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Lobos’ ‘no-name’ defense impresses in scrimmage

UNM defensive lineman Aaron Blackwell keeps an eye on the ball carrier as he tries to shed a blocker during practice Friday evening. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The wide receivers were in the spotlight for the University of New Mexico during last week’s scrimmage in Dreamstyle Stadium.

The Lobo defense stole the show this time. The defenders played with great emotion and high energy to shine during most of the 60 plays of an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday night.

Defensive lineman Aaron Blackwell, the Lobos’ lone full-time returning starter on defense, says the unit has been striving to be mentally tough during spring practices, of which there are four sessions remaining to get up to 15.

“It’s a complete turnaround,” Blackwell said, explaining that the UNM defense has improved from last year. “We’ve got the juice and the sauce. That’s what we like to keep telling each other. It’s been phenomenal. We don’t pick one, the juice or the sauce, we’ve got both.”

UNM will need its defense to step up in a big way if the Lobos are to have a turnaround from the past two 3-9 seasons.

Blackwell, a 6-3, 288-pound nose guard, is in a leadership role. He said he leads by example. The Lobos will look to him to play with a non-stop motor. They need that. No one really knows what to expect from a defense that has a new defensive coordinator, Jordan Peterson, and lost arguably their top two would-be returners in safety Marcus Hayes (Kansas State) and linebacker Rhashaun Epting (Tennessee State) who transferred out of the program during the winter.

“Kind of a group of no-names,” UNM coach Bob Davie said as a description of the defense. “But (there’s) energy and kind of upgraded athleticism, and guys that are hungry to play.”

Davie has admired the enthusiasm his team has shown throughout the spring, and the electricity appeared to be coming more from the defense on Friday. That defense recorded at least five sacks, two coming from linebacker Reco Hannah, a quick, 6-foot-2, 211-pound linebacker who is a junior college transfer from Highland Community College in Kansas.

“There’s a whole lot more juice now,” Hannah said of the defense. “The coaches are getting fired up. Everybody is getting fired up. It’s a whole different energy. I think that’s what we needed this year. Just a whole different atmosphere that’s going to make the program grow.”

In addition, the UNM defense is expected to be bolstered by the return of senior linebacker Alex Hart (knee), as well as defensive linemen Trent Sellers (knee) and Adebayo Soremekun (shoulder). They are not able to practice fully until August. Instead, during the scrimmage, they played the role of mediators, as they tried to break up a fight between the offense and the defense that led to referees throwing flags for personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct.

“You get to the end of spring ball and guys are working hard,” Blackwell said of a couple of scuffles that broke out during the scrimmage. “We have a whole new defense, guys trying to earn spots. They’re going to do everything they can.”

Peterson, who was the safeties coach last year, said he saw that the defense made progress during the scrimmage. He has been up front with the defense, letting them know that every position is available.

“The energy is where we need it to be from a consistency standpoint, but we have to be more disciplined in our technique and fundamentals,” Peterson said. “Effort, aggressiveness, those type of things can make up for deficiencies in technique sometimes. The guys can’t get complacent.”

RECEIVERS: The UNM wide receivers have been a bright spot for the Lobos throughout most of the spring. Yet, they had a tough time during the scrimmage.

“We did have some drops tonight,” Davie said. “It did lead to some frustration on offense. But it’s just another day of spring-practice building. It’s not much result oriented.”

The Lobos lost their top receiver, Delane Hart-Johnson, to graduation last year, and their top returning pass-catcher, Elijah Lilly, is out with a hamstring injury.

That’s allowed for other receivers to step up, including senior Anu Somoye, junior Jay Griffin IV and junior Anselem Umeh. Junior college transfers Jordan Kress and Emmanuel Logan-Greene have also added speed and athleticism to the group.

TIGHT END: There will be battles for a starting spot at several positions, but Marcus Williams (Cleveland High) appears to have a lock on holding on to his starting role. He has had a great spring and is expected to be a weapon on offense.

“That’s like an early Christmas present for (offensive coordinator) Joe Dailey,” Davie said of the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Williams. “It’s having a guy who can line up at tight end and is more of a receiver type than he is a tight end. Lot of flexibility in this offense for him.”

KICKER: Sophomore kicker Andrew Shelley (Eldorado) connected on a 51-yard field goal late in the scrimmage.

Shelley, a former walk-on, won the place-kicking job last year and earned a scholarship.

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