unlv football:

Rebels optimistic as hectic offseason coming to a close

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV wide receiver Devante Davis runs to the end zone during their Mountain West Conference game against San Diego State on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at Sam Boyd Stadium. UNLV won 45-19.

The scrum surrounding UNLV coach Bobby Hauck on Wednesday in the Cosmopolitan at the Mountain West’s media days was noticeably larger and lasted longer than in the past couple of years. Relevance gives more import to Hauck’s words, not to mention that UNLV had one of the most interesting offseasons in the league.

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First, the Rebels were banned from postseason play because their APR score didn’t meet the NCAA’s minimum. The team was already gearing up to replace its quarterback, record-setting running back and some key defensive pieces after a breakthrough season that ended with its first bowl berth in 13 years, and the momentum appeared stymied.

A couple of months later, after UNLV’s academic support team spent countless hours combing through the data and working with the NCAA, the ban was lifted because they were able to find a few more points through different interpretations. In between, the Rebels lost a couple of players to transfers and scheduled a 13th game that they wouldn’t have put on the slate if they were eligible the entire time.

All of that is a prelude to whatever happens this season. All things considered, Hauck feels good about the program’s situation.

“We have what I think is our best team,” Hauck said. “At this point in time those are just words, but I like this team a lot.”

When the APR news hit in April, there were questions about how many players would stay. Any senior was allowed to transfer and play immediately, and two took that opportunity: offensive lineman Cameron Jefferson to Arkansas and running back Adonis Smith to Arizona.

That was it, though. The Rebels had three seniors on the preseason all-conference team, and all of them, plus a handful of others, likely had a few options. Coming off a 14-touchdown season, receiver Devante Davis could have entered the NFL Draft or looked for a higher-profile program for his final season.

“Playing football at a university and having loyal people behind you and growing up with teammates to where you really love them and they’re like brothers, that’s bigger than football,” Davis said. “It was an easy decision for me to stay.”

Hauck said Davis could have been in an NFL training camp right now but decided to stick it out, in large part, because he’s on track to graduate in December after only three and a half years in school. While there are a lot of possible strengths on this year’s roster, Davis is the best player the Rebels have. Keeping him was huge in terms of building on last year’s 7-6 season.

“He’s a beast of a receiver,” Hauck said. “… Who knows what kind of year he’ll have. He’s going to see a lot of coverage tilted his way, so we have to get the ball to some other people in order to free him up.”

Jefferson’s departure plus junior Ron Scoggins’ absence from the fall roster — “He’s deciding what he wants to do,” Hauck said of the Bishop Gorman product — means the offensive line is replacing its two starting guards. Left tackle Brett Boyko and center Robert Waterman, who joined Davis on the preseason all-league team, anchor the group that’s going to have to replace those guys without missing a beat.

“Maybe it’s selfish, but once me and (Davis) decided to stay I felt like others would stay,” Boyko said. “It was kind of a shock to hear it (from Jefferson), but he’s a grown man and can make his own decisions.”

Although Hauck always focused on what UNLV still had to play for and how little the ban would affect the team, the difference seemed clear once the Rebels were reinstated. It doesn’t guarantee them anything more than an opportunity, but that alone added an extra bounce to the players’ steps. Or, as Boyko said, a few more plates and reps to their weight-room sets.

“Guys were saying, ‘You know what, it’s business time. Let’s go out and get it done,’” Boyko said. “We know that it’s a long stretch and we have to take it game by game, but we also know that just having that possibility is good enough motivation to get us all going.”

There appear to be at least seven possible victories on the Rebels’ schedule, but nothing is certain when you remember that UNLV won only six games combined in the three seasons prior to 2013. It’s going to be an uphill battle, just like it always is. Only now, UNLV feels better equipped for battle.

On paper it’s the best team of Hauck’s tenure, a group that has stuck around and stuck together through losing seasons and a brief postseason ban. And now here they are, ready for whatever comes next.

“All the stuff about team, unity and commitment, all of those things are not just words,” Hauck said. “They actually apply in our case.”

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

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