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Diminutive Jones anchors rebuilt secondary for Lobos

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Cranston Jones will never be taller than 5 feet, 9 inches.

Chances are, he’ll never weigh much more than the 169 pounds at which he’s listed on the University of New Mexico football roster.

But, faster? Stronger? Wiser? Yes, yes, and yes. And those are three reasons why Jones, an incumbent starter at cornerback, concedes nothing as UNM seeks to get bigger and taller in the secondary.

“I don’t worry about (size),” Jones said after Tuesday’s spring practice session. “If you can play, you can play.

“It doesn’t matter what size you are, 5-9 or 6-3. If you can play, you’ll be on the field.”

Last season, in finishing with a 3-9 record, New Mexico ranked 123rd and last in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision in pass-defense efficiency. The Lobos gave up 30 touchdown passes and had just four interceptions. Opposing teams completed 68 percent of their passes and averaged better than 9 yards per attempt.

Not all of that can be blamed on the secondary, and certainly not all on Jones. As a sophomore, the former West Mesquite (Texas) High School star was one of UNM’s most productive defensive players.

UNM  cornerback Cranston Jones (3), shown defending a pass intended for Boise State’s Geraldo Boldewijn during a game in November, is a returning starter in the Lobos’ rebuilt secondary this season. (The Associated Press)

UNM cornerback Cranston Jones (3), shown defending a pass intended for Boise State’s Geraldo Boldewijn during a game in November, is a returning starter in the Lobos’ rebuilt secondary this season. (The Associated Press)

Jones, a season-long starter, ranked fifth on the team in total tackles with 45. He tied for the team high in pass breakups with five.

Still, there were times when Jones’ lack of size loomed large.

During the Lobos’ 49-27 loss at Pittsburgh on Sept. 14, 6-2 Panthers wide receiver Tyler Boyd outleaped Jones and gathered in a touchdown pass.

During UNM’s 56-42 loss to UNLV on Sept. 28, 6-3, 210-pound Rebels wide receiver Devante Davis pushed off from Jones on the sideline and caught a pass for a long gain.

Tall, fast, rangy opposing wide receivers were a problem for the Lobos all season long.

So, after the season, coach Bob Davie talked about the need to bring some bigger and/or taller players into the mix in the secondary.

Mission accomplished.

Daniel Henry, a 6-foot, 170-pound cornerback, enrolled in January. Henry, a transfer from Iowa Western Community College, has sat out spring practice while rehabbing a shoulder injury but will be available in the fall.

Lee Crosby, a 5-10, 190-pound cornerback, is a transfer from Snow College in Utah. He’s expected to enroll this summer.

The campaign to get bigger in the secondary is not limited to the corners. Juwan Jones, a 6-2, 190-pound safety from Chandler, Ariz., will enter the program as a freshman.

All that’s fine, said first-year UNM defensive backs coach Charles McMillian. But he’ll remind you that he himself, standing a fraction of an inch over 5-9, played cornerback at Utah State.

“If you get a long guy that can play, that’s great,” McMillian said. “But … you look at Cranston’s size, and you’ve got to have something. You’ve got to have speed, you’ve got to have great ball skills, and you’ve got to be able to make plays when the ball’s in the air. You’ve got to be aggressive.

“Size is really not a factor to me.”

Though Jones is among the Lobos’ smallest players, he’s also among the fastest – having run the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds. And he believes the experience he gained the past two seasons will prove invaluable come the fall.

“I’ve developed and grown,” he said. “I’ve seen a whole lot more, so I think it will allow me to play a whole lot faster.”

Jones and senior SaQwan Edwards (6-1, 189) have been the first-team cornerbacks this spring. Senior David Guthrie (5-9, 208) and junior Brandon Branch (5-11, 187) have been the first-team safeties.

But, said McMillian, “There’s still no depth (chart) right now.”

Newcomers like Henry, Crosby and Jones, as well as current Lobos Ryan Santos, Devonta Tabannah, Isaiah Brown, Jadon Boatright, Donnie Duncan, Jamal Merritt, Ricky Bennett, Markel Byrd and Bijon Parker, could be heard from.

“We’ve gotten better (after 10 spring practice sessions) as far as our communication, which is a positive,” McMillian said. “Now, we’ve just got to continue working on the little things.

“There’s still a lot of work ahead of us.”

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