unlv football:

Analysis: These five players must be great for UNLV football to have winning season

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Steve Marcus

Quarterback Nick Sherry calls out to teammates during practice at Rebel Park at UNLV Monday, March 4, 2013.

Nick Sherry

Hawaii defensive lineman Paipai Falemalu (42) and linebacker Art Laurel (41) put the pressure on UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry (3) as Sherry throws a pass in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner) Launch slideshow »

The hard hits added up late last season for UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry.

He’ll never use injuries as an excuse, but he clearly wasn’t the same quarterback in the final weeks of the season.

Sherry had a solid rookie campaign in 2012, throwing for 2,544 yards — fourth-most in league history for a freshman; just 118 off the record — and 16 touchdowns, but he struggled down the stretch after being injured in an ugly loss at Colorado State.

He completed only 12 of 30 passes for 88 yards against the Rams on that cold afternoon in Fort Collins, then missed the following week against Wyoming because of an injury.

He returned for the season finale at Hawaii but was still banged up in completing 18 of 43 passes for 166 yards and three interceptions in a blowout loss.

The once-promising season quickly became a nightmare. Sherry threw seven interceptions in his final three games, which UNLV was favored to win before falling flat in a disappointing ending.

“I was struggling but was able to play through it,” Sherry said Monday during a free youth clinic hosted by the Las Vegas Bowl and led by UNLV players and coaches. “Great players play through injuries. I can’t let something like that affect me.”

When the Rebels take the field Tuesday for their first practice, a more experienced Sherry will be at the helm of the offense.

He’ll also be the Rebels’ unquestioned starter. Last year, he was in competition with Caleb Herring.

“A lot more confidence. A lot more comfort,” Sherry said. “The experience of last year helped a lot. Even though I had some struggles and some rough times, it helped me learn. It also helped me gain experience so this year I am not nervous for the game. I’ll be excited. Ready to go.”

In addition to Sherry, the Rebels return their leading rusher (Tim Cornett) and wide receiver (Devante Davis) and have several other key pieces back in the fold.

“The offense can be very lethal. We can put up a lot of points. We just have to go out and do our thing and have fun,” he said.

However, with no accomplished backup behind Sherry, his success — and health — will likely determine the Rebels’ fate.

He’s not the only player with huge expectations. Here are four more to keep an eye on:

    • Tim Cornett could be a record setter

      Cornett needs 700 rushing yards to become the school’s all-time leading rusher, closing in on Mike Thomas’ 3,149 yards in the 1970s. He is the first player to lead UNLV in rushing three straight seasons, and he'll need to continue the solid ground performances for the Rebels to have any chance of piecing together a winning season. Last year, Cornett had eight games of 100 or more rushing yards — a trend expected to continue in 2013. He’s Mr. Reliable in the UNLV backfield, fumbling only once in three years.

    • UNLV offensive lineman Brett Boyko moves his feet to make a block during the Rebels 2012 season opener against Minnesota at Sam Boyd Stadium.

      Brett Boyko returns to anchor the line

      Boyko returning to the lineup solidifies an offensive line that struggled late last season. The 6-foot-7, 310-pound junior played in just four games before injuring his leg, needing surgery to repair the injury and missing spring practice. He was a second-team freshman all-American in 2011 and rated by one magazine as the Mountain West’s best blocker entering last season. If he can return to his pre-injury dominance, the Rebels could have an edge in the trenches.

    • Sonny Sanitoa leads defensive front

      Despite playing in just nine games last year after being injured in the summer, Sanitoa left little question as to which player was the Rebels’ top defensive lineman. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound sophomore led the team with five sacks in 2012 to set a UNLV freshman record. He added 28 tackles and a fumble recovery. He’s a significant reason why the defensive line could be a strength in 2013.

    • Rebels Tajh Hasson (29) and Tim Hasson (43) take down Air Force wide receiver Ty MacArthur during the second quarter of play at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.

      Tim Hasson goes from walk-on to leader

      For a defense with more weaknesses than strengths the past few seasons, senior linebacker Tim Hasson could provide stability. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound former walk-on is UNLV’s leading returning tackler with 76 total tackles, including five for a loss. He went from being under-recruited in 2009 during his senior year at Cimarron-Memorial High in Las Vegas to playing in all 38 career games at UNLV. He has 141 career tackles — not bad for a walk-on. His half brother, Tajh, is a likely starter at cornerback.

    Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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