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Minnesota begins the 2012 season at UNLV tomorrow night. We spoke with Rebel beat reporter Mark Anderson of the Las Vegas Review-Journal to get the inside scoop on UNLV. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkAnderson65.
GopherSports: Mark, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. What can you tell us about UNLV? Seems like the Rebels and Minnesota are pretty similar teams right now and both schools are trying to build their programs.
Mark Anderson: In my story, I called Minnesota 'UNLV's soul mate of the Big Ten.' There are very similar philosophies by both coaches. They both seem like they want to build young and keep the staffs together.
Like Minnesota, there is real optimism at UNLV this season and I think it is genuine optimism. I don't think it is just playing a side. I do think coach thinks that this is a program that will start improving. I don't think that necessarily means that UNLV goes to a bowl game this season, but that the program is moving forward from where it has been. UNLV has won only two games in six of the last eight seasons. If they can win four games this season that would be big in showing that this staff has it going in the right direction. It is still a very young team.
I think what people want right now is hope. They want to feel like there is something out there that is better than today. Lately, fans have not felt that way with UNLV football. If they can start feeling that way this season, just like in Minnesota, I think it would be huge. It does not mean having a big season. It just means showing that there is light out there.
GS: From looking at last year's stats and reading season previews, it seems like UNLV's running game is its calling card. Would you agree?
MA: UNLV has one of the deepest running games in the Mountain West conference. They have two players Dionza Bradford and Tim Cornett who each had three 100-yard rushing games last season. Cornett is the starter. Bradford has been hobbled by a sprained ankle, but he will be in the mix. Bradley Randle is another really good running back. He was actually on of the top recruits for UNLV two or three years ago. He was the nation's No. 50 running back, so there is a lot expected of him.
So UNLV has three guys who they can really count on. I expect big things out of Cornett. I have been really impressed by him in training camp. If they just gave him the ball, I could see him being a 1,000-yard rusher. But they do like to spread it around and those three make it a deep position.
GS: What can you tell us about Nick Sherry, their freshman quarterback who was named the starter?
MA: He is a redshirt freshman and looked really good in camp. He has a strong arm and showed a great ability to sell the play-action, so if UNLV can get the running game going there might be some opportunities for Sherry to go deep with that play-action. I think they will let him air it out a little bit. I don't think they will go crazy and don't expect 35 passes, but I don't think they will necessarily hold him back either. It won't be a deal where he throws the ball 12 or 14 times. I could see him throwing the ball more than 20 times. I think they want to see what they got with him. At the same time, I think they will rely more on their running game than passing game because that is where their experience is. That is where the strength is supposed to be right now.
GS: Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is a big quarterback, but Sherry is too at 6-5, 235 pounds. Is Sherry mobile like Gray or is your more traditional quarterback?
MA: He is more of the classic drop back. He showed a little bit of ability during practice to move with his feet. He will run if he has to, but I think that will be a last resort type of thing. Backup Caleb Herring has much better running ability. Bobby Hauck likes the traditional pro-style offense, so I don't think you will see Sherry run too much.
GS: Coach Kill said during his weekly press conference that Minnesota will prepare for both quarterbacks. Do you anticipate UNLV playing more than one quarterback?
MA: I think the intent going in is to play Sherry and let it be his team and his offense. I really think they want to ride him. I do not sense any plan for them to mix it up at all. In training camp, Sherry took almost all the first-team snaps. I really think they will go with him. Herring is proven, so I could see them bringing him in during certain situations. But I do not see it being a two-quarterback system. I think it is Sherry's offense.
GS: How has UNLV's defense improved since last season?
MA: The defensive line seems much better, especially the ends. That is something where UNLV has really been vulnerable the past few seasons. They have not been able to get the line play and the opposing quarterbacks had all day to find receivers and took advantage of that. I do not think UNLV's defensive line will become one of the best in the country, but I think there will be noticeable improvement there. They have some athleticism and size at the ends and I see those players doing pretty well. That is probably where they will not only be the most improved, but that will probably be the strongest part of their defense.
GS: What kind of environment can Minnesota fans expect at the game? Rumor has it that a healthy number of Gopher fans are making the trip.
MA: It will not be an intimidating atmosphere because you are right, there will be a lot of Minnesota fans. From that standpoint, crowd noise will not be an issue. The main issue will be dealing with the heat. Even at night it is still pretty hot. Even for those of us who have lived here for a long time it is still hot. That is something you really have to prepare for. I am sure the coaching staff is well aware of that and that the players will be well hydrated throughout the game. But the heat here can be pretty oppressive and that will be the biggest issue as far as something unique for Minnesota.