Happy Friday, folks. Only one more day until UCLA’s home opener. It can’t come soon enough. Let’s take a look at UNLV’s defense, which is coached by none other than Kent Baer, who we used to see on the sidelines as Colorado’s defensive coordinator. He is now in his second year with the Rebels and looks to continue improving the defense and building on last year’s momentum.
UNLV’s total defense is ranked 109 out of 128 FBS schools, allowing an average of 457 yards per game, with 239.8 rushing yards allowed and 217.5 passing. Their opponents scored an average of 33.7 points per game, and if you recall, UCLA put up 37 (which was not enough, according to some fans). According to the NCAA, UCLA’s total offense came in at 28 by the end of last season, so UNLV will surely have their work cut out for them. They did, however, play Michigan last year and only gave up 28 points. So let’s not count them out entirely. Saturday’s game should be an easy win, but let’s take a look at the defensive units that will try to disrupt the Bruin offense.
The defensive line got a new coach this year, Tony Samuel, who is the former Georgia State defensive coordinator and Southeast Missouri head coach. He actually created the biggest turnaround in rushing yardage allowed in the NCAA last year while he was at Georgia State, a full 122.3 yards less than the previous season. Last year, the Rebels finished with only nine sacks, so it’s safe to say Coach Samuel will be looking to create more pressure on the quarterback from the defensive line. We should see senior Jeremiah Valoaga lining up on the end to start. According to a UNLV camp update, head coach Tony Sanchez says, "Jeremiah Valoaga is the most explosive, athletic guy on our defense. He can be a game-changer if he is able to stay on the field. He wasn't with us last spring and then got hurt in the fall so he was slowed." The two tackles, sophomore Salanoa-Alo Wily and junior Mike Hughes, combined for a total of 29 tackles, with 4.5 tackles for loss. Wiley played all 12 games on the defensive line and Hughes started in all 12. Sanchez goes on to say, "Hughes is our best hunting dog -- a local guy who busts his butt every day -- and Wily is still maturing. It's a group that has to be better and will be better." Jason Fao and Mark Finau will also be reliable in the rotation. There is definitely some experience on the line, and with the return of Kent Baer, we should see some improvement from the team the Bruins faced last year.
UNLV definitely has more experience in the linebacker position. Tau Lotulelei, the younger brother to former Rebel standout John Lotulelei, is a team leader and returning starter at the weakside linebacker spot. He wears the same jersey number (55) as his brother, who is currently a member of the Oakland Raiders. Tau was named preseason First Team All-MW by Phil Steele's Sporting News and ESPN, and started nine games last year. He still managed to earn Honorable Mention All-MW in 2015 despite missing significant time because of injury. He led squad with 11.5 tackles for loss and also led the Rebels with three QB sacks. I don’t think the Rebels can say enough about this guy.
In the corner, UNLV will play sophomores Darius Mouton and Tim Hough. Mouton played in ten games as a true Freshman, including five games where he started in the nickel position. He was also on the track team in high school, so you can bet he’s fast. Hough played in all 12 games last year, including starting the final nine. He led the squad and ranked fifth in the MW and 35th in the nation with four interceptions, which he returned for a total of 58 yards. With the way Rosen was throwing off his back foot last weekend, I’d say he needs to watch for these two guys as they will be hungry for picks.
Seniors Troy Hawthorne and Kenny Keys should get the nod at the safety position. Hawthorne played in all 12 games and finished with a career-high 32 total tackles, which ranked 10th on the team. He grabbed his first career interception vs. Idaho State last season and returned it 47 yards to mark the team's first pick-six in five years. Keys is the individual that picked off Jerry Neuheisel last year. He is ranked ninth on the team with 34 total tackles.
Additional cornerbacks on the depth chart are Torry McTyer and Jay’Onn Myles. McTyer is a talented, two-way speedster who originally committed to California but, instead, became a late addition to the UNLV class. He is a senior alongside Myles, a 2015 three-star transfer from Pierce College in Los Angeles. Clearly, this team has struggled on defense with a five-year pick six drought, but McTyer had a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown last week to end the drought and I always worry about the Bruins playing down against teams that should be easy wins. The Rebels have new coaches, experienced players, and a new team mindset under Tony Sanchez.
Again, this should be an easy win. Rosen is a sophomore, as are talented running backs like Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi. The Bruins averaged over 465 yards per game last year, so common sense tells us that Saturday should be the beginning of Rosen’s Heisman campaign. We are missing Paul Perkins, yes, but the individuals he left behind are major talents on the college football scene. If we come out strong and play 60 FULL MINUTES of football, the blue and gold will be 1-1 come Saturday night. The UNLV defense puts up modest numbers compared to most of UCLA’s opponents, but it doesn’t mean they won’t play hard.
That’s your UNLV defensive preview.