UNLV: Still learning to finish

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    By CHAUNDRA STEWART

    Motivated by its two additional victories from the 1996-97 season, University of Nevada Las Vegas has one underlying goal for 1998: finish.

    With a one-point loss to Air Force and two overtime defeats, last season’s outlook went from promising to disappointing. Jeff Horton, UNLV head football coach, instated the motto “Learn to finish” for the 1998 season.

    Damon Williams, a wide-receiver returning for his senior year, also placed an emphasis on finishing. “We have to play four complete quarters of football and never slack off,” he said.

    The strength of the team, according to Horton, will be the leadership of the seniors and returning players.

    After five years at UNLV, Horton anticipates reaping the benefits of his labors with his first group of seniors.

    The Rebels celebrate the return of 18 starters this year. Talance Sawyer, a senior defensive end, feels that things are going to turn around for the team, due in part to the number of starters returning. Sawyer said that the result will be more dedication and less time spent training younger players.

    Horton is confident in the offensive team this year, which is strengthened by three of the top 15 receivers in the Western Athletic Conference. The Rebels’ offense was ranked second in the WAC and 24 nationally for total offense, with 417 yards per game.

    A notable change in the lineup is the news that quarterback Jon Denton will not be returning, following two suspensions. Fifth-year senior Kevin Crooks, who started a few times last season for Denton, will step up to the position of starting quarterback. Denton’s departure did accelerate the maturation of rookie Chris Hayward, who will also be playing quarterback.

    The switch is not expected to bring drastic changes in the offense, but Sawyer said that the push to “finish” will place “greater pressure on the quarterback.”

    Defense has been a weak spot for the UNLV team for several years, but Horton is pleased by strides made in this area and is only expecting more.

    Ranked last in the nation in total defense, UNLV had nowhere to go but up in the 1997 season, moving up to the 72 spot.

    Regarded by Horton in the 1998 media as “probably the best defensive player in the league,” Talance Sawyer is expected to progress to the NFL. Sawyer is a defensive lineman and was a First Team All-WAC athlete last year.

    The biggest hurdle for the Rebels to clear will be the lack of confidence and support from the media.

    “Nobody gives us much of a chance, but that’s OK; we are used to it,” Horton said. “You have to earn the people’s respect. You do that by getting better and winning games.”

    “(If) we win ball games, they’ll come to watch us play,” Williams said. “No one wants to come watch a loser.”

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