LAS VEGAS — There’s usually not a lot you can glean from watching a spring football game.
It’s a controlled environment. It’s a chance to generate enthusiasm, sell some season tickets and give your fans a chance to get a bit of a sneak preview of what they can expect come fall.
UNLV held its spring football game Saturday at Allegiant Stadium. It was all the aforementioned things and then some. It was like going to a dealership, test-driving a car and if you’re the salesman, hoping you’ll get them to give you their signature and drive away a happy customer. No lemons allowed.
Barry Odom, the first-year coach of the Rebels, better be a hell of a salesman. He needs to get people to pay to get into Allegiant Stadium instead of entering and parking for free as was the case Saturday for the 500 or so fans who took advantage of the opportunity. For that to happen, his team needs to win, plain and simple.
UNLV is trying desperately to remain relevant in an ever-growing sports landscape in Southern Nevada. That means a winning record, competing for a Mountain West championship, getting into a bowl game and winning said game. Odom, who has been a head coach at a Power 5 program when he was at Missouri and most recently was associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Arkansas of the SEC, knows it’s on him. He too, has a lot to prove, so this spring has been vital to him, his staff and the players who will be asked to get the desired results.
“I liked a lot of what I saw,” Odom said after the Scarlet won the first half over the Gray 20-0, then played to a 10-10 tie in the second half. “What I liked was how we competed the entire spring. We played hard and physical but we played smart.”
When you’re starting over, which UNLV is once again doing, it means laying the foundation for a culture of success. Of course, each of Odom’s predecessors — from Mike Sanford to Bobby Hauck to Tony Sanchez to Marcus Arroyo — said and strived for the same thing, only to fail.
But that’s a big part of spring football. Can you get your players to buy in? Can you establish good habits? Can you get the public to believe and support what you’re doing?
“This is a group that wants to be coached,” Odom said.
UNLV, like every other school in the FBS, has plans to dip into the transfer portal when it opens May 1. The Rebels are neither big nor deep so getting some size and some depth, especially along both sides of the line of scrimmage, will be key.
UNLV has established a Name, Image and Likeness program to incentivize recruiting to Maryland Parkway. Odom and his staff have made it a point of emphasis to re-connect with the high school football programs throughout Southern Nevada. He has gotten out in the community to sell Rebel Football and has talked up the program with the media.
Time will tell if he’s successful. But there are no mulligans when you’re trying to build a program. The slightest screw-up can set you back years. UNLV can’t afford anymore setbacks.
Athletic Director Erick Harper is trying hard to get the students involved, not just in football, but men’s and women’s basketball along with other sports. He’s also trying to come up with creative and affordable ways for the community on and beyond the campus to watch the school’s athletic programs.
It worked with the women’s basketball team this past season. The Lady Rebels did their part, going undefeated in conference play, winning the Mountain West tournament and going to the NCAA Tournament. They sold out Cox Pavilion late in the season and they were an exciting, fun team to watch. Some sharp marketing helped fill the seats too.
Football has a deeper challenge. The losing culture is decades in the making. Is Odom going to figure out how to put the program’s struggling past behind it and show the way to a bright present and even brighter future?
Saturday, we got a glimpse of what could be. The “Go-Go” offense designed by Brennan Marion featured some big plays. Junior Doug Brumfield, the presumptive starting quarterback, looked hot and cold. But redshirt freshman QB Jayden Maiava of Las Vegas’ Liberty High School, was impressive, both with his arm, his understanding the offense and his running the team. He and Jacob De Jesus, a transfer receiver from Modesto Junior College, appeared to be on the same page. De Jesus, all 5-foot-7 of him, stood out among the Scarlet team with his route-running, his hands and taking care of the ball once he caught it.
The defense, which Odom had a large hand in designing, was aggressive, flying around the field and looking to make plays. The Gray team had five interceptions, two from Garden City (Kan.) CC transfer Jett Elad, and could’ve had a few more.
If you were at the game Saturday, you probably left feeling somewhat optimistic. This group will likely find ways to put points on the scoreboard. Perhaps they’ll even stop the other team from scoring with a little more regularity than in the past. Of course, it’s still long way to the season opener on Sept. 2 when the Rebels host Bryant, an FCS school located in Rhode Island. But then reality will hit this team squarely between the eyes the following week when they go to Michigan and face the Wolverines at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
My guess is we’ll have a better idea about what this team is really about the week after that when Vanderbilt, a perennial SEC bottom feeder, comes to Las Vegas on the 16th.
But Saturday was the culmination of step one of a multi-step process. The energy was good. No one got seriously injured to where their season was over before it began. If you’re Barry Odom, you saw it as one to hang in the left-hand column.