UNLV Football: Rebels Linebackers Might Lead The Way Again In 2019
UNLV’s defense wasn’t perfect in 2018, but its best unit might key whatever breakthrough they make in the Mountain West this fall.
Overlooked last year, continued production at linebacker will be crucial.
The 2018 UNLV Rebels missed their chance at a breakthrough. No one expected Tony Sanchez’s slow build to make the leap to title contender last fall, but a 4-8 finish had to feel disappointing though, to be more accurate, it might be fairer to say that the Rebels missed their first chance at a breakthrough.
Much of the foundation is still in place, especially on offense with an exciting quarterback under center and a stable of running backs ready for a larger role. The defense, though? That’s been a tough nut for Tony Sanchez to crack throughout his tenure. UNLV finished 117th in Defensive S&P+ last year and that was actually their best such finish since the 2013 bowl team.
However, it wasn’t without glimmers of hope. The Rebels defense finished with an Opportunity Rate, Stuff Rate and sack rate right around the national average — 61st and 65th and 67th, respectively — while their overall Success Rate (50% of needed yards on 1st down, 70% on 2nd, 100% on 3rd and 4th) actually improved from 2017.
With this in mind, you may remember them giving fits to USC in last year’s opener, but it’s actually the three-game stretch against San Diego State, Hawaii and Nevada that may provide more insight into the step forward that UNLV might take: Tim Skipper’s defense created seven turnovers, seven sacks and 22 tackles for loss while allowing a shade under six yards per play (5.94), a figure that would’ve put them squarely in the middle of the Mountain West over the course of the season.
UNLV is replacing key players at every level of their defense in 2019, but the linebackers in particular are a unit to watch because of one more metric: Havoc Rate, the percentage of plays ending in a TFL, pass defended or forced fumble. The Rebels finished 35th nationally in that regard, a figure bested by only Air Force among Mountain West teams.
One big reason for this is Javin White, who has quietly become a solid coverage player in the last couple of years. His six interceptions since 2017, the most recent of which helped ensure the Fremont Cannon would be painted red, is easily the most among Mountain West linebackers in the last two years, but he also contributed four forced fumbles and 6.5 tackles for loss in 2018.
Gabe McCoy, meanwhile, somehow didn’t merit even an honorable mention in last year’s postseason accolades despite racking up a team-high 13.5 TFLs. Some of it might be because the impact he made was touch-and-go throughout the fall — he had at least one TFL in each of UNLV’s first five games, then got shut out in the next five — but he should have one of the outside spots locked down for spring ball.
The middle linebacker spot is the biggest question that UNLV will address throughout spring ball, but the good news is that the Rebels suddenly have two options who are loaded with potential and can vie for that role. Farrell Hester II started five games for his hometown team last year after coming into the program as one of the team’s top defensive recruits in 2017, but junior college transfer Vic Viramontes, Las Vegas enthusiast and prize of the 2019 recruiting class, could very well play his way into the starting lineup.
Mark Anderson of the Las Vegas Review-Journal also noted yesterday that Viramontes might not be the only newcomer who can make a strong impression this spring. It all makes replicating the production of last year’s core foursome a reasonable prospect since Bailey Laolagi is the only significant departure, and with more pressing questions elsewhere on the defensive side of the ball, that sturdy foundation could go a long way toward finally making good on the program’s positive momentum.