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September 23, 2014

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UNLV football:

Rebels need passing targets like Marcus Sullivan and Jake Phillips to bring balance

The rushing game looks like UNLV’s strength, but without some passing prowess Tim Cornett won’t have room to run

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Steve Marcus

Wide receiver Marcus Sullivan (18) looks in a pass during practice at UNLV’s Rebel Field, April 16, 2012.

UNLV Football Practice: 8/7/12

UNLV running back Dionza Bradford takes a break during practice Tuesday, August 7, 2012. Launch slideshow »

With five returning starters on the offensive line, a workhorse at running back and possibly a redshirt freshman at quarterback, the Rebels’ best route to offensive success this year is on the ground.

Junior Tim Cornett, UNLV’s leading rusher the past two seasons, wants to become the unquestioned leader and put the offense on his back. Rebels coaches won’t get in his way.

But what’s going to happen when UNLV, inevitably, needs to throw the ball?

It's a rare rushing attack that can be entirely effective without a passing game to keep defenses from stacking the line of scrimmage with nine players. When that pressure comes, the onus will be on a slew of talented if unproven playmakers in the passing game to keep the Rebels moving forward.

No matter who’s throwing the ball — either youngster Nick Sherry or veteran Caleb Herring — UNLV needs guys to step up on the other end of that transaction. Last year, the team ranked last in the Mountain West Conference and third from the bottom in the country in passing offense (109.6 yards per game).

Two players who may hold the key to fixing that stat are sophomore receiver Marcus Sullivan and freshman tight end Jake Phillips.

Neither guy was a part of the anemic passing attack last year. Both redshirted, Sullivan after failing to qualify academically.

This year, they’re both poised for big roles from the get-go.

Sullivan may wreak the most havoc as a kick returner, but the same speed and agility that make him a standout in that area could help him be a big-play threat in the offense.

“Deep threat, but I’m also a role player, too,” Sullivan said after a recent UNLV practice at Rebel Park. “If everyone’s focused on me, then our other weapons will shine.”

That’s where Phillips comes in.

As freshmen, Phillips and Sherry shared a dorm room. They were part of a small group of players who would get out and work on routes and timing at least once a week during the spring semester.

Now he will try to take that work into real games.

“I see myself as a big target for the quarterback,” said Phillips, who’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds. “We’ve got a great offensive line that will give the quarterback time to get the ball to playmakers like Marcus.”

If Sullivan is able to have some success, the short and intermediate routes should be more open for a guy like Phillips. And vice versa.

UNLV also has options in 6-foot-3 receiver Devante Davis or Bishop Gorman grad Taylor Spencer, a 6-foot-1 sophomore. But Sullivan and Phillips present the greatest contrast of styles with the most upside.

Sullivan is small, even for a speed receiver — 5-9, 195 pounds — but you won’t find a surplus of tall cornerbacks in the Mountain West, and height matters less if you’re able to run past somebody. All it takes is getting burned once for a defense to divert some of its resources away from the line of scrimmage.

Despite never playing a Division I game, Phillips looks like an experienced player on the practice field. He has the size to be useful in blocking schemes — ditto for true freshman tight end Nick Grstein, who checks in at 6-4, 275 pounds — and Phillips has excellent hands, routinely hauling in less-than-perfect passes.

If Sullivan can divert attention down the field and Phillips can become a threat from 10-15 yards, that may be enough to keep defenses honest and give Cornett some room to work.

Without an improved passing game, no amount of effort from Cornett and the offensive line is going to be enough to make the strides third-year coach Bobby Hauck wants to see.

But if Sullivan, Phillips and company are able to turn some of this potential into production, UNLV will have the balance to let the offense run free.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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