Editor’s note: This is the beginning of a six-week series where we will take an early look at each of Arizona’s 12 opponents this season. Today, we look at UNLV. Up next: UTSA on Friday.
For the first time in four years, Sin City was finally being kind to UNLV coach Bobby Hauck in 2013.
After six combined wins his first three seasons in Las Vegas, Hauck led the Rebels to a 7-5 regular season and their first bowl appearance since 2000.
With more than half of his starters returning and recruiting finally picking up, Hauck thought the tough times were behind him.
And then the NCAA hit.
In April, the Rebels were deemed ineligible for postseason play this season because they failed to achieve the NCAA’s minimum Academic Progress Rate score.
So now Hauck and UNLV must go through 2014 knowing Nov. 29 is the final day of their season, no matter what.
But Arizona isn’t worried about all that. Rich Rodriguez and company are just hopeful the Wildcats can handle the Rebels like they did last year en route to a blowout win in Las Vegas.
Here’s a closer look at what Rodriguez and the Wildcats should expect when the Rebels come to town in late August.
When: Friday, Aug. 29, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Arizona Stadium
Last year’s record: 7-6
Projections: Athlon Sports ranked UNLV 101st nationally and fourth in the Mountain West’s West Division. Lindy’s Sports ranked UNLV No. 83 and gave the Rebels a decent chance at finishing at or above .500. USA Today, counting down all 128 FBS teams, ranked UNLV 111th, one spot behind New Mexico and one spot ahead of Kansas.
Position to watch in fall camp: This one’s easy: quarterback. The Rebels were struggling last year when they hosted Arizona and lost 58-13. But quarterback Caleb Herring took over as quarterback two weeks later. The Rebels won seven of their last 10 games and played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Herring graduated after the season, and the Rebels are hoping they won’t take a step back without him.
Junior Nick Sherry, who started against Arizona last season, will battle in the summer with Mesa native Blake Decker for the starting assignment against the UA. Decker, who prepped at Mesa Mountain View, transferred from Scottsdale Community College after a two-year mission in Mexico.
3 names to know
Wide receiver Devante Davis: A legitimate NFL prospect, Davis caught 87 passes for 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns last season as a junior. He had three catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Arizona.
Safety Peni Vea: The junior from Hawaii led the team with 111 tackles last season and added a pair of interceptions.
Running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence: Murray-Lawrence was set to compete for the starting spot this summer with Adonis Smith, but Smith transferred to Arizona. So Murray-Lawrence, who had 82 yards and a touchdown on four carries against the UA last season, should be the guy when UNLV comes to town.
3 numbers to know
215.5: The Rebels ranked 107th nationally last season, giving up 215.5 rushing yards per game. It’s anybody’s guess who will get the first crack at replacing Ka’Deem Carey for UA, but this should be a good first game to break into.
4,241: Decker, who the Rebels are hoping is the real deal, threw for 4,241 yards and 47 touchdowns last season for Scottsdale Community College, where he was teammates with Arizona’s Patrick Glover and Antonio Smothers.
45: UNLV gave up 45 points in the first half against Arizona last season and trailed 45-6 at half.
How they’re different than last time: They’re better. The Rebels were probably the worst FBS team the Wildcats faced last season, and that includes UTSA and Cal. But they really improved as the year went on, and even without Herring, the Rebels still have more talent at all positions than they did last season.
Hauck brought in his brother, Tim, to run the defense, and it seemed to work. The Rebels took a step toward respectability, and should take another one this season. Defensively, one of the biggest reasons for UNLV’s turnaround last season was its secondary. The Rebels return three starters there, including Vea.