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Omar Clayton was the starting quarterback for three games at UNLV last season. And he couldn't even eat at the team's training table.
Clayton was an invited walk-on last season, and even though he soared from fifth-string to first by the team's eighth game, the quarterback could not enjoy any of the fringe benefits of being a scholarship athlete. In fact, he lived north of Las Vegas with his grandfather and took a city bus an hour to campus each day.
In the spring, Clayton earned a scholarship, and this fall he has put on quite a show for the surprising Rebels. Clayton has nine touchdowns and no interceptions in leading UNLV to a 3-1 record, including back-to-back wins over BCS schools for the first time in school history. the sophomore has completed 70-of-111 passes (63.1 percent) for 777 yards with a rating of 148.6, good for 28th in the nation. He is the reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for three touchdowns and running for another in an OT win over Iowa State.
Clayton's lack of turnovers this year is a far cry from his debut last season, when he had four in his first half against Colorado State. But even in that game, Clayton showed his potential, throwing for 304 yards and rushing for 135 yards in his first significant action.
Clayton, a Normal, Ill., native, was not offered a scholarship by any Division 1 schools. He ended up at UNLV through the friendship of his high school coach and UNLV offensive coordinator Todd Berry, Illinois State's former head coach. With his grandfather living in Las Vegas, Clayton accepted an invitation to walk on with the Rebels with the chance to earn a scholarship.
With Clayton at the helm full time, the Rebels already have won more games than they did in any of the last four seasons. Ranked No. 102 in the preseason by Athlon Sports after last year's 2-10 mark, UNLV has beaten Utah State, Arizona State and Iowa State. Its lone loss is to No. 17 Utah.
One of the biggest differences for the Rebels this year is in the red zone, where they are 13-for-13, including 10 touchdowns. Last year, UNLV scored just 15 TDs on 37 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Clayton's favorite target is freshman (and Vegas native) Phillip Payne, who made this unbelievable catch against Arizona State, plus caught the game-winner in overtime against Iowa State. Payne has five TDs in his first four games as a collegian.
The Mountain West schedule is rigorous, but with five home games remaining, hopes for the first bowl in coach Mike Sanford's four years in Vegas are legit.
And he can thank a former walk-on who now should be sitting at the head of the training table.