ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As has been reported, the New Mexico Lobos’ passing game has shown vast improvement in the first three weeks of preseason practices. The quarterbacks have been accurate, the receivers fast and sure-handed.
And the defensive backs?
Charles McMillian is a hard guy to please, and one who sugar-coats nothing. The Lobos’ first-year secondary coach says his DBs, 10 days away from the season opener against UTEP, are nowhere near where they need to be.
But he fully intends to get them there.
As McMillian was being interviewed after Wednesday’s practice, senior strong safety David Guthrie – a returning starter – was being interviewed a few feet away.
Was Guthrie, McMillian was asked, a guy he could count on?
“Right now I don’t think I can count on any of them, to be honest with you,” he said.
Those might seem chilling words for anyone who remembers the travails of the UNM secondary last year. The Lobos ranked 123rd nationally – that’s dead last – in pass-efficiency defense.
McMillian wasn’t trying to be pessimistic, certainly not defeatist. Simply put, his unit is a group in transition.
After last season, head coach Bob Davie fired secondary coach and defensive coordinator Jeff Mills. He promoted inside linebackers coach Kevin Cosgrove to defensive coordinator and hired McMillian, who is entering his 20th year in the profession, to coach the secondary.
Davie wants a more aggressive defense, and spring practice was devoted largely to achieving that goal.
“In the spring, we stressed ‘A to B’ as far as going from one spot to another (as quickly as possible),” McMillian said. “The technique and fundamental part was being taught, but not fully.
“During (the preseason), we started the technique and fundamentals. So, right now, we’re still trying to learn how to play great technique and fundamental football like a DB should.
“As a DB, you’ve got to have your eyes in the right place, you’ve got to see formations, you’ve got to make the right checks.”
His players, McMillian said, have not done so consistently.
“Even though we’re facing our offense,” he said, “we still have those mental busts where, when we get tired, we can’t focus – (can’t) go in there based on those techniques to slow the game down in our head to see the formation, to make the right checks.”
The problem is not, McMillian said in the spring, a lack of physical ability.
There’s experience, as well. Guthrie, senior cornerback SaQwan Edwards and junior cornerback Cranston Jones were full-time starters last season; free safety Brandon Branch saw considerable playing time at free safety behind departed senior Dante Caro.
No starter from a secondary torched as thoroughly as UNM’s was last year, however, should be sure of retaining his job.
Davie consistently has praised sophomore cornerbacks Isaiah Brown and Jadon Boatright. Junior-college transfer Lee Crosby and true freshman Bijon Parker have shown ability.
At safety, junior-college transfer Daniel Henry and redshirt freshman Markel Byrd have made plays.
Some secondary coaches like to identify their starters and, barring injury, play them the entire game. McMillian doesn’t subscribe to that line of thinking.
“I like to give a 100-percent guy a chance to get in because he’s better than the 80-percent guy that’s been playing the whole game,” he said. “.. I like to play four corners. Safety group, three or four safeties.
“I do rotate if it’s possible.”
Whether it’s possible, it appears, will depend on what McMillian sees between now and Aug. 30.
TALKIN’ ABOUT PRACTICE: The Lobos scrimmaged at University Stadium Wednesday in what will be their final full-contact work before the opener.
“It wasn’t as good as it should be,” Davie said. “But that’s why they call it practice, and we’ve got a chance to build on it. We came out healthy.”
Based largely on Wednesday’s practice, Davie and his staff will create depth charts, determine who among the young players will redshirt, and assign players to scout-team duty.