University of New Mexico offensive lineman Jer’Marques Bailey, all 6 feet, 6 inches and 350 pounds of him, settled in to catch a punt on Tuesday morning at the Lobos’ football practice field.
If Bailey caught it on the first attempt, the practice would end. A drop and he would join his teammates for some running and conditioning.
The big guy showed proper technique, cleanly catching the punt, turning his hips and running as if he were taking it back for six. It was as if he did score because his teammates celebrated with him.
It was a good day to be a Lobo.
A sunny day with clear skies served as an apt backdrop to UNM’s first spring football practice, the Lobos’ first training session together on a field in New Mexico since last March, when COVID-19 wiped out the team’s spring football after eight practices.
“It’s exciting, the first day of spring practice,” UNM coach Danny Gonzales said at a press conference during which the media kept their distance and were wearing masks. “It’s a testament to New Mexico. Everyone is doing their part, social distancing, washing hands, staying home, vaccinating, all those wonderful things so we can get back to some kind of normalcy.”
Gonzales said he began practice with a history lesson taught to his players, telling them the times UNM has won outright conference titles.
UNM won its first conference championship in 1938 with head coach Ted Shipkey. Then three titles in a row in 1962, ’63 and ’64 under coach Bill Weeks.
The Lobos haven’t won a conference title since 1964.
“We’re striving to win our fifth conference championship,” Gonzales said. “It started today out on the field.”
After a 2-5 abbreviated season that ended with two straight wins and included six weeks spent in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Lobos appear committed to follow their coach’s lead.
“It was fun, just flying around and getting back in the groove,” defensive end Joey Noble said. “We’re blessed to have another season, to be around Lobo football. This year will be great.”
Noble, who led the Lobos with four sacks and five tackles for losses last season, is one of 14 seniors who came back to UNM for 2021 because the coronavirus-delayed and shortened 2020 season did not count against a player’s eligibility.
Gonzales said if those “super seniors” didn’t return, UNM would have had 70 scholarship players this season.
“I said year two was going to be ugly because we were going to lose 31 seniors and not be able to replace them,” Gonzales said of his evaluation when he was hired in December of 2019. “Nothing good came out of the pandemic, but we have 14 guys that we wouldn’t have on our team if we didn’t (have the pandemic). I’m going to count that as a blessing. They’ll help us fill a gap and help us be more competitive.”
At spring football, the Lobos also have three incoming freshmen who are early high school graduates and could contribute immediately in running back Aaron Dumas, defensive back A.J. Odums and quarterback Bear Milacek.
Milacek is one of three quarterbacks taking the majority of the reps during the spring with Trae Hall and Isaiah Chavez, a walk-on once-fifth-string quarterback who led the Lobos to their two wins last season.
Gonzales has said it’s Chavez’s job to lose.
Speed and size is evident at wide receiver with Missouri transfer Cjay Boone, who Gonzales said has been clocked at 4.37 in the 40, and Elijah Queen, a 6-foot-5, 195-pound sophomore, among the pass catchers on the outside.
Fans are not allowed at weekday practices, but UNM will host a limited number of fans for Saturday practices (9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.) in the stadium, starting this Saturday. Other dates fans can attend practice are March 27 and April 3.