UNLV football adds more potential impact players on national signing day

Gamon Howard’s phone wouldn’t stop buzzing

While the City College of San Francisco safety was on a local recruiting trip two weekends ago, UNLV coach Tony Sanchez couldn’t help but notice how many other college coaches were reaching out to the playmaking safety. That’s typically a cue for a coach to worry.

But Sanchez had nothing to worry about in this case. Howard verbally committed to the Rebels on campus, and sealed it Wednesday by signing his letter of intent on national signing day.

“Traffic got heavy at the end,” Sanchez said in a meeting with reporters Wednesday in his office before continuing, “I appreciate him sticking it out and saying, ‘Hey, I’m done. I’m not going to take any last-second trips.’ It’s good getting a guy like that. If he had been an early-enrollee guy, he would have been hard to pick up. He would have had a lot of schools circling their wagons around him.”

Sanchez put the finishing touches on his fifth UNLV recruiting class — for now, as he still has four scholarships available in case graduate-transfer or other opportunities arise before the start of the season — with five additions on the second signing day of this offseason. After signing 16 total recruits in December’s early signing period, Sanchez and his staff were able to home in on specific targets over the final month.

The reward was players like Howard, an incoming 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior who had 43 tackles and five interceptions in San Francisco last year and could help shore up the Rebels’ recurring pass-defense problems. UNLV also snagged another similarly ranked, three-star junior college defensive back on Wednesday in 6-foot, 185-pound Jeremiah Houston from Long Beach City College.

That brought the total number of junior-college signees in the Rebels’ 2018-19 recruiting class to nine, the highest of Sanchez’s tenure. Many will view the move as a win-now tactic after Athletics Director Desiree Reed-Francois released a not-so-subtle statement laying out expectations for Sanchez to reach his first bowl game next season.

But Sanchez regarded that as a misperception.

“Every job, I don’t care where you’re at, you have to win now and you have to build for the future,” he said. “You can’t put all your eggs in one basket and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go for broke right now,’ because you’re going to pay for it down the road. The great thing is, we’ve been patient about the process and building the roster up.”

Sanchez brought in two true current high school seniors on national signing day: 6-foot, 265-pound defensive end Naki Fahina from Hawthorne, Calif., and 6-foot-4, 320-pound offensive lineman Garrett Beckman from Greeley, Colo. He raved about having 16 scholarship linemen, which is double the number from his first season, and the current class-dispersion on the roster.

“The great thing is, we feel like we have what we need right now,” Sanchez said. “There’s no area where there’s an immediate hole where we say, ‘We’ve got to bring somebody else in.’”

If there was a player aside from Howard announced on Wednesday to fill an immediate hole, it’s graduate-transfer wide receiver Jordan McCray. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Marietta, Ga., native had 58 receptions, 650 yards and five touchdowns in three seasons at South Alabama.

McCray is expected to immediately fill the void left by the graduation of fellow lanky receiver Kendal Keys.

“I think when we look at the guys we have on our roster returning and I look at his skill set, he really complements those guys,” Sanchez said of McCray. “You have to put up deep balls, and when you have a big, almost 6-foot-6 guy, it causes matchup problems. I know it causes problems for us, and we’re excited about it causing problems for other people.”

Two other newcomers aren’t technically part of the recruiting class but could pay big dividends: California transfer and former Bishop Gorman star running back Biaggio Ali-Walsh, and junior-college defensive end and former minor-league baseball player James Baldwin III. They’re both currently enrolled at UNLV and will be on the roster as walk-ons.

Altogether, Sanchez said he was thrilled with how much talent he had accumulated. A few pieces fell through, as they always do, but Sanchez was satisfied with how many commitments held firm.

It can be nerve-wracking when a player like Howard starts garnering widespread, last-minute interest.

“We’ve had kids been committed here from mid-summer, all the way through, then all of a sudden, you get a week before signing day and a big Pac-12 school comes,” Sanchez explained. “This has happened four times. There are four guys starting in the Pac-12 right now that were committed to us for long periods of time.”