Bobby Hauck-- the new coach, that's what. The Rebels suffered long with Mike Sanford, and after a promising haul of JUCO defensive backs failed to produce the necessary uptick in defensive stoutness, they cut him off. Offensive coordinator Todd Berry left for the head spot at Louisiana-Monroe.
Sanford's Rebels did manage to stay out of the conference's basement for the second consecutive year, beating New Mexico, Colorado State, and San Diego State. UNLV also finally topped Hawaii in a nail-biter, but lost to Oregon State in another nailbiter. But the defining game for the '09 Rebs, if it can be called that, came with then 0-3 Nevada, which racked up 772 yards total, and 42 points in the second half, bludgeoning UNLV 63-28 by the final whistle. The Rebels didn't come out of shock until visiting soft New Mexico, beating the hapless Lobos to avoid last place in the conference. After its annual spanking by TCU, the Rebels beat another MWC team (CSU), flirted briefly with bowl eligibility before Air Force laid wood on them in Colorado Springs, and the university fired Sanford, who coached the finale-- a win-- against SDSU.
Offensively, the Rebels regressed slightly, scoring about a point less per game in '09 than they did in '08. Clayton was less efficient at QB, and Wolfe less productive at WR. More importantly, the team got no boost from its running game. Again. (2008: 121 ypg; 2009: 126) Hyped runningback Bradley Randle could not meet the (admittedly heavy) expectations that greeted his enrollment at UNLV, and neither Channing Trotter and C.J. Cox could pick up the slack. These players labored behind an line that, despite experience, just couldn't open holes for the ground game.
They all got little help from the defense, which was bad in '08 (110th rushing D, 111th passing), and even worse in '09 (113th, 108th). The heralded trio of JUCO defensive backs: Alex DeGiacomo, Warren Zeigler, and Kenny Brown yielded only one starter by season's end (DeGiacomo).
By mid 2009, it was clear to even his biggest fans (the Wimple admits to being one of them) that Sanford's staff could not develop talent. So now UNLV turns the reins over to Bobby Hauck, who'll take a turn pursuing that evanescent mirage: a program capable of turning Sin City's purported appeal with recruits into wins on the field. He doesn't take the helm of an empty cupboard, although he will have to tackle 2010 recruiting almost from scratch: only three players have maintained commitments to UNLV so far. (SDSU has poached several of the others.) [update: by the last week of recruiting before signing day, Houck and his staff have amassed 20 commits, headlined by RB Dionza Bradford and WR Kurt Davis.]
UNLV started only one senior on its O-line and two on its D-line, including all-conference tackle Martin Teveseu. Turning the returners into winners in the trenches would make UNLV a bowling team overnight, because its skill players are plentiful. Channing Trotter proved a capable back, given a push in front. Cox and Randle are not untalented backups. QBs Omar Clayton and Mike Clausen still make the conference's most dangerous tandem. LBs Starr Fuimaono is an NFL talent who'll be the senior leader of the defense. In short, it's with UNLV's returners that hope lies for a revival in Las Vegas, if the new coaches can develop them beyond what the former coaches could do.