Hope springs eternal for deeper, confident UNLV football team

UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez discusses his incoming recruiting class on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, at Lied Athletic Complex, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) football coach Tony Sanchez discusses his incoming recruiting class on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, at Lied Athletic Complex, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) Rebels quarterback Armani Rogers (1) while warming before a football game against Prairie View A&M Panthers at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Chase Stevens Las Vegas Review-Journal

Tony Sanchez has always owned the fire. The guy could spend five minutes at a convention for librarians and have folks standing on tables singing about things like the scarlet and gray and mountains that surround you.

He’s more proficient at social media than your teenager, tweeting about Hey Reb with the passion Katy Perry does “American Idol.”

But it always has been more about hope than reality, more about what Sanchez thought UNLV football could become than what his teams delivered.

Maybe that’s about to change.

Magic might lie in challenging what seems impossible, and there are few better examples of chasing what many think is an impractical notion than turning the Rebels into a consistent winner.

Make that any sort of winner.

Heck, make that an above .500 team.

Sanchez has chosen hard work and time over any form of wizardry, and such toil and commitment has shown itself during his fifth spring practice as coach. He is 16-32 overall with the Rebels, and pivotal doesn’t begin to describe the 2019 season as it relates to his future leading the program.

He needs to win.

He understands that, too.

But the team that will compete at this year’s Spring Showcase at noon Saturday at Johann Memorial Field is better and deeper and more prepared than any others Sanchez has offered, meaning just around the time finishing touches are being applied to the school’s state-of-the-art Fertitta Football Complex, the Rebels might have a team capable of living up to such standards.

“We’re as confident as we’ve ever been,” Sanchez said. “We’re more athletic and have multiple guys at every position. Look. I’ve said it in the past. This wasn’t a quick fix. The roster needed a complete overhaul, and we needed to recruit at a high level. The talent level is up. If we can stay away from critical injuries, we will have every chance to contend in the (Mountain West).”

The Rebels have close to 100 players in spring ball. They return 19 of 22 on offense from last season’s final two-deep and 17 on defense. They will have hit live only three times in spring before Saturday, because when you finally have some depth to the lineup and kids who have been around the program longer than a minute, it becomes more about repetition than risking injury.

Already, senior wide receiver Brandon Presley is lost for next season with a torn ACL he suffered Friday. That’s where the depth comes in. Five years later under Sanchez, UNLV is able to withstand such a blow and not totally fall apart at a key position.

What the Rebels absolutely can’t do is lose quarterback Armani Rogers again.

Rogers key to all

The redshirt junior is healthy after being limited to six games last season because of injury, and as he goes, so too will the Rebels. You can protect him in spring and fall camp, but at some point during the season opener against Southern Utah on Aug. 31, Rogers is going to sprint forward on a run-pass option and get hit.

UNLV needs like anything for him to get up and continue doing so all season.

“We know each other more now this spring, our plays and the way coaches want things done, and are getting a lot more reps than having to learn new things,” Rogers said. “Because of that, we’re able to do a lot of fine-tuning on the little things more now than the past.

“We want to win for everyone next season, the coaches, ourselves as players, the school. We’re using this spring to fix all the things we need so we can be ready to go. Just working hard day by day to get better.”

The season might be different, but important questions won’t change.

Can the Rebels stop anyone?

Can their most important player (Rogers) get through a full season for the first time?

Can they, well, stop anyone?

“I actually think the West Division (of the Mountain West) is going to be wide open,” Sanchez said. “We have worked really hard to get to this point. It’s all about being consistent now. We’re more efficient. We’re doing things faster. And it’s all reflected in what we have seen this spring.”

Sanchez is fired up. Isn’t he always?

I hear he now does hot yoga.

Maybe, just maybe, the pose his team will offer more times than not come fall is a winning one.

Sure beats Bird of Paradise.

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columnist Ed Graney at or. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow on Twitter.