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August 4, 2020

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Up and running: UNLV football plots its attack under new coach Marcus Arroyo

san jose 2

Wade Vandervort

Rebel’s Charles Williams (8) scores a touchdown during a game against the San Jose Spartans at Sam Boyd Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

UNLV football has returned in earnest, with players participating in voluntary workouts since the beginning of June. Team practices are still a month away, assuming no coronavirus-related setback, but it looks like the 2020 Rebels are finally starting to take shape.

No positive tests

The NCAA allowed athletes to return to campuses June 8, and ever since, news of football players testing positive for the coronavirus has stretched across the nation, including at power programs like Alabama, Clemson and Texas. But through one week at UNLV, Arroyo said no one in the program—players, coaches or support staff—had tested positive.

Because of the cancellation of spring practice, some mystery remains about how the team will look under new coach Marcus Arroyo. But the players, most of whom have completed a mandatory two-week local quarantine in order to return to campus, feel like they have a good idea.

To hear senior running back Charles Williams tell it, the offense will look the same … but different. Williams describes Arroyo’s attack as one that seems innocuous lining up out of the huddle but presents numerous threats to the defense.

“It’s simple for us, but it’s complex to the defense,” Williams says. “It’s an offense where you can’t key on one person. You really have to pay attention to the details and study. There aren’t simple little giveaways. There’s a lot of stuff in there that can look like one play but then it’s a different play.

“When we get out there, it might look like we’re in the same formation, but we could be running 10 different plays out of that formation,” Williams continues. “That’s what I like about the offense. The defense can’t key in, like, ‘Oh, they’re in this formation, they’re running these plays or running this play.’ [Arroyo] is very versatile in his play-calling.”

Williams’ understanding of the offense has been drawn entirely from film study and video conferences with the coaching staff. By all accounts, UNLV was proactive when it became clear the team wouldn’t be permitted to practice for a while.

Arroyo put together an ambitious plan for the Rebels to stay connected and learn while they were apart. It might have made for some initial unease given the importance of a first-year coach familiarizing himself with his roster, but Arroyo sounds enthusiastic about the way his players handled the challenge.

“The leadership of the team, to be able to pull together and to buy into Zooms for three months and virtual workouts and apps on their phone to get it done, I think it showed a lot about the fiber of our team right now,” Arroyo says. “It’s encouraging to see how much they’ve grown in three months and become closer at a time when many believed you couldn’t do that.”

Williams says he grasped Arroyo’s system quickly. “Coach Arroyo has simplified his offense for us,” he says. “His philosophy is spreading the ball around, getting downhill, playing tough, fast, physical, smart.”

Arroyo spent the past three seasons as Oregon’s offensive coordinator, and given the Ducks’ reputation for high-flying offense, many assumed he would implement a pass-heavy attack at UNLV. But the numbers don’t fully support that idea.

Arroyo orchestrated a fairly balanced attack last year. The Ducks ranked No. 66 in rushing percentage—52.3% of their snaps were running plays. For comparison’s sake, UNLV ranked No. 81 nationally (50.4% of plays) in coach Tony Sanchez’s final season.

Whatever the specifics of Arroyo’s offense turn out to be, the first-time head coach might be wise to lean on Williams. As a junior last year, Williams assumed the role of lead running back for the first time in his career and produced at a fantastic level, rushing for 1,257 yards and 11 touchdowns.

He’s a proven commodity and the one sure bet to be at the forefront of the offense. Quarterback is more uncertain; Arroyo has seven on the roster, including three with starting experience under Sanchez: Kenyon Oblad, Armani Rogers and Max Gilliam.

When asked what kind of role he anticipates playing in the new offense, Williams points to a play from Oregon’s victory against Utah in last year’s Pac-12 Championship Game. With seven minutes remaining and the Ducks nursing a 23-15 lead, running back C.J. Verdell got loose for a 70-yard touchdown run that essentially clinched the win.

“In a lot of games, the running back has big plays that seal the deal,” Williams says. “Against Utah in the Pac-12 championship, [Verdell] broke off for the game-winning touchdown, so I feel the running backs have a big role in this offense.”

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.