UNLV Football Defensive Preview
The UNLV defense has a couple of good players, but this is not a team that will win on the strength of their defense.
As the NCAA rules change, transfers have become increasingly common these days. However, UNLV has been the go-to transfer destination for kids looking for a second shot at things since long before it was cool (you may remember the time one former Cal QB transferred to UNLV and truly embraced Las Vegas by eating sushi off a naked model on a reality TV show, for instance). So, I feel like UNLV’s defense, outside of a few standout players, is kind of a mish-mash of different players, where the team doesn’t really excel in any one particular area or position group. Purely statistically speaking, out of 130 FBS teams last year, UNLV was 119th in points allowed per game, 111th in yards allowed per game, 110th in passing yards allowed per game, and 103rd in rushing yards allowed per game. Although UNLV had some injury issues on offense that could explain some of their shortcomings, their defense has no such excuse (except for perhaps the safety Phillip Hill, who admittedly was very good, but he seems to have transferred away and/or quit football, because I can’t find anything on him this year other than that he’s not back at UNLV).
So let’s at least take a closer look at who some of those standout players are in an otherwise mediocre defense.
I think their most obvious playmaker on the defense is the TCU transfer, defensive end Adam Plant Jr. He was a 4-star defensive end out of Bishop Gorman. Here he uses a speed rush to the outside to beat the left tackle and absolutely demolish the Idaho State quarterback:
And here he keeps fighting and works his way back inside for another sack:
But pointing to Adam Plant Jr as a player to watch for on this defense feels like a cop-out (he’s been around a while, everyone knows he’s good). The player I’d be most excited for is the defensive tackle, Eliel Ehimare, who started to break out late last season and who I think is poised for a big year this year.
Here Eliel Ehimare shoots the A-Gap to pressure the quarterback into a bad pass resulting in an interception:
Here Ehimare beats the guard to get into the backfield as the “stud”/outside linebacker peels off his block to tackle the running back for a loss:
And again Ehimare is simply too fast for the running back to evade as he picks up another TFL:
Ehimare has a knack for swimming past the guard to get into the backfield and disrupt the play:
The nose tackle is senior Naki Fahina. He can get good penetration:
And Fahina had a strong game against Idaho State last game, but historically, Fahina can struggle with missed tackles.
On the other end of the nose guard is defensive tackle Tavis Malakius, who is not much for the pass rush, but has had a couple of good games stopping the run. Here’s one such play where he strips the scrambling quarterback:
Not particular to any one player, but there have been a few times where the defensive line has lacked discipline, such as jumping offsides in a situation where the offense is clearly just trying to draw them offsides. This play might not have cost them the game, but it ended their chance at a comeback:
When so many UNLV games came down to the wire last year, it was little mistakes like this that tipped the scales against them.
One of the stars and leaders of the UNLV defense is the middle linebacker Austin Ajiake. He’s pretty good as a linebacker in pass coverage, and he’s their leading tackler:
In the following play, Ajiake’s tight coverage is more reminiscent of a defensive back than a linebacker:
This is a scramble drill, so the receiver’s only job (and yes, that was a wide receiver Ajiake was covering) was to get open, and Ajiake still had him covered. This is a useful skill as many teams like to use running backs in the passing game to create mismatches (a linebacker covering a running back), where the running back is typically better as a receiver than a linebacker is as a defensive back.
The weakside linebacker Kyle Beaudry is probably their next best returning linebacker, and he had a couple of impact plays in games that UNLV actually won last year:
Here he both strips the quarterback and recovers it himself:
Not satisfied with just one fumbled, he did it again two plays later:
Based on their first game of the season, however, it looks like Beaudry splits snaps with CCSF transfer linebacker Fred Thompkins. I don’t have any highlights from the Idaho State game here, so you’ll have to imagine Thompkins stopping a running back at the line of scrimmage, because he was mostly doing that during the ISU game.
The rest of the linebackers (at least, outside linebackers) are a mystery to me. There’s Elijah Shelton, who started and received a good number of snaps at outside linebacker, who transferred from Utah State to Utah (DNP) to UNLV. There’s Isaiah Sayles, who transferred from FCS Missouri State. And there’s LeShaun Bell, who is returning from UNLV, but I can’t recall any plays where he stood out. At the very least, it’s probably not a good sign for your depth if an FCS transfer and someone who never saw the field at a P5 school are taking over starting roles so soon (cough).
Like Austin Ajiake in the linebacker corps, the secondary does have one player who really stands out: cover corner Nohl Williams. I’ve never been very high on ASU (now FSU) wide receiver Johnny Wilson, but here’s Nohl Williams beating the 6’7” wide receiver on a jump ball for an interception:
Nohl Williams is the type or corner that doesn’t have a ton of highlights because he’s not getting picked on, so I don’t have a ton of these clips:
On the other side should be Cameron Oliver, who received significant playing time last year as a true freshman. In contrast to Nohl Williams, Oliver was targeted (2nd most on the team to a player not returning). In contrast to that player, though, Oliver made some nice plays:
Another defensive back worth mentioning is Ricky Johnson. Johnson did not play against Idaho State after suffering some sort of injury in camp, but I can’t find any news about his status or whether he’s due to return, so I figure I should still mention him here. Johnson is a rangy corner with good ball skills, and was the team leader in interceptions last year:
This play was probably the best defensive play I saw of UNLV last year:
After this, though, the secondary with all its transfers is a lot less clear. Jerrae Williams played the nickel against Idaho State, after sitting out the 2020 and 2021 seasons (he was at Division 2 Arkansas-Monticello in 2019). Sophomore Johnathan Baldwin took over the starting spot at strong safety, and CCSF transfer Trenton Holloway the starting free safety. Iowa State transfer Jordyn Morgan and Limestone University (Div 2) transfer Kris Williams also took snaps at safety, but I don’t have enough to go on to tell you anything about them after the Idaho State game (and their snaps may just have been due to the FCS blowout).
The safeties I was expecting to see—thanks to the preseason UNLV depth chart—were Tyson Player and Bryce Jackson. I see now (shortly before this article is to be published) that Bryce Jackson transferred to New Mexico State. Tyson Player is still on the roster, but no injury news or any word on him. So just to be safe, here he is defending a pass:
He’s an above average tackler, but I don’t have too much to say about his coverage skills: he was thrust into a difficult job with the loss of star safety Phillip Hill, but I thought he looked to have improved late in the season (he started at safety against Air Force likely due to better tackling, since Air Force pretty much never throws the ball).
The UNLV defense isn’t going to win them games, and it’s primarily their offense with which to be concerned. If I’m a UNLV sunshine pumper or politician, I’d say that UNLV’s defense has no obvious weakness, mainly because they’re just pretty “meh” in everything. They have a couple good players scattered throughout the defense, but not enough in any one position group to be considered a solid unit. I suspect the offense will go another weak with playing their cards close to the vest with Notre Dame just on the horizon. Overall, however, I think UNLV is generally being underestimated, and barring major injury (say, to Doug Brumfield again), I think they’ll be a better team in the MWC than last year. It should be another good test of how the Bears measure up.
You can find my full clips here.