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Rick Wright: Lobo football team is in need of playmakers

UNM’s Adebayo Soremekun howls after the win over Sam Houston State. If he and his teammates are to celebrate like this more often in 2019, special players must develop. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

On a football roster of 100-some players, like the University of New Mexico’s, a few good men shouldn’t be hard to find.

And they’re there – speedsters, weight-room warriors, guys who’ve had football success at previous levels. As a group, they were good enough, fast enough, strong enough, successful enough to beat Sam Houston State, 39-31, on Aug. 31 at Dreamstyle Stadium.But where are the special players, like the following six playmakers and anchors who led the Lobos to a 9-4 season in 2016?

Offense: Teriyon Gipson, the breathtakingly fast running back. Austin Apodaca, the proven passing quarterback. Reno Henderson, the stalwart left tackle.

Defense: Nick D’Avanzo, the mobile and immovable defensive end. Dakota Cox, the tackling machine at middle linebacker. Daniel Henry, the coach-on-the-field at safety.

Those six players, all of whom earned All-Mountain West Conference honors in 2016, were seniors that season. The following two seasons, roster-wide, top to bottom, there wasn’t a significant drop-off in talent. But the playmakers, the anchors, simply weren’t there – at least not in sufficient numbers or at a sufficient level. Hence the back-to-back 3-9 seasons that followed.

And now?

The none-too-impressive victory over Sam Houston State, a team that plays a notch below UNM in the Football Championship Subdivision, raises more questions than answers. If not for some fortunate bounces and a handful of dropped or poorly aimed SHSU passes, the outcome could have been different.

The UNM defense, after shutting out the Bearkats in the first quarter, thereafter bore a disturbing resemblance to the 2018 unit that allowed averages of 36 points and 473 yards per game. The Lobos, in fact, gave up a total of 558 yards against SHSU.

But, regarding the playmakers, at least there are candidates.

Is Ahmari Davis one of those guys?

Davis, running behind an offensive line that failed to dominate, made two nifty moves at the line of scrimmage – freeing himself for runs of 43 and 54 yards. Davis, slowed by injuries last fall as a junior, also went 51 yards with a screen pass.

Is Sheriron Jones one of those guys?

Jones, a quarterback who played the second half after a shoulder injury suffered by starter Brandt Hughes, made plays passing and running against Sam Houston State. Neither he nor Hughes, though, displayed the passing precision (a combined 18-of-40) against SHSU that fully took advantage of the Lobos’ receivers.

Are there playmakers, then, at receiver? Yes, absolutely.

The UNM coaching staff recruited and signed a remarkable number of outstanding receivers while running a pass-unfriendly triple-option offense from 2012-17. Some, like Dameon Gamblin, Carlos Wiggins, Marquis Bundy, Chris Davis and Delane Hart-Johnson, have come and gone without their talents having been fully exploited. But talent still abounds in the form of Elijah Lilly, Jay Griffin IV, Q’ Drennan, Cleveland High product Marcus Williams, Anu Somoye, Anselem Umeh, Valley grad Aaron Molina and junior-college transfer Jordan Kress.

Somoye and Williams made key receptions last Saturday of passes that easily could have been intercepted. Lilly and Griffin each contributed terrific catches.

Is there a quarterback on the 2019 roster who can consistently deliver the football to those receivers? Maybe it’s Tevaka Tuioti, who waits in the wings after missing multiple August practices due to a family emergency.

Is there an anchor on the offensive line the quality of Henderson, or of Aaron Jenkins, a 2016 sophomore? No one distinguished himself as such against the Bearkats.

Davis’ two long runs were the result of his own moves to daylight. Other than those 97 yards, the Lobos rushed for all of 68 yards on 30 carries. Jones was the second-leading rusher with 35 yards on six attempts.

There was virtually no push from the O-line, this against an FCS defense.

On defense, is Adebayo Soremekun one of those guys? The senior from Los Angeles didn’t start vs. Sam Houston State but was UNM’s most disruptive down lineman, with three tackles, a sack and 1½ tackles for loss.

Is Alex Hart one of those guys? Hart missed most of last season with an ACL injury, but when healthy in 2017 was not, at least statistically, the equal of Cox, the guy he replaced at “mike” linebacker. But the universally respected senior and three-year team captain was in on 10 tackles against Sam Houston State.

Is Jacobi Hearn one of those guys? The junior linebacker had only one tackle against the Bearkats, but it was perhaps UNM’s biggest of the night. Seemingly shot out of a cannon, he ran down SHSU quarterback Ty Brock for an 8-yard sack that ended the visitors’ final possession of the game.

Is Johnny Hernandez one of those guys? The UNM secondary became disturbingly porous as the game wore on, but the senior nickel safety from Temecula, Calif., led UNM with 11 tackles and had a spectacular and timely pass breakup in the third quarter.

An eight-point victory over an FCS team, even a good one like Sam Houston State, is hardly encouraging in the face of the 11 games left – starting Saturday at No. 8 Notre Dame. That also includes four Mountain West Conference foes – Wyoming, Hawaii, Nevada and Boise State – that opened their 2019 seasons with wins over Power Five conference teams.

It’s time, then – high time – for the playmakers to stand up and reveal themselves.

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