Analysis:

Take 5: The UNLV position battles worth watching at Saturday’s scrimmage

Skill positions, the secondary and even special teams hold some intrigue as the Rebels sort out their depth chart

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Stephen Sylvanie

UNLV wide receiver Jerry Rice Jr. looks to make a catch during a team practice at Rebel Park on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013.

A benefit of bringing back 19 starters, as UNLV football does this season, is there aren’t a lot of jobs up for grabs as the season approaches. It’s competitive, sure, but the Rebels have a luxury, rare around here, of knowing who’s going to start at several positions.

There are still battles being fought, though, and many may be decided at the team’s first scrimmage Saturday in Ely. The Rebels will do this once more before coming back to Las Vegas on Wednesday, but by that scrimmage most of the decisions have been made.

This is the one where jobs are up for grabs and the coaches get a good look at which players seem game-ready and which ones don’t. By the time it’s over, we should have fairly reliable answers. And what are the questions? I’m glad you asked.

A lot of those returners — nine offensive, nine defensive and kicker Nolan Kohorst — aren’t in any danger of losing playing time, but not every one is guaranteed his spot back. Plus, the top backups at certain positions could play a large role in how this season turns out for the Rebels.

Here are a few position battles worth keeping an eye on as the Rebels prepare for arguably their most important day until they kick off Aug. 29 at Minnesota:

    • Backup receivers

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      The depth chart at receiver is likely to change throughout the year but Saturday’s scrimmage should at least provide some clarity on the guys who will get the first shots.

      The clear No. 1 is Devante Davis. Junior Marcus Sullivan is the second-best option, though his history of drops could certainly complicate his job security. And sophomore Anthony Williams had a promising freshman campaign with at least one catch in 11 games.

      After those three it’s a free-for-all. Senior Caleb Herring is still listed at receiver but he’s been spending more time back at quarterback, including significant reps with the first team on Wednesday. After those first three it's a fight between newcomers Jack Killian, Jerry Rice Jr. and Kendal Keys for the remaining playing time.

      Killian, a junior college transfer from California, was one of the bright spots from spring practices. Rice Jr. is like Sullivan, undersized but speedy, and could turn out to be a factor in the Rebels’ return game. And Keys, who’s the younger brother of defensive back Kenny Keys, is the newest Rebel after joining the team this week from Boise State.

      With a big performance Saturday, any of those guys could gain a leg up on the competition to be a target for quarterback Nick Sherry.

    • Backup running back

      Like receiver, this position has a clear No. 1 in Davis’ high school teammate Tim Cornett. The Texas native will likely become the program’s all-time leading rusher at some point this season.

      However, one running back isn’t enough these days. Even a healthy Cornett will need support and the Rebels have a few candidates to be the first guy off the bench.

      Junior Adonis Smith is the front-runner. A Northwestern transfer, Smith looked great in spring practice, at least when he was able to hold onto the ball. Since then a trio of newcomers have joined the team and added to the intrigue.

      Henri Jussila, the third Finnish player to join the team, is the most likely to redshirt although he’s shown promise in camp. The other two — freshmen Keith Whitely and junior Shaquille Murray-Lawrence — are battling for immediate playing time and could even unseat Smith as the top backup.

      Whitely, a speeding bullet out of Houston, is the running back of the future and may be too good to redshirt this season. Murray-Lawrence is Canadian and comes to UNLV from Tyler Junior College in Texas. Both guys are undersized — about 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds — so they’re better candidates to handle a limited role than what’s required of Cornett (6-0, 210).

      It will be interesting to see how the carries are distributed among this group.

    • Punter

      Yes, punter. The position you’ve probably thought about the least features one of the most intriguing battles.

      On one side there’s sophomore Logan Yunker, an Arbor View grad who sat out last season after transferring back home following at year at UNR. He’s only a slight favorite over Nicolai Bornand, a true freshman out of Santa Barbara, Calif. Oh, did I mention Bornand is also a linebacker?

      At 6-1 and 230 pounds Bornand sure doesn’t fit the typical build of a punter, but he’s been going kick for kick with Yunker in camp. Both guys should get a chance during the scrimmage.

    • Safety

      Five different players started games at one of the safety spots last season. Three of them return, but there could still be some new blood in the mix for what has been one of UNLV’s weakest positions the past few years.

      Tajh Hasson, Peni Vea and Kenny Keys started a combined 16 games last year, although midway through the year, Hasson moved to cornerback as senior Kenny Brown took over at safety. Vea battled an injury while Keys battled extreme inconsistency.

      The most intriguing newcomer to the mix is Frank Crawford, the younger brother of Dre Crawford, who started two games at safety last season. The elder Crawford graduated and his sibling is in Las Vegas for one season after getting over recruited at Ole Miss. Before Frank Crawford was pushed mostly to the bench, he played in 12 games as a sophomore and he still made an interception last season.

      As long as he’s able to pick up the specifics of Tim Hauck’s defense, Crawford should have a chance to slide into a starter’s role.

    • Coordinators

      OK, this isn’t a position battle, but it is something worth watching. This scrimmage is the first live play-calling for new coordinators Timm Rosenbach (offense) and Tim Hauck (defense).

      Coach Bobby Hauck has said multiple times he doesn’t expect any major changes with the play-calling since they’re still running the same scheme. However, there are bound to be some differences that will play out throughout the season (More blitzing? More vertical passing?) and this is the first chance to get a glimpse at some of them.

      It’s also an opportunity to see how the new coaches have affected their respective position players. Tim Hauck has the cornerbacks, which have been a mess for UNLV over the years, and Rosenbach coaches the quarterbacks, where the Rebels need sophomore Nick Sherry to cut down on the turnovers.

      Perhaps more important than the plays they eventually call on game days this fall is what impact they’ve had on the players at a couple of very important positions for UNLV.

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

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