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December 19, 2014

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Columnist Ron Kantowski: It’s time for Nantkes to step up

Ron Kantowski is a Las Vegas Sun sports writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (702) 259-4088.

According to the French writer and moralist Jean De La Bruyere, there are certain things in which mediocrity is intolerable: Poetry, music, painting, public eloquence.

De La Bruyere made that observation in 1688. Were he around today and endured as many UNLV football games as I have since 1987, he might have to append his famous quotation to include "college football quarterback."

Scott Sims. Charles Price. Derek Stott. John Ma'ae. Bob Stockham. Jason Davis. Jared Brown. Kevin Crook. Jason Vaughn. Not exactly the kind of names that wake up echoes, are they? Save for the list of Cubs third basemen since Ron Santo retired or Republican senators from the state of Nebraska, it would be hard to compile a more nondescript roster.

Of all the Rebels quarterbacks I've seen come and go and overthrow open receivers, only Jon Denton and Jason Thomas showed the potential to be better than average. Unfortunately, both went to pot -- in Denton's case, literally -- after showing early promise.

Which bring us to Kurt Nantkes, the current Rebels quarterback who is trying to avoid blending into the background with all those other guys.

Everybody expected so much more, especially after Nantkes looked so good in guiding the Rebels to a stunning season-ending victory at Colorado State last year.

"The team has a quiet confidence that Kurt is going to have a great passing year," UNLV coach John Robinson said coming into fall camp. "He is accurate and can get the ball downfield. His age gives him maturity ... now that he has a chance, I think we'll see Kurt at his best."

Well, six games into the season, Nantkes is not having a great passing year, he has not been consistently accurate and he has rarely gotten the ball down the field with deep passes. But his age (almost 24) does give him maturity.

Statistically, he has had two nice games, the opener against Toledo, when he completed 27 of 41 passes for 308 yards, and two weeks ago at Nevada-Reno, when he went 27 of 41 for 255 yards.

Nantkes also had an efficient outing at Wisconsin, even if the stats don't show it. He completed 12 of 25 passes for just 93 yards on a rainy day, but in contrast to Jim Sorgi, his Wisconsin counterpart, Nantkes made few mistakes. His ability to take care of the football was crucial to the Rebels' shocking 23-5 upset.

But in last week's 24-7 defeat at Air Force, even the most patient UNLV backers would have to concede that Nantkes regressed. The Rebels came out throwing against the Falcons but Nantkes came out missing, completing just 8 of 20 passes for 84 yards. He also threw a dreadful interception, in which he tried to telegraph a ball to Earvin Johnson that Air Force converted into a key field goal.

In addition, Nantkes showed no ability to elude the Air Force pass rush, forcing UNLV to abandon its game plan. The Rebels scored their only touchdown on a 16-play drive that featured only one pass, which, to his credit, Nantkes completed for a drive-sustaining first down.

Still, with the possible exception of 1971 Oklahoma, there aren't many teams that can overcome 17-0 deficits by running the ball 15 times out of 16. For the first time, it appeared Robinson lost confidence in Nantkes, and I'll be stunned if the Rebels come out throwing again Saturday against Utah.

In Nantkes' defense, this West Coast-style passing game the Rebels introduced this year, with its calculated drops and confusing reads, isn't the easiest scheme to master. And anybody who has followed Robinson's career knows he has always considered passing like visiting the dentist.

But maybe this is the way to go. If the Rebels are able to run, it should free up some space for its receiving tandem of Johnson (Earvin) & Johnson (Michael). Maybe with the defense stacked against the run, Nantkes won't have to be quite so precise with his passes.

A couple of weeks ago, Robinson told his Quarterback Club audience that Nantkes' inconsistent play nothwithstanding, somewhere down the line he would be have to win a game for the Rebels.

Despite what happened at Air Force, I don't think he meant by handing off.

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