Saturday, April 12, 2014 | 2 a.m.
UNLV football’s Spring Showcase is simultaneously the most and least important practice the team has this time of year.
Coach Bobby Hauck said there isn’t much to learn from the scrimmage stats or results, mainly because this is the least intense of the Rebels’ 15 spring practices. And that’s because it isn’t geared toward player improvement like a normal practice. Instead it’s a chance to show off what the Rebels have been working on in front of a couple thousand fans, and it’s that audience that makes this practice important.
“We’re out there just beating each other up during the spring, and it’s nice to have some fans and have a crowd for a game-like environment,” junior quarterback Blake Decker said.
Decker’s battle with former starter and fellow junior Nick Sherry will be the most-watched position battle when the team resumes practices this summer, yet on Friday it was the various running backs stealing the show on offense.
Adonis Smith, Keith Whitely and Eugene Johnson each had runs or quick catches that netted at least 35 yards, and Henri Jussila used his short stature to his advantage by hiding behind the offensive line and then darting out for a 6-yard touchdown run.
Last year, there was a clear No. 1 in the backfield with Tim Cornett, who finished the season as the program’s all-time leading rusher. This year, the competition is much more open.
“There’s no guy right now, I guess,” Smith said, “but I want to be the guy and I hope the coaches see that.”
Smith finished with 83 yards and a couple of scores on seven carries in helping the Gray team to a 20-13 victory against Scarlet.
The running back race also includes leading returning rusher Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, who’s been sidelined with an injury, and David Greene, who recently moved over from defense. Hauck said the move wasn’t meant to be a message to the other running backs, but that’s exactly how Smith took it. And if that means he works even harder throughout the summer, then that’s probably OK with Hauck.
Other standouts from the scrimmage included defensive back Kenny Keys and linebacker Nicolai Bornand, who kicked a couple of extra points. Sherry finished 5-of-7 for 69 yards and a touchdown while Decker was 3-of-6 for 18 yards with one score and one impressive interception by cornerback Brandon Baker.
The scrimmage probably didn’t affect much as far as younger guys vying for positions, which means it was even less important for the veterans. And yet it also carried some more importance than usual because it came one day after UNLV announced it would be ineligible for postseason play because of low Academic Progress Rate scores.
In fact, the Spring Showcase was a little more than 24 hours after the players learned that news in a team meeting. So if it was important for fans to come out and see how the players have progressed, it was also crucial for the Rebels to come out and try to show they’re just as dedicated to the season Friday afternoon as they were on Thursday morning.
“This is a very close-knit team, so we know we’re still going to play for each other,” Smith said.
If any players had second thoughts about their place on this team, they weren’t showing it. Not Decker, who had a few places to choose from this offseason coming out of junior college in Arizona. Not Smith, who’s entering his third and final year at UNLV after playing two years at Northwestern.
And not senior receiver Devante Davis, who echoed Hauck’s sentiments that most of UNLV’s goals are still out there. They can be the first team in UNLV history to have back-to-back winning records, and the de facto bowl game is now Nov. 29 at Sam Boyd Stadium with the Fremont Cannon on the line.
It’s for those reasons that Davis can’t see himself or any other seniors “betraying” the team and transferring without having to sit out.
Removing any postseason possibilities makes this, to the outside world, one of the least important UNLV seasons, yet how the Rebels respond to this adversity also makes it one of the most important to the future of the program. And Davis plans to be a key part of it.
“I’m a Rebel,” Davis said. “We’re all Rebels.”