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UNLV defense determined to prove itself next football season

Updated April 19, 2018 - 7:40 pm

When UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez went to Los Angeles on Sunday for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup playoff series between the Golden Knights and Kings, he saw a group of Vegas players with something to prove after being left unprotected in the expansion draft last summer.

Sanchez looks at his defense and see a similar fortitude.

“These guys have a lot of heartbreak on their belt right now,” he said. “The thing that makes them mad, because they talk about it all the time, is they feel we’ve made this program better every single day, and you can’t even argue it. They kind of got a chip on their shoulder because they feel like they get no credit for it. I said, ‘Keep that damn chip.’”

UNLV wrapped up spring practices Saturday, and Sanchez discussed the state of the team Thursday. The Rebels return to the practice field in August in preparation for the Sept. 1 season opener at Southern California.

Their offense should score more than 30 points per game next season. The defense, though, allowed 31.8 points per game last season.

Those struggles prompted Sanchez to bring in Tim Skipper as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach and Steve Irvin to oversee cornerbacks.

Up front, the play this spring of sophomore tackle Kolo Uasike (6 feet, 320 pounds) helped ease concerns after losing tackles Mike Hughes Jr. and Jason Fao. Senior Salanoa-Alo Wily (6-0, 295) is the expected starter at the other tackle, and four newcomers will join the team in the summer and compete for playing time.

At defensive end, Sanchez called junior Nick Dehdashtian (6-1, 290) “elite.” Seniors Jameer Outsey (6-3, 240) and Roger Mann (6-3, 265) also figure to play a lot.

“We have the chance to have the best defensive tackle group since we’ve been here,” said Sanchez, who enters his fourth season. “You’ve never seen us be able to hockey change. You’ve never seen us be able to have a front where you have four guys three or four plays and then all of a sudden here comes four more guys.”

Senior Bailey Laolagi (6-1, 220) can play all three linebacker spots and is the co-starter with senior Gabe McCoy (6-2, 215) on the weak side. Sophomore Farrell Hester II (6-1, 240) is the starter in the middle and junior Javin White (6-2, 195) on the strong side.

In the secondary, UNLV has promising cornerbacks in juniors Jericho Flowers (5-10, 175) and Ty’Jason Roberts (6-0, 195) and senior Jocquez Kalili (5-11, 185). Roberts also is the starting nickelback.

Senior Dalton Baker (5-11, 185) starts at free safety and junior Evan Austrie (6-0, 195) at strong. Junior college transfer Luca Vartic (6-1, 200) tore an ACL and is expected to miss the season.

“We know how much we struggled on the back end last year, especially at the safety spot,” Sanchez said. “We had to get better there, and I feel like we got better. I don’t know if we’re exponentially better, but we’re older and more confident. I think schematically with what we’re doing, we’re going to be all right.”

Led by sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers (6-5, 225), UNLV doesn’t have as many questions on offense. Sanchez said Rogers completed 68 percent of his passes with one interception over the 15-practice spring session.

Rogers is surrounded by two potential 1,000-yard running backs in senior Lexington Thomas (5-9, 170) and sophomore Charles Williams (5-9, 185), a deep set of receivers and a strong offensive line.

Junior Sid Acosta (6-1, 305) is the starter at center, but Sanchez said redshirt freshman Justice Oluwaseun (6-3, 325) is on track to return quicker than expected from a torn ACL and might be available early in the season.

Sanchez touted sophomore left tackle Donovan Outlaw (6-4, 290). Another promising tackle, redshirt freshman Ashton Morgan (6-5, 295), switched to the right side and will back up senior Nathan Jacobson (6-5, 280).

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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