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Gonzales counting on Lobos’ many seniors for leadership in transition season

New Mexico senior Patrick Peek, right, climbs the back of Marcus Williams in an attempt to break up a pass in Friday’s spring drills. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Four games into the season last year, the University of New Mexico sat at 2-2 before misfortune in many forms ensued.

The Lobos lost their remaining eight games and a coaching change followed.

Before that fifth game, Patrick Peek, a starting safety, abruptly decided to sit out and redshirt the season, weakening a defense that had already been struggling. Peek returns as one of 34 seniors eagerly wanting a win and excited about the new opportunities of 2020.

“I just had to do something that was kind of better for me,” Peek said after Friday’s practice at Dreamstyle Stadium, where he is seemingly starting over and trying to win a starting spot. “Looking out kind of for myself but I was dealing with some injuries and I was dealing with some personal off-the-field issues. But it’s all working out now because I’m here and I’m able to be blessed with these new coaches. If I didn’t (redshirt) I wouldn’t be around Coach G (Danny Gonzales) and all these coaches I’m around right now. They’re helping me become a better man, a better player. It was a blessing to do that last year.”

As a senior, Peek must become a leader, which is crucial in Gonzales’ first year.

“They establish and set the foundation for the culture and for the future of the football program,” Gonzales said of the seniors. “We’ve got 34 of them. Normally you don’t have that many seniors on any team. But this year it’s kind of a luxury. You’ve got 34 guys that are vying for playing time. I meet with those guys separate because I think they’re the ones that put the most into the program. They’re the leaders of our team. We’re going to go as they go. If they become the leaders and it’s not the coaches leading, we have a chance to be a little bit more competitive.”

The Lobos might have had three more seniors – defensive linemen Aaron Blackwell (at Arizona) and Trent Sellers (undecided), and wide receiver Q’ Drennan (at UTEP) – but they left UNM as graduate transfers. Blackwell and Sellers were team captains last season.

The Lobos this season added offensive linemen Ben Davis, who is a graduate transfer from Minnesota.

The seniors know they must work. Nothing will be handed to them. Even last year’s starters need to prove their worth.

Senior offensive lineman Teton Saltes, a starter last season, left Friday’s practice early for undisclosed reasons.

Gonzales would not comment on the reason Saltes left during practice.

Saltes was not available for a phone interview later in the day.

Elijah Lilly, a senior wide receiver who redshirted last season because of a shoulder injury, has been making plays during the spring practices, including Friday when he took a short reception and ran for a long touchdown. He was wearing a blue pinnie (mesh, sleeveless jersey) on top of his jersey because he is not cleared for contact. He is also dealing with hamstring tightness.

There was hitting Friday, when the players wore shoulder pads and helmets, and more tackling is expected Saturday (starting at noon) when the Lobos will be in full gear for situational scrimmaging.

Lilly is looking forward to being cleared in the summer. But for now he wants to contribute as much as he can. He was a freshman on the 2016 UNM team, the Lobos’ last winning season when they went 9-4 and won the New Mexico Bowl.

“I’m just tired of losing,” said Lilly, who was devastated when his friend and teammate Nahje Flowers died suddenly last season. Flowers’ death was later determined to be by suicide.

“My best friend is not here anymore,” said Lilly, who was a roommate of Flowers for two years before last season. “I’m going out there and I’m not playing for myself anymore. I’m playing for him. Playing for my family. Playing for my teammates. When I get out on the field, even though I’m dealing with injuries, I put if off to the side to make sure that my guys are OK and just support everybody and be here. I know we are short-staffed right now at receiver. Just trying to make sure we have enough bodies that we can get through the spring.”

Senior tight end Marcus Williams said three straight losing seasons at UNM has been “tough,” after coming to the Lobos from a winning program at Cleveland High.

“I want to become more of a leader,” Williams said. “I just want to finish what I started here and try to finish out on top. I’ve been winning my whole life and then coming out here having losing seasons. I want to have a winning season in my college career, and there’s no time better than now.”

New Mexico defensive coordinator Rocky Long keeps his players on the move during Friday’s spring practice. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

COMFORT ZONE: UNM defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Rocky Long was available to the media for the first time during spring football on Friday. Long, a former UNM head coach and quarterback, said he is happy to be back “home” and that it’s “a pretty good deal” to be solely focusing on coaching as an assistant rather than a head coach as he was at San Diego State the past nine seasons.

Long said he has noticed strong effort from the Lobos on defense thus far, but there have been “a lot of assignment errors out there,” which he said is to be expected as they learn the 3-3-5.

“The No. 1 fundamental in defensive football is effort,” Long said. “That means no matter who you are or where you are, no matter what your assignment is, you need to run to the ball. You can never guess that someone else is going to make a play. You gotta run to the ball and anticipate that you’re the guy who’s going to have to make a play. If we can get that accomplished between now and the first game, we’ll improve on defense dramatically.”

The Lobos last year allowed 35 points per game in a winless Mountain West Conference season (0-8) and were 130th and dead-last in the FBS for passing yards allowed per game (321.4).

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