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Freshman Kyle Williams catches on quickly with UNLV

UNLV had plenty of question marks entering the season, but who would catch the ball wasn’t expected to be one of them.

Only one of the Rebels’ top nine receivers from last season was a senior, and they expected to have five players back who caught 20 or more passes.

But that changed quickly. Randal Grimes, last year’s leading receiver, was suspended for the season. Mekhi Stevenson opted out because of coronavirus concerns. Steve Jenkins missed last week’s game and would have been unlikely to play Saturday against Colorado State, a game that was canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests.

Tight ends Noah Bean and Gio Fauolo are back and have been productive, but the upheaval at wide receiver has meant an opportunity for young players. And nobody has taken advantage more than Kyle Williams.

The 6-foot, 175-pounder has smoothly made the transition from high school and started all four games as a freshman.

“When we recruited him and watched his film, there were a lot of things traitwise that stood out that we believed would translate fast into our offense,” UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo said. “He had some physical traits that stood out, like top-end speed, vertical, overall explosion and the ability to play the ball.”

Williams has shown all of those traits and increased his reception total in every game. He had three catches in the opener against San Diego State, including a 23-yarder that was the Rebels’ longest play and started the drive that resulted in their only touchdown.

He had four catches against UNR and five against Fresno State before breaking out last week against San Jose State with nine catches for 110 yards and his first touchdown, when he found himself wide open in the end zone for a 19-yard score.

“I push him every day,” senior running back Charles Williams said. “I’ve been egging him on about getting in the end zone, and he did that last week. He’s a great kid, a great athlete, and I can’t wait to watch him grow as a player.”

Add it all up, and Kyle Williams is the Rebels’ leading receiver with 21 catches for 211 yards and a long of 34 yards. He’s been primarily used on wide receiver screens, and he’s shown a knack for picking up yardage after the catch, either by making the first defender miss or breaking a tackle.

Williams quickly picked up the Rebels’ intricate offense. He said the unusual season caused by the coronavirus pandemic, in which the team has been isolated, has allowed him to focus more on football in his first year away from home.

“The offense wasn’t too hard to pick up. It’s kind of the same as high school, just a faster tempo,” Williams said. “I feel like I’ve been picking up on it great, learning the concepts, the schemes, the ins and outs of routes and coverages.”

He had the advantage of seeing the game from a number of positions in high school. He played quarterback, defensive back and was a kick returner in addition to becoming a standout receiver as a senior at St. Monica Catholic High in Santa Monica, California.

Williams said having been a quarterback allowed him to understand coverages better, when to keep running and when to sit down in a zone and figure out where the soft spots are on the field.

While he’s taken care of most of the firsts every freshman experiences, there’s one that has eluded him — a win. The Rebels are 0-4 with three games left, barring any other complications.

“It’s a huge chip on our shoulder,” Williams said. “Day by day, with each practice, we get more eager to win.”

Contact Jason Orts at jorts@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2936. Follow @SportsWithOrts on Twitter.

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