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Wolf Pack's Las Vegas natives itching at chance to beat UNLV again

JoJuan Claiborne
Nevada safety JoJuan Claiborne celebrates after breaking up a pass in Nevada's game against Fresno State last week. (Nevada Athletics)

Las Vegas has been home for Nevada's Amir Johnson and JoJuan Claiborne since their elementary school days, both moving across the country to settle in Sin City.

Johnson moved from Rhode Island to the Silver State just before middle school began; Claiborne moved from Georgia to Southern Nevada around age 6. But it would be Reno and not Las Vegas where those two would grow into men and into impact players at the college level.

Their high school days were spent together at powerhouse Bishop Gorman High under then-head coaches Tony and Kenny Sanchez, who won 10 straight state titles with the Gaels from 2009-18. Claiborne, a defensive back, won two state championships and Johnson, a lineman, won three during their time at Gorman.

"It was a crazy experience, getting to play on ESPN and all that at such a young age," Claiborne said. "I feel like it really prepared me to not shy away from the big moments now as a college football player. So it was honestly a blessing. I had a lot of role models there that really helped me become the player that I am today. Like Nicco (Fertitta), who played at Notre Dame, and then Bubba Bolden, he's at Miami right now. Those were the free safeties before me, and I model my game after those guys. They sent me into the player I am today."

But the path to Nevada wasn't easy for Claiborne or Johnson, who didn't have a traditional recruiting journey like many of their star-studded high school teammates. Johnson and Claiborne, along with safety Jordan Lee, another Gorman grad, were recruited by former Wolf Pack running back's coach David White, who had ties to Las Vegas after playing at UNLV in the early 1990s and serving as Bishop Gorman's head coach from 2003-2006. Each came to Nevada as a walk-on before earning scholarships.

"I didn't really know about the recruiting game until late in my high school career," said Johnson, a defensive tackle who began his college career on the offensive line. "I didn't get a chance to go to camps, and I didn't have the opportunity to meet other college colleges or go to the satellite camps or show off my skillset. So I didn't get a lot of recruitment so late into my high school career."

Added the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Claiborne: "I was always told I was too small. I just wasn't what people were looking for."

Claiborne held preferred walk-on offers from Nevada, Kansas State and Southern Mississippi. He now on scholarship at Nevada. Johnson had a preferred walk-on spot from the Wolf Pack and was recruited by lower-division schools Dixie State and Adams State. He earned a scholarship at Nevada prior to last season. Neither were recruited by their hometown school, UNLV, who the Wolf Pack will host Friday at Mackay Stadium.

"It definitely keeps a chip on our shoulder because we know we didn't get recruited out of our own city," Johnson said. "So that just makes us want to play better, and be better and beat those guys. I still know guys on the team, so it's always fun to beat those guys. It gets competitive."

Added Claiborne: "I have a little extra chip on my shoulder when it comes to that game. I just want a ball out and let them know that they missed out on a great player. I feel like for the team it's kind of the same thing, just making sure that they know we're the best in Nevada, like 'We are Nevada.'"

The lessons on how important this game is to Reno and the surrounding community were passed down to Claiborne and Johnson from the veterans on the team when they joined Nevada in 2018 and 2017, respectively. Now it is their job to explain the history behind this game to the youngsters.

"Seeing guys like Austin Corbett and Malik Reed and seeing how intense they were throughout the week and how serious they took this game and how it meant so much to the people of Reno, the game itself means a lot," Johnson said.

The Nevada-UNLV rivalry dates back to 1969, with the most expensive and heaviest college football trophy on the line, the Fremont Cannon. Friday's game will mark the 47th meeting between the teams, with Nevada holding a 28-18 edge and winning six of the last 10 games, including last season's 37-19 win at Allegiant Stadium.

"The important thing to remember about this game, you know that records don't matter," Nevada head coach Jay Norvell said. "In our first year (2017), we won three games and we won this game and it made our whole season. Other years, we won eight games and we lost this game and it felt like we didn't accomplish anything. So you can throw the records out. It really doesn't matter. The simple thing is that we prepare for this game the right way. We respect the opportunity and we go play the right way."

Norvell added the rivalry game is a "365 day deal" that drives the team throughout the offseason. That's especially true for players like Claiborne and Johnson who were overlooked by their hometown college.

"When we lost the cannon, we already knew the deal," Johnson said of the 2019 overtime loss at Mackay Stadium. "We had to get the cannon back. We just lost composure. But we just have to learn from our mistakes and not lose our cool. I think we just need to keep playing to the best of our ability. We still have yet to play our best game. I think that we're improving each game and that only means great things for us because as we improve we get better."

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