you optimistic for this coming season?
Mike Sanford: I think the first thing is that I really believe we've had a great summer, great spring. And we've had excellent workouts. Our team attitude is great, our work ethic is great, I feel like this is the fourth year of a program that we're building. I feel like we've got a lot of the things in place. Not everything place, but we've got a lot of things in place to improve and be a really good team.
We have nine out of 11 starters back on offense. We have two quarterbacks who both started last year. Since I've been here, we haven't had a quarterback coming back that had started the previous year in our system. I think our leadership, I feel really good about our leadership. We have seven home games, which is the first time since 1979 we've had that. I could keep going, but those would be the reasons.
RG: You mention year four, and you start to feel like things are in place. Go back to year one. What are the significant steps you feel like you have taken?
MS: More good players, better depth. We're not where we want to be, but we're getting better. Improvement in the attitude, work ethic and character of our team, improvement in the leadership of our team.
RG: What do you do to keep things positive going into a season when wins have been so tough to come by?
MS: I think because there's hope and there's indications. You can look at what you see from the outside, and that's all that people can see, that we've had two wins each of the last three seasons. But there are indications on the inside, when you are looking at it on the inside, that we are making progress and we're a better football team than we were three years ago.
RG: What's the first one that really made you think 'Wow, that's something new'?
MS: It's gonna sound really weird, but I really like our team. I really enjoy our team, I love our team. I just have a great feeling about our team.
RG: I know about Frank Summers, but is that where your offensive philosophy is right now? Building around him and what he was able to accomplish last year?
MS: Yeah, kinda the combination of that and I think we've got a really good receiving corps with the passing game. A lot of depth at receiver. Two really big-name guys in Casey Flair and Ryan Wolfe, but then a bunch of other guys that can play.
RG: Who do you think can emerge as the No. 3 guys behind them?
MS: Probably Rodelin Anthony would be a name that would be significant. But there's other possibilities, because we've got a lot of other guys in there competing and goin'.
RG: You mentioned the two quarterbacks returning with starting experience (Omar Clayton and Travis Dixon). What's the difference in competition for the starting quarterback spot when you have two guys who've both had that taste?
MS: It makes it more intense. I think if it's very intense, you know, they're two very competitive guys. I think also it's taking that next step of knowledge and transferring it onto the field. They've both played, but the next step is to win. And that's gonna be the key of who gets the starting job, based on who's the guy who'll help us win the most.
RG: How about on the defensive side of the ball? What's coming back?
MS: Well, you asked about things I'm excited about, why I'm optimistic. I'm really excited about our defensive coordinator. We have a new defensive coordinator in Dennis Therrell. And just the scheme and what we're doing. And then a new defensive line coach in Andre Patterson, who has 11 years of NFL defensive line coaching experience. Most recently with the Denver Broncos, but he was with the Dallas Cowboys, and he has a great background as a defensive line coach. And I saw a difference in our defense this spring. Our defense was improved in the spring.
RG: With guys on the defensive line, when you bring in a coach with that kind of a pedigree, do you notice maybe their ears perk up a bit more?
MS: Yes. And their production perked up.
RG: Who do you expect to be the leaders on this defense?
MS: I would say up front on the defensive line, Jacob Hales is an inside guy. Another guy, Malo Taumua, who both had excellent springs. Thor Pili is a defensive end who had a really good spring. Isaako Aaitui is a defensive end from American Samoa. Those guys I feel very good about. Starr Fuimaono is a linebacker who I expect big things out of. Quinton Pointer is a corner out of florida who was a freshman last year. I expect good things out of him, too.
RG: Your guys embracing this underdog role? It seems like everyone's talking about the two names duking it out atop the preseason poll.
MS: There are the two Utah teams up there, but you've gotta put TCU right there, too. As a program, even though the media says they're third, they're a very legitimate contender in that group. Then after that, to me, I don't think there's a whole lot of difference between the rest of the teams. I think it's very, very competitive week-in, week-out with the rest of those teams.
RG: How about your mindset going into this season? Are you feeling pressure?
MS: I don't look at it that way. I feel like one of my things is having a sense of urgency. I feel that within myself. I have a sense of urgency regardless of what the outside influences are. I don't look at it like that, but I do feel a sense of urgency, and I feel like our players need to have more of a sense of urgency.
RG: How do you convey that to players that you have a sense of urgency?
MS: I think they've seen it already and they will continue to see it.
RG: What have the last few years taught you about being a head coach, with what the program has gone through the past few years? How do you think that's shaped you as a head coach?
MS: I think on the one hand, there's a balance of urgency, but also patience. I think you've got to have a sense of urgency, but you've also got to have patience with kids, and realize that they're kids. That can't be an excuse, but you've got to have patience with them.