It’s no secret UNLV has struggled on defense for a long time. The Rebels have averaged at least 30 points allowed per game dating back to the 2008 season.
Last year was the perfect storm for the Rebels to have another difficult year on defense, with a new coaching staff, new system, roster depth issues, and every other roadblock due to COVID-19.
But this year should be different. This could mark the beginning of a turning point in the play of the Rebel defense. The players and coaches were all happy with the way they ended their first-ever spring football practices as a group and that has transitioned into the fall.
The Rebels have a mix of young members from the recent recruiting classes, recent transfers, and players who have been in the program for a few years, to give UNLV and the coaching staff a solid foundation on defense, and plenty of options at each position. Through fall camp, the defense has brought the energy every single day, which has led to its solid fall showing in fall thus far.
“I see guys flying around, I see guys wanting to get better,” Linebacker Jacoby Windmon said earlier in fall camp. “They’re taking it personally. Last season, I really don’t like to bring it up, but we went 0-6… It will put a chip on our shoulder to come out here and go harder and harder every day.”
“We are building a higher standard for ourselves, we don’t want to go back to what we used to be. So we will just elevate from there and go as far as we can, getting better every day.”
The coaching staff is heading into the season with guys that have a full year under their belt of learning and understanding the system, along with having a spring and offseason to train, which they didn’t have last season.
Now bringing back the same unit as last year, with a few new transfers from Power 5 schools and some talented class of 2021 recruits, most of the players know and understand what is expected of them and how the defense should operate.
“It’s extremely refreshing,” defensive coordinator Peter Hansen said earlier in fall camp about having a lot of returners. “What guys got used to when they’re in programs for a long time… it kind of ran itself to a point. And that’s a little bit of what we’re seeing here. Guys know where we run from drill to drill, guys know our communication, they know what meetings are like. It’s extremely refreshing to have some continuity in that.”
The continuity and experience from last year have helped the defense transition into the new season. It has helped with the position change for Jacoby Windmon from an edge rusher to inside linebacker. And overall, having a year under their belt has helped make the culture on defense feel so different from last year.
“The experience factor played a big part in that, with already having a season and two springs under our belt, as well as last fall,” defensive lineman Adam Plant Jr. said. “So coming back with the same unit and the same mindset and just elevating and building off of that is the best thing for us.”
Of the position groups that have struggled for UNLV in the past, the secondary has been at the top of that list. That has been an area where the Rebels have also had issues with depth, and last year, there were true freshmen like Nohl Williams, who were thrust into starting roles on the back end.
But through camp, it’s been the safeties that have caught the eyes of the coaches. As that group is taking a great leadership role on the defensive side of the ball, it is helping with their improved on-field play and leading to their standout performance as a unit to the coaching staff.
“Safeties have taken a huge step forward as far as leadership and everybody trusting what they hear behind them, because they have to set things up as far as coverage and getting people aligned, and there’s a lot of trust there,” Hansen said.
Hansen singled out Williams as someone who he sees as the most improved on defense. Williams played in five of the six games in the abbreviated 2020 season as a true freshman, and finished with 25 tackles. He picked up an interception in the season finale at Hawaii.
As a leader in the secondary, Williams is relied upon to help communicate with the entire defense. And on the practice field, he has helped generate great energy that is fueling the defense and reaching everyone on the team.
“Just trying to keep the energy up,” Williams said, “because in practice, sometimes the energy is going to be low. So I have to be that guy who can create a spark, make a play and get that energy back. I’m just stepping into more of a leadership role, I’ve got to talk to the defensive linemen, to the linebackers, to the safeties, just try and create a bond.”
Williams is in a unique position as being one of the leaders of the defense as a sophomore. The Rebels have several veteran players in the defensive backfield like Tre Caine, Aaron Lewis, and Bryce Jackson, who have helped the young players in their position group.
With so many young players stepping up into starting or key contributing roles on defense, the coaches have noticed veteran players helping mentor the young guys from the time they stepped into the program. That has been key in helping create buy-in within the program and how the players are working with one another to make each other better.
“That’s really impressive, is how fast that started with our veterans taking guys under their wing,” Hansen said. “With a new program it isn’t always that fast, there’s a little bit of jealousy sometimes or ‘you’re not going to take my job’ sort of stuff. We haven’t seen any of that, we’ve seen guys put arms around shoulders and point things out of how it needs to be. There’s a lot of buy-in with all the guys that are still here and they recognize from our mindset training that we all have to be going in the same direction.”
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