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Liberty Beats Desert Pines, 16-7

Steve Marcus

Desert Pines running back Greg Burrell (5) carries the ball against Liberty during the first half of a football game at Liberty High School Friday, Oct. 21, 2022.

Wednesday was a most unusual day for the UNLV football program, as head coach Barry Odom had to juggle a morning practice and other bowl preparations while at the same time collecting signatures from the incoming players committed in the Class of 2024.

Turns out, he and his staff are good at multitasking.

When it was all squared away, UNLV had 22 new players signed, with recruiting sites ranking it as the top class in the Mountain West and No. 6 among Group of Five programs. That’s an exciting development for a team that defied all expectations by going 9-4 and reaching the MWC championship game in Odom’s first season in charge.

“We’re excited about adding these 22 young men to our program and our university,” Odom said. “Now it’s our job to get this group ready to go play and compete and win a championship next year. That is our goal. That is our standard of what we want in this program is to get back to the Mountain West championship game and win it, and this group will help us do that.”

Shop locally

Odom and his staff have prioritized Las Vegas talent since being hired almost exactly a year ago, and it paid off on Wednesday when seven local prep stars signed on to join the UNLV program.

The headliners are Desert Pines running back Greg Burrell and Bishop Gorman linebacker Charles Correa, both of whom are 3-star prospects who held multiple offers from Power 5 programs as well as other Mountain West schools.

It took time and effort to rebuild relationships around the city after the previous regime burned bridges with local high-schools, but Odom credited those prep coaches for being open-minded about repairing bonds with the new staff.

“I’m so thankful for the high-school coaches that we’ve had a chance to work with,” Odom said. “The ability to sign seven kids in the city of Las Vegas is huge for us. We’re just getting started with what we think is going to be a longstanding opportunity for the city of Vegas, for the kids that grow up here that want to be part of our program. This group of seven guys will put a stamp on that and help leading the way of what that looks like.”

Odom said he has an open-door policy for local high-school coaches and players to visit the practice facility, and reported that more than 1,500 prospects took part in summer camps on the UNLV campus — including all seven Vegas natives who ended up signing on Wednesday.

One of those camps led to Odom extending an offer to Liberty defensive end Andre Porter, a 3-star recruit whose father played for UNLV.

“Before camp, we had not offered Andre Porter,” Odom said. “He came to 7-on-7 camp, and watching him run around and all the positions he played, not only on offense but defense…we got a great individual evaluation on him through our summer camps.”

Trench warfare

Eight of the 22 signees are offensive or defensive linemen, which is a ratio that drew Odom’s stamp of approval.

While some programs now prefer to pull veteran linemen from the transfer portal as their primary mode of building the trenches, Odom wants UNLV to develop prep players along the line of scrimmage.

“I’m always going to oversign on offensive linemen and, if we can, on defensive linemen,” Odom said. “In any league that you’re playing in, if you can run the ball, you’re going to have a chance to win. And it’s done up front. If you can stop the run on defense, a lot of that is your front-7.”

Odom said the development of last year’s freshmen bigs only emboldened him to continue signing high-school blockers and run stuffers.

Mascon Vicari, a 6-foot-3 guard from Sacramento, rates as a 3-star blocker, while Max Mogelson is rated as the No. 67 defensive tackle in the nation by ESPN.

Quarterback joins the party

The latest addition to the class was Gael Ochoa, a dual-threat quarterback from El Paso, Texas, who committed on Monday, choosing UNLV over UTEP.

Ochoa is an athletic 6-foot-2 passer who threw for 2,107 yards and 15 touchdowns while rushing for 886 yards and 12 TDs as a senior. He is a 3-star recruit who should be a good fit in Brennan Marion’s go-go offense.

He’s also a good fit from a roster-building perspective after UNLV saw 2024 quarterback Karson Gordon de-commit midway through the season.

Landing an athlete of Ochoa’s caliber was a late coup, according to Odom.

“We needed a high-school kid in this class,” Odom said. “He’s explosive, very athletic. He’s over a 22-foot long-jumper. He’s got a terrific arm, very live. And he’s got speed, and real linear speed.”

Ochoa is one of eight recruits who are expected to graduate early and join UNLV in time for spring practice.

Big class

Odom reiterated his desire to make UNLV a high-school recruiting program.

While other programs trend toward using the transfer portal as a primary means of adding talent, Odom wants to focus on developing long-term starters from the prep ranks while using the portal to target specific needs.

Part of what makes that approach possible, Odom said, is UNLV’s success at player retention. So far, the Scarlet and Gray have only lost four players to the portal, and only two who saw any playing time in 2023.

“We’re a high-school recruiting program,” Odom said. “We’re going to be very select and very direct on guys that we would we take who are not HS graduates, whether it’s junior college, transfer, 4-year, 2-year schools or what that looks like.”

Odom did acknowledge that he expects some departures as the offseason goes on, and that’s when he’ll turn his attention to recruiting newcomers via the portal.

“We won’t be in a position where we can keep everybody on the team,” he said. “There will be some transfers we get in, but that will be after our bowl game and in the month of January.”

Kicker U

From steady-as-they-come Evan Pantels to record setter Daniel Gutierrez to record breaker Jose Pizano, UNLV has been set at kicker for the better part of the past decade. Could Caden Chittenden be next in line?

The Faith Lutheran product set a new Nevada record with 37 career field goals and made 18-of-22 attempts as a senior, including a 57-yarder. Odom touted Chittenden’s strong leg for kickoffs and 50-plus attempts.

“It’s a big-time get for us,” Odom said. “No. 1, he’s got terrific talent; the physical skill set for his age is off the charts. We felt like [he’s] one of the top 1 to 2 kickers in the country. For us to be able to get him is a tremendous weapon.”

Chittenden is another early enrollee who will participate in spring practice, giving him a leg up on being the primary placekicker for 2024.

Laster but not leaster

The overall headliner of the class is Melvin Laster, a playmaking linebacker from Kansas City who checks in as a 4-star prospect. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder was named Class 6 Defensive Player of the Year in Missouri and ranks as the No. 27 linebacker in the nation.

Odom credited defensive coordinator Mike Scherer for his work on recruiting Laster and eventually landing one of the top recruits in program history.

“I think he’s a terrific player,” Odom said. “He’s very multiple in what he can play; he’s got a terrific football IQ.”

Expect Laster to come in and make an immediate impact.

Junior Jackson Woodard, a first-team All-Mountain West selection, had high praise for the incoming ‘backers.

“I got to spend time with the linebacker recruits coming in,” Woodard said. “We’re going to have a phenomenal class. And we’re also returning a ton of guys, so next season is something I’m looking forward to, for sure.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at

Article written by #LasVegasSun