UNLV changing football culture a day at a time

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
The Rebels opened fall camp Friday with lots of new faces, a new coaching staff and a new attitude.

LAS VEGAS — The car that Barry Odom is driving has a rear-view mirror. But I’m guessing he doesn’t lean on it too much to get to where he’s trying to get to. 

Which is just as well given there’s no point in looking back on what was UNLV’s football program.

He knows the team flamed out from a 4-1 start last season to end up 5-7, miss going to a bowl game and led to the firing of Marcus Arroyo, thus paving a path for him to come to Las Vegas.

When you look to change the culture of a team that last posted a winning record in 2013, which was the last time it went to a bowl game, you do it one day at a time. You preach accountability. You display enthusiasm. You never settle for mediocrity and you try to eliminate your mistakes.

That’s what Odom has been seeking since he took over in December. And on the first day of his first fall practice, you could see all the elements in play that go toward changing a losing culture.

Everything was done in a sharp cadence. Coaches were coaching. Players were attentive. The execution was good. There was a level of enthusiasm and, dare I say, confidence, about this group.

Odom said he liked what he saw for the most part. But it’s just one day and he’s been around football long enough to know that one practice does not a solid foundation make. But between now and Sept. 2 when the Rebels host Bryant at Allegiant Stadium to open their 2023 season, perhaps there will be enough of a foundation laid to build upon. 

He’s overhauled the roster, adding over 30 new faces from the transfer portal. There is depth in several areas, including the secondary, which has 23 members to it. That’s a good thing as Odom, who has made his football career bread-and-butter on defense, will look to utilize multiple schemes to get stops and give quarterback Doug Brumfield and the offense good field position.

Brumfield has been handed the keys to run offensive coordinator Brennan Marion’s “Go-Go Offense” which is predicated on speed, speed and more speed. 

Brumfield looked very comfortable at the controls Friday. He put in a lot of work over the spring and summer learning the various nuances of the offense and he and Marion look to be on the same page.

“He looks like he has a good grasp of the offense and he’s more vocal,” Odom said of the junior QB from Inglewood, Calif. and Junipero Serra High School. “I didn’t see that in the spring.”

Brumfield said: “I definitely feel comfortable. The guys seem to know the offense.

“My goal is to perfect my craft and make this offense go.”

UNLV was picked to finish ninth overall in the Mountain West preseason poll last month and someone actually gave the Rebels a first-place vote. I don’t think Odom minds that one bit. The less pressure on him and his players, the better. He’d just as soon sneak up on everyone, get enough wins to have a successful season and get to a bowl game.

Back in December when I met him, I wasn’t sure he could get it done quickly. And after the spring game where the team’s lack of overall size was evident, my worst fears were confirmed.

But between restocking the roster and getting the players to work hard in the off-season weight and conditioning program run by Jeff Fish, I saw a bunch of guys on Friday who appeared bigger, stronger and faster. 

“I think Jeff and his staff have done a tremendous job changing the our look as a football team,” Odom said. “We look like a better football team.”

Of course, looks only get you so far. You have to prove it on the field. And that’s where culture plays a pivotal role. Odom appears to have gotten this group to buy in and as we get closer to Sept. 2 and opening day, we’ll see how much growth the change in culture has taken on.

“Everything is different,” defensive back Jonathan Baldwin said. “We all want to win.”

Brumfield said: The biggest thing has been the change in attitude. It’s more aggressive. It feels like we’re all working toward the same goal.”

We thought a year ago that UNLV had turned the corner with its 4-1 start. Then the Rebels ran into the wall. Brumfield got injured. Things went sideways and the team lost six of its last seven. The one win was the Fremont Cannon game with in-state rival Nevada, 27-22. But that was hardly anything to celebrate amid the disappointment of the season’s collapse. 

Arroyo was cut loose. Odom was hired on Dec. 6 and he has invested his time in Las Vegas wisely. He and his staff have reconnected with every high school program in the valley. They kept the key pieces on both sides of the ball, adding experienced performers from the transfer portal. And even the apparent setback of losing Bobby Petrino as his offensive coordinator after a couple weeks  of hiring him when Petrino bailed to go to Texas A&M was mitigated by bringing in Marion who is not afraid to be different.

This is not a rebuild. This is about trying to win now. And as the days count down toward the opener vs. Bryant, let us never forget that this comes at a critical time in college athletics.

There is change everywhere. And UNLV will find itself impacted. Odom admits he has no idea what’s going to happen but he said his mandate is clear — make this football program successful.

Will he? It was just one very warm August day. But it was a start. And Odom isn’t looking back.