Updated April 9, 2018 - 7:16 pm
UNLV ended last football season saying goodbye to standout defensive tackles Mike Hughes Jr. and Jason Fao, and what had been the defense’s strength was in for a transition.
But sophomore Kolo Uasike has done well enough in spring practices to not only assuage concerns about the interior defensive line, but along with senior Salanoa-Alo Wily, has provided hope the position again could be a strength.
“Me and my boy, Sala, it’s going to be dangerous on the field,” Uasike said. “So look out for that.”
Certainly not all questions have been answered about defensive tackle and won’t be even after Saturday’s noon spring game at Peter Johann Memorial Field.
That’s because more competition is on the way this summer. Three junior college tackles — Dominion Ezinwa, Montrice Johns and Tavis Malakius — will arrive with the intention of playing right away.
Whether any does well enough to grab a starting spot is another question, but coaches didn’t sign those players to keep them on the bench. At the very least, the expectation is they will provide depth.
UNLV needs the extra help after losing Hughes and Fao. Hughes was named second-team All-Mountain West last season after recording 53 tackles, including seven for loss and two sacks. Fao totaled 38 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and a sack.
Given the kind of players the Rebels need to replace, defensive line coach Tony Samuel is withholding judgment on how he feels about the interior line.
“I like what those two guys (in spring) are doing,” Samuel said. “Salanoa is also doing some very good things inside. We lost two really good guys from last year, so these guys are responsible for replacing them, and we did sign some junior college kids and a couple of high school kids that need to come in here and help out as well.”
Uasike made it known he is more than ready to compete for his starting job.
“So if you want it, you’re going have to fight me for it,” he said. “Every day, I tell them all day. I’m letting all the recruits know, when you all come in, it’s a competition every day, baby.”
Uasike received some playing time as an incoming freshman last season, appearing in six games and getting a sense of what is expected at this level of football. He made four tackles, including half of one for a loss.
He also saw he needed to get in better shape, and has dropped about 25 pounds to get down to 315 pounds on his 6-foot frame. Uasike said he would like to lose another 10 pounds.
“He’s doing really good things,” Samuel said. “This last week, I could see little technique things happening. He is losing the weight, and he’s starting to move much better.”
Uasike doesn’t want to sacrifice strength, though, and he is plenty strong, able to squat 600 pounds and bench press 400.
As a senior at Skyline High School in Mesa, Arizona, he wrestled and went 27-0 with every victory by pin and won the 6A state championship.
“He’s one of the strongest guys I’ve ever been around,” coach Tony Sanchez said. “The biggest thing with him is learning to play within the system, not back-dooring things, freelancing and doing some high school things. If we can get him completely sound and he takes the coaching and applies it every single day, he’s got a chance to be a dominant guy in this conference.”
Kolo Uasike file
Position: Defensive tackle
Size: 6-0, 315
Hometown: Mesa, Ariz.
High school: Skyline
Awards: Regional defensive MVP in 2016 and state wrestling champion in 2017