If ever a college football program needed a star quarterback running the show, it was Nevada-Las Vegas in 2016.
Throughout a 4-8 season, the Rebels would take one step forward and follow with two steps back. They could run the ball, but they could not throw it with any consistency, as evidenced by a team completion percentage of 46.9. Nor could they keep their quarterbacks healthy.
Actually, one made it through the season with nary a scratch. And Armani Rogers stood there, game after game on UNLV’s sideline, drawing comparisons to Cam Newton from his teammates while he waited for a chance that would not come.
When UNLV coach Tony Sanchez lured the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Rogers away from Pac-12 schools such as UCLA, California, Washington and Arizona State in February 2016, he did so with the intent of redshirting him as a freshman, giving him a year to mature and learn the playbook.
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Sanchez had a plan, and despite temptations, he did not deviate from it.
“The way we’re going to win at UNLV is having a plan, sticking to it and being tougher than the situation,” Sanchez told reporters after last season. “I just think we’re going to outwill this son of a gun.”
So far in 2017, Rogers has been fine — if somewhat limited — and UNLV has been uneven, opening with a monumental upset loss against Howard before rebounding to win at Idaho the following week. The Rebels were off last week ahead of Saturday’s first meeting against Ohio State.
Sanchez’s original plan was to start the season turning Rogers loose on the competition, but the game plans suggest the Rebels are proceeding with caution.
In two games, Rogers has completed 21 of 35 passes for 413 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His highlight play was a school-record 94-yard TD pass to Devonte Boyd against Idaho, the back-breaking score in UNLV’s 44-16 win.
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The play showed Rogers’ potential. At the snap, he saw that the Idaho cornerback covering Boyd had blitzed, leaving a safety one-on-one with UNLV’s top receiver. He delivered a laser that Boyd caught in stride.
“I just saw him running with the safety and nobody else by him,” Rogers told Las Vegas reporters. “So I said, ‘I’m going to air this out and let him do what he does best with the ball in his hands.’ ”
Rogers also has shown ability with the ball in his hands. He finished the Idaho game with 86 yards on 16 tough carries, giving him 168 yards rushing for the season.
UNLV players and coaches saw all of this coming for a year now, and they weren’t shy about their impressions of Rogers.
“Let me tell you, he was the scout-team quarterback last season and we saw him every day. We’ve been saying he was Cam Newton since last year,” senior defensive tackle Mike Hughes Jr. said. “I don’t know if anyone heard us, but he can for sure run the ball, he can for sure throw the ball and he can lower that shoulder on you, too. You’re going to see a lot of greatness from him.”
The Newton comparisons are based on Rogers’ size and skill set rather than what he has accomplished, obviously, but and his potential as a star have observers talking about former UNLV dual-threat quarterbacks such as Randall Cunningham and USC transfer Jason Thomas.
“When you first hear the (Newton comparison), you giggle and then you cringe and then you kind of laugh about it,” Sanchez said before the season. “People recognize Armani has a lot of potential, but that’s all it is right now.”
At some point, though, Rogers will be unleashed and given the freedom to run the offense. Maybe it will be this week at Ohio Stadium, maybe it will be later in the season. Whenever it happens, he will accept the challenge.
“I’m ready for whatever (Sanchez) throws at me right now,” Rogers said. “I feel like I’m prepared.”