Along the University of New Mexico offensive line, there is an important battle occurring at right tackle between three players.
Heading into the Lobos’ home and season opener on Thursday against Houston Baptist, Jacob Jankoviak is leading against redshirt freshmen Greg Brown (6-foot-1, 290 pounds) and JerMarques Bailey (6-6, 332).
However, it’s not so much the O-line battle that is intriguing. It’s the fact that there is actual depth that is significant for the Lobos.
It’s a clue that UNM, picked to finish last in its division in the preseason media poll, nonetheless is much improved and appears ready to take the big step from a 2-5 team in 2020 to becoming a Mountain West Conference championship contender.
Depth, a quarterback transfer (Terry Wilson, from Kentucky) and 14 super seniors who received the extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus-delayed and shortened 2020 season, have given the Lobos great confidence for 2021.
UNM has come a long way since UNM alum and former assistant Danny Gonzales was hired as head coach in December of 2019. Back then, New Mexico had just eight offensive linemen on scholarship. Gonzales and his coaching staff, including offensive line coach and alum Jason Lenzmeier, had to go right to work on recruiting for that position.
Now there are 16 offensive lineman on scholarship and 22 players at that position.
“We have more guys; we have more talent,” UNM offensive coordinator Derek Warehime said. “We have more guys getting reps. That development is in order now.”
There’s also considerable development with Wilson, and depth at receiver has given the expectation for an offensive explosion.
As expected, Wilson, a dual threat, won the starting job less than two weeks into preseason camp. His strong arm, dynamic running ability and leadership have allowed the Lobos to open up the offense. Wilson also brings high-level experience, as he went 17-8 as the starter at Kentucky. Three seasons ago, he helped Kentucky to its first 10-win season since 1977.
Wilson, said Warehime, is “a worker. He’s a studier, a relentless note taker, question asker. Quick to learn something and transition it to the practice field. There’s no delay or hesitation when it comes to that with him. Leadership skills are phenomenal. We have a lot of guys who are following him.”
The Lobos have connected on several deep passes in camp, an indication of what is to come.
Also among the highlights during preseason has been the big-play capability of freshmen receivers Luke Wysong (Cleveland High) and Keyonta Lanier (Long Beach Poly, Calif.). Their hunger for the ball has boosted the position group’s energy, wide receivers coach Brandon Blackmon said.
Andrew Erickson and Mannie Logan-Greene have shown the most versatility and figure to be greatly involved in the Lobos’ game plan, Blackmon said. Erickson, a former Manzano standout, led UNM with 264 yards and two touchdowns on 17 catches last year.
Big-bodied wide receivers Jace Taylor (6-5, 199 pounds) and Elijah Queen (6-5, 207 pounds) give the Lobos an added dimension.
Cjay Boone, a redshirt freshman transfer from Missouri, brings a great amount of speed.
Could the Lobos have more than that at wide receiver?
“We have one secret in the group,” Blackmon said. “He’s going to be a big-time surprise for the league this year. I’m pretty excited about this certain individual. I won’t say who he is yet.”
Redshirt senior Bobby Cole leads a rotation at running back that should also include freshman Aaron Dumas and redshirt sophomore Chad Alexander. Cole led the Lobos with 410 yards and three touchdowns last year.
There is also depth at tight end with super senior Kyle Jarvis among the leaders trying to fulfill the departure of Marcus Williams, who declined to return for his extra senior season.
There isn’t as much depth as there is on offense, but the unit should be improved.
Defensive end Joey Noble and linebackers Reco Hannah are expected to be the key playmakers in the Lobos’ 3-3-5 scheme, Gonzales said. It’s no coincidence that they are among the nine super seniors on defense.
Noble, who started all seven games in 2020, was third on the team in tackles with 40 along with a team-best five tackles for loss and four sacks. He also forced a fumble and recovered one.
Gonzales held back Noble, 6-3 and 245 pounds, during the spring but not in preseason.
