A tough first day, but UNLV got through it

With heavy hearts, first-year coach Barry Odom and his UNLV football team opened spring practice Wednesday following the Feb. 20 death of defensive lineman Ryan Keeler.

LAS VEGAS — Had it been under the most optimum of conditions, Barry Odom’s first on-the-field practice as UNLV’s new football coach would have had some ups and downs.

But when the Rebels stepped onto the field Wednesday to begin spring practice, it was with a cloud over their collective heads — both figuratively and literally.

The team is still trying to come to grips with the death of Ryan Keeler, a redshirt freshman defensive lineman who died Feb. 20. They were also dealing with bone-chilling cold and a steady rain for the first part of the workout. It was as if Mother Nature was grieving alongside Odom, his staff and his players.

But everyone got through it and the team wasn’t about to let the elements slow them down.

“We’re working for Ryan,” said quarterback Doug Brumfield. “We’ve dedicated the upcoming season to Ryan.”

Defensive back Jordyn Morgan said: “We were determined to be a close group well before what happened to Ryan. Now, what happened made us even closer.”

It was almost cathartic for the team to be out on the field. For two hours, everyone in the program was able to run, throw, block and tackle and it gives Odom something to build on for the upcoming days and weeks ahead.

“It’s probably what we needed as a team,” he said of the timing of starting spring practice. “They had great focus, great energy. This group is excited about being coached.”

Odom made it clear that what you did playing for Marcus Arroyo, the former Rebels coach, or what you did elsewhere before transferring to UNLV, doesn’t matter. It’s what you do for this staff that will determine the extent of your on-the-field contribution.

“I think it would be unfair for me to say any position is solidified,” Odom said.

So that means Brumfield, the assumed starting QB, will have to earn his playing time and beat out Harrison Bailey and Cameron Friel in running offensive coordinator Brennan Marion’s “Go-Go Offense.”

When asked how comfortable he was with the new scheme, Brumfield, who apparently grew a little over an inch since late November and is now 6-foot-6 1/4, said: I like it. You’re able to find a rhythm. You’re not spending as much time in the huddle. It’s structured but there is some freedom in it.”

Odom said the plan is to not spoon-feed the playbook to his players. He expects them to be diligent, pick things up quickly, learn from their mistakes and move forward.

“We’re going heavy on all three phases,” he said of offense, defense and special teams. “We’ll be heavy on the install. We want to throw as much at them as possible. 

“We have a pretty good idea of the skill level. Now, we get to see what works, what doesn’t and what to keep in and what to take out.”

Odom is also trying to establish a winning, competitive culture in the program. Last season, the Rebels went 5-7, their best record since 2017 when they went 5-7 under Tony Sanchez. Odom will need to improve on what Arroyo did, even though winning five games still cost him his job.

“We had good habits the first day,” he said. “We want to practice hard but practice smart. The consulting, the way we work, the details of what we do will continue to grow.”

Odom has done a lot here since his hire on Dec. 8. He has put together a staff, has filled a lot of gaps in the roster through the transfer portal, and along with his staff have visited every high school in Southern Nevada.

He has added a couple of assistants with local ties in Hunkie Cooper, one of the most popular players in UNLV history, who is the program’s director of player development, and Nicco Fertitta, who starred at Bishop Gorman High School, played at Notre Dame and most recently was a graduate defensive assistant at LSU. Fertitta will serve as a defensive analyst on Odom’s staff.

More important, his arrival signals a return of his dad Lorenzo and uncle Frank as supporters of UNLV football. The Fertittas helped bankroll the program’s lavish building and had supported the university in general for years. That changed when Sanchez was fired in 2019 and Arroyo was hired.

But Odom has apparently patched things up with the Fertittas and bringing in Nicco was a positive step to help with the program’s off-the-field future success, though Nicco knows the game and should be an asset to Odom, who knows a thing or two about coaching defense.

The weeks and months ahead will ultimately determine the program’s fate. But on this rainy, cold day, one of joy to finally be on the field as well as sorrow for the absence of a fallen comrade, UNLV’s players and coaches got through it. The sun even peeked through the leftover clouds as the first workout wrapped up.

“Competition is going to make us better,” Morgan said. “We got better today.”

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