For New Mexico’s defensive backs, the water gets deeper this week.
And they’ll be swimming with sharks in pigs’ clothing.
This week, Lobos coach Mike Locksley noted the 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks, UNM’s opponents Saturday, have four wide receivers on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award — presented each year to the best receiver in college football.
There could be times Saturday when all four — Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright — will be on the field. Last year, they combined for 170 catches, 2,890 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Ryan Mallett, the quarterback who threw most of those passes, is gone. But Tyler Wilson, his successor, looked sharp in the Razorbacks’ season-opening, 51-7 rout of Missouri State.
“They air it out, pretty much,” Lobos cornerback Destry Berry said this week. “They’ve got some great receivers, so we’ll have to keep them from going over the top.”
For the UNM secondary, that represents a drastic change from the Lobos’ previous game against Colorado State — from the shallow end of the pool to the deep.
In the Rams’ 14-10 victory, CSU quarterback Pete Thomas was on target — 22-of-26 — but passed for only 178 yards and one touchdown. With only a few exceptions, UNM’s defensive backs were able to keep Rams receivers in front of them. On third-down plays, Thomas was 9-of-9 passing — but for only two first downs.
“We just played high to low,” Berry said. “We tackled pretty well, and we were able to get the ball on the ground as soon as they completed passes.”
Anthony Hooks, who plays right cornerback opposite Berry, said the game plan against CSU was to mix coverages.
Some things may change for Arkansas, Hooks said, but not that.
“We’re not one-dimensional out there,” he said. “We’re gonna mix it up and play a little bit of everything.”
Defensive backs coach Mike Woodford, asked if he was satisfied with his unit’s play against CSU, shook his head.
“Did we win? No, so I’m not satisfied,” he said.
But Locksley saw the secondary as one-third of a unit, with the defensive line and the linebackers, that held the Rams to 270 yards of total offense — less than half the total CSU gained against UNM last year.
“They tackled well, and we were in good coverage for the most part,” Locksley said. “There weren’t guys wide open, and we’ve just got to build on it.”
As destructive as the Razorbacks can be in the passing game, building anything won’t be easy.
Woodford was asked if Arkansas throws with abandon in coach Bobby Petrino’s pro-style offense.
Again, he shook his head.
“With abandon, no. They’re very, very precise,” he said. “They run their routes with precision, and they know where the first-down marker is.”
Against CSU, Berry knew where that marker was, as well. On consecutive plays in the first quarter, he broke up a pass, then stopped a receiver short of a first down.
A transfer from Erie Community College in Orchard Park, N.Y., Berry arrived at UNM in time to participate in 2011 spring practice. But at the end of spring drills, he was listed behind Hooks at right corner on the depth chart.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Woodford said of Berry. “If someone had told me last spring that he’d be a starter in our opening game, I’d have said they were smoking something.
“But sometimes, the light just goes on.”
Hooks, a senior from Phoenix, has started more games — 26 — than any other current Lobo.
“He’s the one with experience,” Woodford said, “and so far, he’s made it count.”
One thing the UNM secondary didn’t experience against CSU was an interception. In fact, the Lobos had only four all of last year.
“Arkansas throws the ball a lot more (than Colorado State),” Berry said, “so there’ll be more opportunities (for interceptions).”
Hooks, who has one career interception — he returned it 25 yards for a touchdown against San Diego State last year — isn’t focusing on getting No. 2 on Saturday.
“We’ll just go out there, line up and see how it goes,” he said.
Hooks said he’s thinking more big picture.
“Coming out of the CSU game,” he said, “we really hope to show people what our defense is all about.”