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2024 UNLV Football Spring Showcase

Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels quarterback Majj-Malik Williams (6) passes during the UNLV Football Spring Showcase at Allegiant Stadium Saturday, April 6, 2024.

Early in the second half of UNLV’s spring scrimmage, senior quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams dropped back and zipped a quick pass to freshman receiver Damien McDaniel. Then the fireworks started.

McDaniel eluded the first defender, turned on the jets and outraced everyone to the end zone for a 79-yard touchdown.

Williams is a transfer from Campbell, while McDaniel is a true freshman from Hitchcock, Texas, who just arrived on campus two weeks ago. Their spectacular hookup made the point that this is the start of a new season for the Scarlet and Gray, and this is a new team.

Of course, the holdovers from last year’s breakout 9-5 campaign also made an impression, but the buzz on the field at Allegiant Stadium on Saturday was centered on the new guys, and how they could help vault UNLV into playoff contention in 2024.

Notes from the spring finale:

Williams sparkles at QB

The quarterback competition really hasn’t begun yet, as presumptive starter Matt Sluka is still at Holy Cross and won’t officially transfer to UNLV until this summer. But Williams did his best to make his case on Saturday, showing deft command of the offense and producing some big plays.

In addition to the 79-yard strike to McDaniel, Williams also piloted the best drive of the afternoon. Opening the second quarter, Williams took the offense the length of the field by hitting 4-of-4 from the pocket for 68 yards, including a 25-yarder to sophomore receiver DeAngelo Irvin and a 29-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wideout Corey Thompson.

Williams handled six drives and finished the day 14-of-22 for 227 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Senior receiver Ricky White has been impressed with Williams’s work throughout spring practice.

“He’s a veteran,” White said. “Smart player. Great ball. He can read a defense well, so he’s going to be a great addition for us.”

Junior returner Cameron Friel headed eight drives and completed 11-of-17 for 116 yards and a touchdown. He did not throw an interception but did lose a fumble on a strip-sack.

Sophomore Lucas Lenhoff and freshman Gael Ochoa got the rest of the work and combined to go 3-of-10 for eight yards with one interception.

Complimentary playmakers

Ricky White is one of the best receivers in the nation, and senior Jacob De Jesus is a proven weapon out of the slot. They drove the passing game last year.

On Saturday, however, it was the rest of the pass-catching corps that really stood out. While White caught four balls for 57 yards and De Jesus had three catches for four yards, Corey Thompson and Damien McDaniel turned in a bevy of big plays, and their presence threatens to make UNLV’s offense even more explosive in 2024.

McDaniel graduated from high school early and arrived on campus two weeks ago, midway through the spring season. The 6-foot, 160-pounder has caught up quickly, however, consistently making plays in practice and carrying it over to the spring game, where he caught three passes for 91 yards and the long touchdown.

White is excited about the prospect of lining up and running routes next to McDaniel.

“That’s my guy,” White said. “I’m trying to take him under my wing. Obviously he’s a freshman, so he’s got a lot to learn, but he’s going to be a heck of a player.”

Sophomore Corey Thompson also enjoyed a good scrimmage, hauling in four balls for 72 yards and a touchdown. Thompson came on strong at the end of last season, starting the final two games, and appears to have carried that momentum through the offseason.

On his 29-yard touchdown, Thompson ran a crossing pattern and made two defenders miss after the catch, sprinting across the goal line.

White and De Jesus are going to produce, but head coach Barry Odom wants to make use of the complimentary playmakers, too.

“We’ll be able to showcase and find ways to get our playmakers the ball out in space,” Odom said. “The vertical passing game, I think we can be more explosive than we were last year.

Grimes locks up the deep ball

Some UNLV fans may still be scarred by the secondary’s performance in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, when Kansas lobbed deep ball after deep ball and connected on just about all of them. The coaches certainly took note and tried to solve that problem via the transfer portal.

The solution: 6-foot-2 cornerback Tony Grimes.

A former 5-star recruit, Grimes transferred in from Texas A&M and appears ready to make an immediate impact on UNLV’s pass defense. He was tested twice in the first quarter on Saturday, as Williams and Friel both launched deep balls down the sideline into Grimes’s airspace, and both times Grimes came out on top.

The first shot from Williams to White traveled 47 yards in the air, but Grimes outpaced White down the right sideline and had a chance at an over-the-shoulder interception in the end zone, but had to settle for a pass breakup.

That play got White’s attention.

“He’s going to make plays on defense,” White said.

In the second quarter, Friel tossed a long bomb down the left sideline, but once again Grimes was locked in coverage and was able to bat it away at the goal line.

Grimes, a fifth-year senior, could be a transformative presence in the back end, which is exactly what UNLV needs.

“He does have length,” Odom said of Grimes. “He’s got good speed, he’s got good natural cover skills.”

Running back by committee

UNLV’s offense is built on the running game, and they worked it on Saturday, finishing with 49 carries for 242 yards on the ground. That was good for an average of 4.9 yards per carry, split among a deep stable of backs that Odom said could still be growing.

Freshman Greg Burrell, a Desert Pines product, broke off a pair of big plays on the ground and tallied a team-best 81 yards on 10 carries.

Odom said there are five current running backs worthy of playing time if the season started today, and that’s with highly-rated freshman Devin Green still waiting to join the team over the summer.

“That group’s really got a chance to be a bright spot for our team,” Odom said.

Welcome back Class of ‘84

It’s been 40 years since the 1984 UNLV football team went 11-2 and won the only conference championship in program history, and that team was honored on the field before the game.

Nearly 50 players from the 1984 team gathered on the sideline, including head coach Harvey Hyde and NFL star Ickey Woods, for their moment of recognition.

Woods served as the ringleader, directing position groups together for photo opportunities.

“It feels good, man,” Woods said of the reunion. “Some of these guys I haven’t seen for 40 years, like my offensive linemen, I haven’t seen them since I left. We feel good that they’re welcoming us back with open arms. Barry has come in and turned this thing around. I love the things that he’s doing with the program. I love that he’s bringing the old players back and changing the culture.”

Woods said he still follows UNLV closely and was thrilled by last year’s turnaround.

“I can’t wait to see the season they’re going to have,” Woods said. “They’re doing some great things.”

Woods is particularly pleased by the current team’s dominant rushing attack. After racking up 1,925 yards on the ground in his college career, Woods believes the go-go offense would suit him just fine.

“I love it — I could be the nation’s leading rusher again in a system like this,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just so good to see our alma mater start to play some real football. When you told people you’re from UNLV, they say, ‘UNLV? What? That’s a basketball school.’ Now they’re turning the corner and getting things done.”

Woods still visits Las Vegas regularly and is hosting a charity golf tournament here next week for the Jovante Woods Foundation, named after Woods’s son, who died of an asthma attack at the age of 16.

The star of the 1984 squad was quarterback Randall Cunningham, who passed for 2,628 yards and 24 touchdowns. He was with the team for their get-together on Friday night, but had to miss the Saturday ceremony to be with the UNLV track and field team, where he serves as an assistant coach.

De Jesus said UNLV wants to match the ’84 team by winning a conference championship.

“I met them before the game today,” De Jesus said. “They were shaking hands with me and saying, ‘Good luck, man, we love the way you play.’ So that gives me a lot of courage, a lot of inspiration, just to see these guys telling me that, because they were a very good team back in the day.”

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

Article written by #LasVegasSun