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Gonzales determined to transform Lobos defense

Danny Gonzales, a former UNM assistant coach and player, is set to become the Lobos’ 32nd head football coach. He has been Arizona State’s defensive coordinator for the past two seasons. (Source: Arizona State athletics)

Danny Gonzales had success as defensive coordinator at Arizona State and as UNM head coach, he expects the Lobos defense to improve dramatically. (Source: Arizona State athletics)

University of New Mexico first-year coach Danny Gonzales expressed disgust and disdain when he spoke about the 2019 Lobos’ defense during a virtual press conference after Wednesday’s practice.

He expects the Lobos to improve. He won’t accept the same results as last year.

“We finished 129th in the country on defense last year? That’s embarrassing,” Gonzales said before asking UNM sports information director Frank Mercogliano. “It was 130th? That’s worse. That won’t happen. If we’re 130th in the country on defense, I’ll quit and I’ll give back every penny they gave me. It’s embarrassing. I’m not talking bad about the previous coaches whatever they did. I’ve never been around that. My first year at Arizona State they were 121st in the country when we got there. We finished in the first year, top 60. Last year, we were 39th in scoring defense.

“We made improvements. We had good players. We have good enough players here. If we get them to play hard we’ll be OK.”

UNM in fact finished 129th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in total defense, allowing 485.7 yards per game last year. The Lobos were last in passing yards allowed at 321.4 yards per game.

Gonzales has brought his mentor, former UNM head coach Rocky Long, to be the defensive coordinator, and they have installed the 3-3-5 defense. Gonzales and Long continually remind the players they must give their greatest effort. They must play with aggression, a nasty and violent style, the coaches say.

Gonzales said recently the Lobos have a long way to go to reach their standards. At San Diego State, where Long was the head coach last year, the Aztecs ranked No. 7 in the nation in total defense in 2019, allowing 288.6 yards per game; and at Arizona State, where Gonzales was the defensive coordinator, the Sun Devils were 65th, allowing 386.9 yards per game.

“We showed (the UNM players their 2019 defensive) statistics,” Gonzales said. “My first impression was I don’t really know how much it bothered them. And I think that’s part of the problem. Getting your ass whooped is not OK. It’s not OK to lose. It’s not OK to accept that. I think there was a little too much of that going on. When you lose 15 straight conference games, you’re getting OK with it. Well, we gotta change that attitude.”

Gonzales said up front is his big personnel concern defensively.

“We’re thin,” he said. “We’re not very big. We’re not super athletic. … I’m really concerned about us up front. Those guys know it. So I hope they take it as a challenge and prove that we’re better than we think we are.”

Joey Noble, a 6-foot-236-pound senior defensive end, and Jake Saltonstall, a 6-4, 253-pound sophomore defensive end, have been playing well over the past two weeks, Gonzales said.

The Lobos will be without two key players who transferred, including defensive lineman Aaron Blackwell, now at Arizona, and linebacker Dylan Horton, now at TCU. Linebacker Jacobi Hearn, who led the Lobos with six sacks last year, and defensive back Brandon Burton recently entered the transfer portal and will not play for UNM this season.

“Secondary and linebacker we’re as talented as the other places we’ve been,” Gonzales said. “I think Brandon Shook, Devin Sanders, Kam Miller, Dion Hunter, those guys at linebacker, and you add Ray Leutele as a freshman in there, those guys are going to be really good players. Secondary, we’re as athletic as I’ve ever been around. I don’t know if we’re as football savvy or smart. But I think we have some really good tools and now we’ll find out how good of coaches we are. If we can get those guys in the right spot and going in the right speed then we’ll have a chance to be OK.”

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