“For a defensive lineman he’s small, but he’s quick,” UNM defensive coordinator Rocky Long said. “He can change direction well. He’s not only quick with his feet, he’s quick with his hands, too. So the big guys he’s going against have a really hard time getting a hold of him.”
Much was made last year about only 25% of Long’s defense being installed.
“It’s not fully installed by any means,” Long said of the scheme this season. “We have more options than we did last year. I’m not sure we understand the scheme well enough that you can put something new in as a game plan. What we have now is the basics with a few tricks.
“They’re getting pretty good at running the basics, but I don’t know if we feel the system well enough or know the system well enough that we can put something in on a Tuesday and execute it well on a Saturday, (but) we’re much better off than we were at this time last year.”
Safety Jerrick Reed led the Mountain West in 2020 with four interceptions. He was the Lobos’ lone All-MWC player and is a preseason all-league selection.
The secondary also features super seniors Patrick Peek and Shaddrick Lowery at safety and Corey Hightower and Tony Collier Jr. at cornerback. It struggled last year allowing big plays and deep passes and hopes to be much improved.
Sophomore safety Tavian Combs should be a key player at the Lobo position, safeties coach David Howes said. Ronald Wilson, a freshman from North Crowley High in Fort Worth, has picked up the defense quickly and could be a factor as well.
Nic Wilson, Quinn Potts, Antonio Hunt and Mathias Bertram (Sandia) add depth to the group.
“They’ve got a huge role, not only because we are stop-run-first defense,” Howes, the former Rio Rancho High head coach, said of the safeties. “We’ve got to show up on the run with an aggressive attitude. … It’s a huge piece to this defense because we’re on the front end and the back end. We’ve got to make sure we arrive on time and we arrive in bad humor.”
In addition to Hannah, super senior Devin Sanders, and redshirt freshmen Dion Hunter and Ray Leutele are also expected to be key contributors among the linebackers, said Long, who also coaches the group.
Andrew Shelley and George Steinkamp are battling to become the Lobos’ place-kicker, Gonzales said. Donovan Murphree, who won the starting kicking job last season, is no longer on the team. Shelley, out of Eldorado, won the kicking job and earned a scholarship in 2018 as a redshirt freshman.
There’s also a battle at punter between Jared Long and Aaron Rodriguez.
Long, a redshirt freshman from Del Norte High, was the backup to Tyson Dyer last year. Rodriguez transferred in from Missouri.
Wysong, Logan-Greene, and Alexander are among a few players in contention to return punts and kickoffs.
Team (2020 record) Notable
1. Boise State (5-2) Broncos out to prove they are best in Group of Five right out of the gate against UCF on Thursday.
2. Air Force (3-3) Has a great challenge to reload with no super seniors, but the Falcons’ scheme makes the difference.
3. New Mexico (2-5) Much improved, but still a couple years away from contending to finish atop the division.
4. Wyoming (2-4) Possesses perhaps the league’s best rushing game, but may be a bit too one-dimensional.
5. Utah State (1-5) First-year coach Blake Anderson eager to return the Aggies to the greatness they showed in 2018.
6. Colorado State (1-3) Coach Steve Addazio, in his second year, could come under fire if the Rams don’t step up.
Team (2020 record) Notable
1. Nevada (7-2) QB Carson Strong is a true star and just might be a first-round pick in the next NFL Draft.
2. San Jose State (7-1) Spartans will be hard-pressed to rekindle last year’s magic that led to a surprise title.
3. Fresno State (3-3) Could be the surprise of the league; the Jake Haener-Jalen Cropper connection is a huge threat.
4. San Diego State (4-4) Certainly has the firepower to finish higher than this prediction, but it’s a strong division.
5. Hawaii (5-4) Rainbow Warriors showed a lot of weaknesses against UCLA on Saturday.
6. UNLV (0-6) The rebuilding continues for the Rebels, who open at Allegiant Stadium on Thursday.