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UNLV Rebels load up on transfers

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UNLV football fans would be well advised to buy a program this season.

"Our team has changed quite a bit," said UNLV coach Mike Sanford, whose program has experienced a large influx of junior college and transfer talent.

So much so, in fact, that Sanford compared his team to a train or a bus with people stepping off and others climbing on.

As he approaches his second season at the helm, Sanford is confident the right players are aboard.

Headlining the newcomers are quarterback Rocky Hinds (USC), cornerbacks Eric Wright (USC) and Mil'Von James (UCLA), linebacker Tony Cade (Oklahoma) and junior college wide receiver Aaron Straiten, a former Utah recruit.

"I do expect the transfers to have an impact," said Sanford, who noted that most of them have been in the program for a year and understand the system. "The team will do the same things as last year, just better."

Welcome words for Vegas fans. The Rebels closed out the 2005 season with five consecutive losses. The setbacks capped a 2-9 campaign that included a 1-7 mark in Mountain West Conference play.

In an effort to erase the painful memories, Sanford and his staff have opted to move training camp a couple of hours north to Ely. Besides cooler weather, the Rebels are hoping the change of locale pays off in terms of bringing the team closer together.

"It's definitely a challenge," said Sanford.

UNLV should be much improved in 2006. The losing streak should come to an abrupt end with a season-opening contest at home against Division I-AA Idaho State.

The player cupboard isn't completely bare. Senior running back Erick Jackson and junior kicker Sergio Aguayo, the MWC's preseason special teams player of the year, are talented returnees. Other notable veterans include junior linebacker Beau Bell and senior nose guard Howie Fuimaona.

UNLV Rebels

2006 MWC media predicted finish: 8th

2005 record: 2-9 (1-7, ninth in MWC)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense

Key offensive players: MWC preseason special teams player of the year Sergio Aguayo, a junior kicker, is capable of putting points on the board. With senior running back Erick Jackson back in the fold, many may come via the PAT.

Key defensive players: Junior linebacker Beau Bell was a second-team all-conference honoree in 2005. Senior nose guard Howie Fuimaona is another player of note, as is senior safety Jay Staggs. The trio headline a defense with six new starters.

Top newcomers: Several transfers are primed to make an immediate impact. Quarterback Rocky Hinds, who originally enrolled at USC, and former Utah signee Aaron Straiten, a junior receiver, could form a solid duo. Junior cornerbacks Eric Wright (USC) and Mil'Von James are others to watch, as is linebacker Tony Cade (Oklahoma).

Key losses: Free safety Joe Miklos led the Rebels with 98 tackles and two interceptions last season. Linebacker Bobby Kelly made 72 stops, including 3.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Tight end Greg Estandia made 49 catches and scored seven TDs.

Head coach: Mike Sanford (2nd year at UNLV). Record: 2-9.

Best scenario for 2006: The newcomers blend in quickly and the Rebels put an immediate end to a five-game skid by blasting Idaho State in their opener. Turning the tide is Priority 1 as UNLV enters its second season under Sanford.

Worst scenario for 2006: Losses continue to pile up. After a light season opener against a Big Sky foe, the Rebels play five of their next seven games on the road. The stretch includes MWC contests at Colorado State, BYU and Utah. Wins won't come easy.

Wednesday: Wyoming

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com