Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The 2013 UNLV football season didn’t end the way the Rebels hoped it would as they fell 36-14 to North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. However, the fact that they were in a bowl at all is big news as far as this program is concerned and completely changes the way people will look at this offseason.
Last year, the predominant question was “Will Bobby Hauck keep his job?” And it was a fair query considering Hauck’s 6-32 record at UNLV. Many didn’t expect or want him to see Year Four.
Now the Rebels are coming off a 7-6 season — their first above .500 since 2000 — and Hauck has a new deal that keeps him under contract through the 2016 season. That newfound security means the focus will be less on the coach and more on what the team can do to follow up its breakthrough season.
Here are some of the storylines that figure to dominate UNLV football circles heading into spring practice and the 2014 season, starting with the most important:
Can UNLV make it back to the postseason?
This is the one that everyone’s going to have an opinion about. One trip to a bowl game was nice, but with back-to-back berths, Hauck could accomplish what no UNLV coach has done.
There’s reason to believe the Rebels can do it. They return nine starters on offense, including the entire offensive line, and seven starters on defense. There was considerable improvement in the returners during the 2012 season, and those guys continued to get better throughout a mostly healthy 2013 campaign.
On the other hand, the Rebels got lucky with a weak schedule. The seven teams UNLV defeated finished with a combined record of 28-57. Its six losses were to teams that finished with a total record of 51-27.
Beating the bad and mediocre teams was a fine step this year because UNLV traditionally has been on the wrong side of those matchups, but that may not be enough to sustain this success. A lot of that depends on how the league progresses.
UNLV will play the same Mountain West opponents it did in the 2013 season, except every game location will reverse. That means the seemingly easier games against New Mexico and Air Force will be at home, and the games UNLV really needs to win to move up the hierarchy will be at Utah State and at San Jose State.
In addition, road games at Arizona and BYU plus a home game against Northern Illinois make the 2014 schedule daunting for the Rebels.
Who’s going to replace quarterback Caleb Herring and running back Tim Cornett?
As I said in that first section, UNLV brings back nine offensive starters. The tough part is that the two they lose just finished one of the best seasons — and in Cornett’s case, careers — that UNLV has ever seen.
Herring’s remarkable turnaround was a joy to watch. Many people, myself included, had written off his quarterback career, but he kept working and flourished when given the opportunity. Cornett put an exclamation point on his tenure with 15 touchdowns and more than 100 yards per game during the regular season to become the school’s all-time leading rusher.
Replacing both of them will be a tough task, but I think UNLV feels like it already has the guys to take over for Cornett. Among Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, Adonis Smith, Keith Whitely and Henri Jussila, I believe UNLV will get close to the 2,177 net rushing yards the team produced in 2013.
If not for a fumbling problem, Murray-Lawrence would be the clear favorite. A similar problem in a game-changing play against North Texas could set Whitely back, but overall I think those things won’t matter too much if they protect the ball in practice. I like those two as the favorites for a two-headed rushing attack, with Smith possibly breaking into the top two and Jussila as the long shot.
Herring was UNLV’s third-leading rusher this season, meaning the Rebels have to make up for his production on the ground as well as through the air. Opening-day starter Nick Sherry will be in the mix entering his junior season, but there’s a reason UNLV’s bringing in Arizona junior college quarterback Blake Decker.
Decker seems like more of a natural fit than Sherry for the spread-based system Herring ran under offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach. Redshirt freshman Jared Lebowitz will also get plenty of chances to win the job.
For the first time in awhile, I’ll really believe Hauck when he says it’s an open competition at quarterback. If I have to pick right now who takes the most snaps, I’ll go with Decker.
Who are some guys who could emerge on defense?
The Rebels lose two starting defensive linemen and two starting linebackers from a unit that made great strides under first-year defensive coordinator Tim Hauck. Although there may be changes at other positions, those are the ones to focus on when trying to figure out how this group will play.
At defensive line, the losses are helped by the return of pass rushers Sonny Sanitoa and Jordan Sparkman. It’s in the middle that needs work, and one name to look for is Efrem Clark. The junior college transfer will be a senior in 2014 and should be near the top of the list of guys stuffing the line.
At linebacker, the Rebels may end up starting three sophomores. Tau Lotulelei returns after starting four games at outside linebacker, and Iggy Porchia and Trent Langham should be factors at the other spots. Another guy to watch is Bishop Gorman grad Marc Philippi, who appeared in every game after switching from safety to linebacker before the 2013 season.