If it stays in the same zip code, Delane Hart-Johnson will catch it.
Hart-Johnson’s 47-yard touchdown reception of a Lamar Jordan pass, caught despite tight coverage by cornerback Jalin Burrell, was the highlight of the New Mexico Lobos’ scrimmage Saturday at Dreamstyle Stadium.
Well, it was the offensive highlight, anyway. The UNM defense, its day highlighted by sophomore cornerback Elijah Lilly’s 63-yard interception return, appeared to have the upper hand.
Saturday’s practice was not announced as a scrimmage, but the Lobos tackled to the ground for well over an hour.
Asked to assess the workout, coach Bob Davie said, “I do think it was fairly clean. There wasn’t a whole lot of false starts, not getting the ball snapped, bad snaps.
“(But) what jumps out at you? Delane Hart jumps out at you. If a ball goes up, there’s a pretty high percentage he’s gonna go up and get it.”
Hart-Johnson, a junior listed at 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds, is a Philadelphia native who played a year at Los Angeles Valley College before coming to UNM in 2015. That year, he in essence beat out then-senior Marquis Bundy to become the Lobos’ go-to downfield receiver.
Bundy, a fine receiver in his own right, spent the 2016 season on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad and caught two passes in the Cardinals’ preseason game against Dallas.
In May 2016, Hart-Johnson was involved in a serious car accident while at home in Philadelphia — serious enough that, initially, it was feared he might not play football again. But after sitting out the 2016 season, he has come back better than before.
“There’s been some remarkable catches (in practice),” Davie said. “You say, ‘Wow, did he just do that, again?’ It’s been pretty consistent.”
Saturday, on the touchdown, Hart-Johnson lined up split out on the left side of the formation. Burrell, a junior-college transfer with whom Hart-Johnson has developed a bit of a practice-field rivalry, stepped up in press coverage.
That was all Jordan needed to see.
“It was just the chemistry we’ve been working on all summer, me and Lamar,” Hart-Johnson said. “(The coaches) called the play and (Jordan) was like, ‘Bro, if they’re pressing you, I’m coming to you.'”
Jordan, drifting to his right, threw across the field to Hart-Johnson on the opposite sideline. It appeared he and Burrell had an equal shot at the ball, but Hart-Johnson — some 4 inches taller — outleaped Burrell, made the catch at around the 7-yard line and took it into the end zone from there.
Of his practice byplay with Burrell, Hart-Johnson said, “We’re just here to get each other better. I just think like I’m the best receiver in the Mountain West (Conference), so I just think he’s not gonna go against anybody in the Mountain West who plays like me or that’s as physical as me.”
For most of Saturday’s session, though, it was the defense that got physical.
Junior outside linebacker Rayshawn Boyce, senior defensive end Garrett Hughes, redshirt freshman outside linebacker Rhashaun Epting and redshirt freshman defensive end Emmanuel Joseph all had sacks, though it should be noted that those sacks were of the “touch” variety because quarterbacks were off limits for tackling. Senior linebacker Austin Ocasio and senior nickel safety Kenneth Maxwell combined on a sack.
It also should be noted that the offensive line’s only returning starters, guard Aaron Jenkins and center Blaise Fountain, saw limited action. So, too, did Jordan, Hughes and starting running backs Tyrone Owens and Richard McQuarley.
Several defensive backs had pass breakups, including one of the bone-jarring variety from junior free safety Bijon Parker.
A strong pass rush throughout the day may have contributed to Lilly’s interception of a Coltin Gerhart pass at the defense’s 30-yard line. Lilly took the ball from the east sideline across the field and down the west sideline before he was finally brought down — by Gerhart — at the 7.
The Lobos, Lilly noted, ranked 113th nationally last year in pass-efficiency defense.
“Coming into the season,” he said, “we’re just trying to focus on getting that (number) up, making sure no teams we play can easily throw the ball and to make it hard (for them).
“Our defensive line is doing a heck of a job, getting a heck of a push. So they’re making our job much easier.”
Lilly, among the smallest of Lobos at 5-foot-10 and 152 pounds, also executed a perfect form tackle in dropping slot receiver Emmanuel Harris (5-9, 197) after a short completion.
“I just sized him up and shot straight to the legs, what we’ve been working on in practice,” Lilly said. “That made it easier.”
Open-field tackling, a glaring weakness during Davie’s first three seasons, has continued to improve.
“I don’t want to make statements in mid-August, because it all comes down to September, October and November,” Davie said. “But I’ll say this, we’re more athletic. We’ve got guys that can trigger, and usually you tackle better when that’s the case.”
It’s as not if, in addition to the Jordan-to-Hart-Johnson touchdown, the offense didn’t have its moments.
Late in the workout, sophomore wide receiver Anu Somoye hauled in a Gerhart pass and bulled his way into the end zone for a touchdown from 27 yards out.
Senior running back Daryl Chestnut had a 23-yard run on an option pitch. Junior college transfer Zahneer Shuler, a 6-1, 235-pound running back/H-back, had a 21-yard burst up the middle.
Davie said the team came through the scrimmage with no serious injuries.
SALTES TO OFFENSE: Valley High School graduate Teton Saltes, heretofore a defensive end, was an offensive lineman Saturday.
Davie didn’t say the change was permanent. He did say, “He may be able to walk over there right now and start for us on the offensive line. We think that much of him.
“We just have to get our best players on the field . … We’re not putting him over there to be a backup.”
Saltes, listed at 6-5 and 270 pounds, is a redshirt freshman.