I got ahold of Alex Wright, Editor-in-Chief for the UNLV Free Press and contributor for one of our sister SBNation sites, Mountain West Connection to chat about UNLV football. Thank you to Alex for answering our questions. So let’s dive right in!
1- Marcus Arroyo, now in year two, came in right away and signed one of the top recruiting classes in the mountain west. How dire was the roster beforehand and what does the current Rebels recruiting class look like and what is left to build on to get this team on the winning track.
Alex: UNLV has always had an issue with depth, in the previous regime under Tony Sanchez, and with coaches before him, there was always a significant drop off from the starters to the second string. So if there was an injury to any starter, that position or position group would be significantly worse. Arroyo has brought in very talented recruiting classes with a lot of three-star talent to try and help with any potential issues with depth. By getting a lot of three-stars, Arroyo and his staff will have depth and options at any position group.
The problems in the UNLV football program do not start with Arroyo, there have been problems going back many different head coaches and athletic directors, all of them have failed at making UNLV football a consistent winner. Arroyo could be that guy, even though he is off to a 0-8 start, but it will take some time to dig out of the big hole that the UNLV football program is in. With Allegiant Stadium, the new Fertitta Football Complex, and Las Vegas growing as a sports destination, the opportunity is there for UNLV football to be a successful program, but a lot needs to go right to help a program that has only been to four bowl games in over 40 years of being a Division I program.
2- Who is the star on the Rebels team that Iowa State fans may not know yet, but will by the end of Saturday night?
Alex: Kyle Williams. He is the reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Year after hauling in 35 catches for 426 yards, with two touchdowns in only six games last season. Williams is the focal point of the passing game, and he is the missing link that the Rebels have been lacking in the passing game. It’s been a while since UNLV has had a marquee receiver, and Williams will be that for them in the future.
This season, he has eight catches for 114 yards, he would likely have more if there was some stability at the quarterback position. And that will be the key for Williams if he is to reach his full-potential. It looks like he is developing great chemistry with Doug Brumfield, who was injured in UNLV’s loss last Saturday to Arizona State. Cyclone fans should expect to see Williams all over the field Saturday night, making big plays and being targeted by whoever is under center for the Rebels.
3-What is the biggest strength of this UNLV team?
Alex: I really love the receiving core for the Rebels. I mentioned Williams, with his success last season and the potential he has for the future, but there are also a lot of young, talented players on the roster. Zyell Griffin had moments last year as a freshman, and there are veterans like Steve Jenkins and Tyleek Collins, who have been in the program for a while and played key roles for the Rebels on offense in the past.
Arroyo has also added some talented players through the recent recruiting class, like Jordan Jakes, a transfer from Indiana, and talented tight ends like Shaun Grayson and Brye Lighon. Anchoring the tight end position is Giovanni Fauolo, who so many UNLV quarterbacks have relied on for the past few years. What is hard for this receiver and tight end group is finding consistency at the quarterback position. If UNLV could find the right quarterback to throw to those receivers, they could be the best unit in the Mountain West.
4- What is the biggest weakness of this UNLV team?
Alex: A team that has now won a game in over 650 days has a lot of weaknesses. I could talk about a lot of different things as to why the Rebels are struggling this year. I will start off with quarterback play, which plagued them last year. Brumfield showed he should be the starter moving forward, but it was a pretty low bar to clear after the performance Justin Rogers made in the first game. It is unclear if Brumfield will play against Iowa State, but if he cannot, the Rebels could be limited at quarterback and will struggle mightily.
On defense, the Rebels have struggled to put together a full game. We saw them get gassed late in the third quarter and fourth quarter against Eastern Washington and Arizona State. Some of that has to do with the Rebels’ struggle on offense and going on a lot of three and outs. There are also still a lot of young players on UNLV’s defense, so Iowa State could go vertical on UNLV and try to get their defenders tired. Also, the offensive line looked overpowered against Eastern Washington, so if the Iowa State defense can overwork the Rebel offensive line, that could be key in stopping Charles Williams and the UNLV ground attack.
5- We saw Iowa State open up as roughly a 30 point favorite in this game. Given Iowa State’s offensive struggles, do you think that line is justified?
Alex: I do think that line is justified, I think that has more to do with how much UNLV is struggling compared to where Iowa State is. The Cyclones did struggle in their opening week win against Northern Iowa and are coming off a tough loss to in-state rival Iowa, so I believe Iowa State will have some frustration they need to take out on UNLV.
The Rebels gave up 38 points, in double-overtime, to an FCS team, and then gave up 37 points to Arizona State, 24 of which came in a four drive stretch. UNLV gave up a lot of points last year, and could probably give up a lot of points Saturday night if they don’t play their best and Iowa State comes out firing, then the Cyclones could cover the 30 point plus spread.
6- Biggest thing UNLV will look to stop on Saturday?
Alex: The focus for UNLV Saturday night is to create havoc in the backfield and get pressure on Brock Purdy. Throughout spring and fall camp, the Rebel defense has worked on applying pressure on the quarterback. There were brief moments in 2020 where Jacoby Windmon and Adam Plant Jr., got to the quarterback and generated some negative plays.
It didn’t happen much against Arizona State, but against Eastern Washington, Windmong was flying all over the field, getting sacks, hits, and breaking up passes. He, Plant Jr., and the rest of the UNLV front seven will need to be active to try and get Purdy off his rhythm. The Rebels have forced four turnovers this season and will look to create some more against Iowa State to give their offense more opportunities to score.
7- What’s it like to have a pretty damn cool stadium, even if you have to share it with an NFL team.
Alex: I cannot express how great it is to be playing inside Allegiant Stadium. UNLV’s old home, Sam Boyd Stadium, was going downhill. It was a far drive from campus and it was just getting rundown. All the seats were metal benches and inside it was a depressing vibe with the gray concrete being a dominant force. The UNLV football program was deserving of an upgrade, and they got one with Allegiant Stadium.
Even though UNLV football has struggled, everytime I drive to Allegiant and enter, it just feels like a big game. This is what a football stadium should look like and it’s a venue that can help make Las Vegas the sports capital of the world. Everyone saw on Monday Night Football with the Raiders and Ravens, playing in front of a full Allegiant Stadium for the first time in an NFL regular season game, how Las Vegas does sports.
I will admit, I am still a bit mad at the Raiders for making the taxpayers pay over $750 million in public money for the stadium. And inconveniencing UNLV football at times, because in the original 2020 schedule, UNLV was going to have to play a game at Sam Boyd Stadium because of something written in the contract between UNLV and the Raiders. And this year, the Rebels will have a game kickoff at 8:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. local time, on weeknights, so the Raiders have enough time to get their field ready for their game that week also.
However, the positives of this stadium outweigh any negatives and gripes I have about the stadium. It is super cool to have an NFL stadium in a city that was vilified by the NFL because of gambling. I cannot wait to see what more events come to Las Vegas because of the stadium and hopefully UNLV football will fill it up someday too.