David Fox Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
UNLV started its season in promising fashion with three wins in the first four games, including an overtime upset of Arizona State. But once Mountain West play started, the Rebels struggled. There was a five-game skid in the middle of the season, and an embarrassing 42-21 loss to San Diego State in the regular-season finale eliminated UNLV from bowl consideration. Still, UNLV's five wins were its most since 2003.
To make its first bowl since 2000, UNLV needs two things to happen in spring practice. Quarterback Omar Clayton must make a full recovery from knee surgery, and the defense must undergo an overhaul after being one of the worst units in the country by almost any measure last season.
Here's a look at the Rebels heading into spring drills.
Omar Clayton was having a big season in 2008 before injuring his knee.
Coach: Mike Sanford Last season: 5-7, 2-6 Mountain West
Spring dates: March 9-April 17
Clayton quietly was one of the best quarterbacks in the Mountain West through October. By the time he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in a Nov. 1 loss to TCU, he had passed for 1,894 yards - with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions. Clayton will return for the spring but will be held out of contact drills. Clayton will be working with a talented receiving corps. Ryan Wolfe caught 88 passes for 1,040 yards and six touchdowns last season and already is UNLV's career receiving leader. Phillip Payne, who will be a sophomore, was off to a hot start before an injury cut his season short. All three starting linebackers return, as does three-fourths of the starting defensive line. At the least, there is potential there.
Help is needed
The secondary will undergo an overhaul, with just one starter returning. Coordinator Dennis Therrell will work with the safeties this year after coaching the linebackers the past two seasons. Starting free safety Daryl Forte was kicked off the team in late February, and all the starting positions are up for grabs. Three junior college defensive backs ? corners Kenny Brown and Warren Ziegler and safety Alex De Giacomo ? already are enrolled, with a fourth junior college transfer on the way in the fall. UNLV also needs to find a new starting running back, a No. 2 receiver and a pass rush (it had just 11 sacks in 2008).
Keep an eye on
DE Isaako Aaitui: The native of Pago Pago played only one year of high school football before arriving at UNLV. Aaitui, a junior, tied for the team lead in sacks with just two. Coaches expect him to be a force this season.
WR Phillip Payne: As a freshman, he had seven touchdown receptions in the first eight games before missing three of the final four games with concussions. He has good size - 6 feet 3 and 185 pounds - and has the potential to be an all-conference player.
CB/KR Deante Purvis: As a true freshman, he averaged 23.4 yards as UNLV's No. 2 kickoff returner last season. He again will play special teams, but he's also expected to get a long look at cornerback during the spring.
His time is now
Defensive end Heivaha Mafi came in with a lot of fanfare from junior college and followed that up with a good spring in 2008. But he didn't produce much during the regular season. He needs to flash some of his potential this spring, or risk being passed by another touted junior college transfer, B.J. Bell, when he arrives in the fall.
UNLV started 3-1 last season and finished with two wins in its final three games. The problem was the five losses in-between. The Rebels hope a rebuilt defense will help them avoid another losing season. UNLV must improve its secondary and find a replacement for tailback Frank Summers to be a factor in the Mountain West, which had great depth last season and should again this season.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.