Rebels football:

James Boyd learning on the job as he tries to fit into UNLV’s defensive line rotation

An injury to Sonny Sanitoa makes Boyd’s progression at defensive end more important to the Rebels this season

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Sage Sammons / UNLV Athletics

Junior defensive end James Boyd (left) works in a drill against an offensive lineman Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, in Ely. Boyd, who moved over from quarterback, will have a chance to contribute on the defensive line this season.

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UNLV quarterback James Boyd talks to a reporter before practice at Rebel Field Monday, March 12, 2012.

James Boyd is boisterous on a football field, no matter what position he’s playing.

UNLV’s junior quarterback-turned-defensive end is often heard before he’s seen at practice in Ely. When a big play is made, he’s often the first guy on the sidelines to let everyone else know about it with a congratulatory yell and a big grin.

The question is: Will he be capable of making some of those big plays this season?

A Los Angeles native, Boyd went to USC out of high school, practicing at quarterback and tight end and playing a little bit in his redshirt freshman season on defense. In 2011, he transferred to West Los Angeles City College, where he didn’t play.

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck brought Boyd into the program with the promise that he’d get a shot at quarterback. And he did, practicing in a yellow jersey right up until the spring game, when he switched sides and excelled at defensive end.

Now he’s working every day under the watchful eye of defensive line coach Michael Gray, who’s challenging the athletic, 6-5, 255-pound junior and seeing how he responds. Though the results haven’t always been stellar, Boyd doesn’t lack confidence.

“Once I get my pad level set, there’s no offensive lineman who can stay in front of me,” Boyd said.

Boyd’s progression at the position became more important last weekend, when projected starter Sonny Sanitoa went down with an injury to his left knee. An MRI revealed that Sanitoa won’t need surgery, but the redshirt freshman struggled to move around the practice field on crutches Wednesday. Because he took a non-medical redshirt last year, Sanitoa will use a year of eligibility this season whether he plays or not, so Gray and Hauck are hopeful they’ll get him back at some point this fall.

“He was the guy,” Gray said. “It’s tough, man.”

As with any other injury, Sanitoa’s absence opens the door for other players. That includes junior transfer Parker Holloway and true freshman Marcell Frazier.

Sophomores Jordan Sparkman and Desmond Tautofi figure to anchor the top of the rotation. Gray said he’s very impressed with the strides Holloway has made since spring, and while Frazier is a likely candidate to redshirt, he has given his coaches enough reason to consider putting him on the field.

As a group, Gray is throwing everything he can at his players — footwork, hand technique, blitz packages, etc. — and seeing what sticks. So far, Boyd has been among the leaders in keeping his head above water.

“I’m feeding him a lot of stuff, a lot of information, and he’s taking to it well,” Gray said. “He actually has a pretty good mind when it comes to remembering things. He’s an ex-quarterback, so he has a good concept of understanding football. He’s got more of a natural feel (than some other guys).”

What he doesn’t have is the technique. In one drill Wednesday, defensive linemen attacked their offensive counterparts, who sometimes double-teamed the pass rushers. Boyd rarely made it past the line of scrimmage.

He has the athleticism, and he’s learning more every day, but like Boyd said, until he gets his pad level perfected to the proper angle that gives him an advantage against the offense, he’s not going to affect the team in the regular season. The good news is there’s still time. In Ely, the players don’t have much to do besides hang out with each other and study film.

“Coming out here, being away from the distraction of Las Vegas feels good,” Boyd said. “You’re surrounded by teammates. You can teach younger guys what their mistakes are and learn from your mistakes, as well.”

While the ends battle to replace the departed starters, especially sack leader James Dunlap, at least the middle of the line has some experience. Defensive tackles Alex Klorman, Trent Allmang-Wilder and Tyler Gaston all started at least three games last year. Their job will be to anchor the line while the athletic, if unproven, ends try to wreak havoc in the backfield.

Gray said he’s looking for at least an eight-man rotation, minimum, on the line. Offenses move too fast to keep guys out there too long and expect them to be fresh in the fourth quarter, he said.

With Sanitoa out indefinitely, Boyd will be given ample opportunity to contribute. If and when he does that, Boyd will be sure you hear about it.

NOTES

Sophomore running back Dionza Bradford has shed the boot he wore for a sprained ankle, but he hasn’t made it back on to the practice field yet. UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said he expects last year’s second-leading rusher to return at any time.

Also on offense, former quarterback-turned-linebacker Taylor Barnhill has been taking reps at tight end. Injuries, most notably freshman Nick Gstrein’s broken foot, have depleted the unit and forced Hauck to get creative by moving Barnhill back to offense.

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

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  1. Is Nate Holloway still on the team?