University of New Mexico safety Tavian Combs remembers the opening kickoff to the 2018 season as a junior at Randall High School in Amarillo.
The ball came to him and he took off, eager to begin a crucial season with the hopes of attracting college recruiters’ attention.
He ran at an angle across the field toward the sideline, but then saw a hole and he shot through it. From behind, a defender grabbed his jersey to slow him down and then another defender went low on him and crashed into his legs.
His first touch of the ball for that season turned out to be the last in 2018. He said he sustained a fractured fibula, and his ankle suffered a dislocation. A small metal plate remains in his lower right leg.
Combs enjoys talking about what happened after that injury, the “fun” that came during the recruiting process. He had zero offers after his junior season, but then multiple offers and interest after his senior season that included first-team All-District 5-5A honors. First there was UTEP, and then others came calling, including SMU and UNLV. Baylor and Washington State wanted him to play linebacker, he said, but he saw what he wanted at UNM.
Combs’ path to Albuquerque reminds him of what hard work can do, lessons learned about the importance of each game, each play that has led him to his home at UNM, as the “Lobo” safety in the 3-3-5 defense.
“I’m just a playmaker,” says Combs, explaining why he’s suited for the demanding role.
UNM head coach Danny Gonzales said he saw a fearless safety in Combs, one who would not let up at the point of attack, but drive through on his tackles. His athleticism, as a wide receiver and defensive back, also stood out. Gonzales believed the 6-foot-2, 197-pound Combs had the versatility to stuff run plays and break up deep passes like the “Lobo,” in the scheme, able to play linebacker and safety.
“When you’re trying to project somebody to play that position they have to be a great tackler,” Gonzales said. “They have to be physical and not be afraid to run into people because they’re going to run into people more than they ever have. He’s fit the mold. So far he’s been really good at that spot.”
Combs has also become a leader on defense. He took on that role after he grew up quickly as a freshman last year when the Lobos spent their entire season in Las Vegas, Nevada, because of the public health order in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Combs, who started five games in UNM’s 2-5 season and was second on the team in tackles with 51, also had to learn quickly. He must be vocal on the field during the game, making calls for the defense.
“He got thrown into the fire last year,” Gonzales said. “But he knew coming into January that he was the guy … He was the one we were going to roll with.”
The shortened season proved beneficial for Combs’ development, Gonzales said.
During this past offseason, Combs learned more about the Lobos’ defensive scheme. He credits his coaches for his ability to learn quickly.
“He’s playing like a fifth-year senior and it’s only his second year, really his first year with the covid year,” said UNM senior Patrick Peek, who plays the “wolf” safety position. “He’s already playing like he’s experienced. We look at him like he’s a leader already. We don’t look at him as a young sophomore. He’s already made big strides to the point where our whole defense, we trust him. It’s good to have somebody like that who knows the plays and is young and who flies around and makes plays.”
Combs was flying around last week during the Lobos’ season-opening 27-17 win over Houston Baptist, a Football Championship Subdivision program. He led UNM with 12 tackles, including a half tackle for a loss to go with an interception, a forced fumble and a pass break-up.
The Huskies’ longest pass went for 18 yards. The Lobos’ defense held HBU to 187 offensive yards.
Now, Combs said, he wants to take his game to a higher level and expects the defense to play with more aggression against New Mexico State on Saturday at University Stadium.
“I’m ready to play against them,” Combs said. “I know how big this rivalry is. I just want to go out there and give it everything I have and show them what I have. I’m for sure ready to go, see what they got and compete against them.”
New Mexico State at UNM, 5 p.m., 770 AM/96.3 FM, streaming at Stadium