The University of New Mexico linebacking corps has major inexperience, especially after losing senior Reco Hannah to what is likely a season-ending knee injury.
The UNM linebackers include four players — Ray Leutele, Syaire Riley, Cody Moon and Dion Hunter — who saw their first college football action last year during a 2-5 season.
They believe they can step up in a big-time college venue: at Texas A&M, ranked No. 5 in the coaches’ poll and No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and a 27-point favorite on Saturday.
Riley, who is from Inglewood, Calif, recorded just six tackles last season when he played mostly special teams.
He saw much more playing time during the Lobos’ 34-25 win over rival New Mexico State last Saturday in place of Hannah, who sat out with the injury.
“I really want to shock the world,” said Riley, who had six tackles, one tackle for a loss and one pass breakup against NMSU. “I know this team wants to shock the world. There’s no better opportunity than to do it against the seventh-ranked team in the country.”
Riley, who played for Palisades High, stood out for the Lobos in their pass rush schemes, UNM coach Danny Gonzales said.
Hannah was expected to be one of the Lobos’ top players on defense, said Gonzales, who brought the famed No. 44 jersey of former Lobo legend Brian Urlacher out of retirement and gave it to Hannah to wear.
Hannah dealt with a torn meniscus in his right knee last year, but “was able to fight through it,” Gonzales said. This year, after the Lobos’ 27-17 season-opening win over Houston Baptist when Hannah had six tackles, one sack and one tackle for a loss, Gonzales planned to try to take Hannah’s status game-by game because the knee “got banged up,” against the Huskies.
But his knee continued to swell, and Hannah couldn’t bend it, Gonzales said. Surgery is planned for Thursday. If he doesn’t return before the season ends, Gonzales said they will try to bring Hannah back for a medical redshirt year.
“I’ll miss Reco,” Gonzales said during his press conference on Tuesday. “He was becoming our best player on defense. That one hurts, but it’s next man up mentality, and those guys stepped up and played really well on Saturday.”
Cody Moon, a Volcano Vista High grad who walked on to the team last year, was among those guys. Moon recorded one interception and three tackles in his most extensive playing time as a Lobo.
“I had a couple of nerves the first couple of drives, but it’s really about just playing football, like I have been doing my whole life,” Moon said. “It’s not too much different.”
Moon didn’t have any scholarship offers out of Volcano Vista and had been planning to join the Marines, he said, until he received a preferred walk-on opportunity with the Lobos.
“I just decided to take it,” Moon said. “Here I am. It’s the best decision of my life.”
Moon played mostly special teams last year and worked hard on the scout team. After continuing his high-level work ethic during the offseason, Gonzales put the 6-foot-2, 200-pound outside linebacker on scholarship before this season began.
“He has a lot of characteristics that (former Lobo linebacker) Nick Speegle had (2001-04) when we were here before,” said Gonzales, who worked as an assistant on then-head coach Rocky Long’s staff when Speegle from La Cueva played at UNM and was drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns in 2005. Long is now the Lobos’ defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
“(Moon is) long and tall. He’s skinny right now. He’s only a little over 200 pounds and he needs to be about 225 to be really good and have the chance to not get beat up,” Gonzales said. “But he’s very productive. He plays the right way. He plays hard. And that kind of mentality is what will give us a chance on Saturday.”
Leutele, the Lobos’ starting middle linebacker, was second among UNM freshmen with 11 tackles last year. He came out of California powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana. He believes Riley and Moon can continue making plays with Hannah out.
“They stepped up big time with Reco going down,” said Leutele, who had five tackles, one interception, two pass breakups and an assist on a tackle for a loss against NMSU. “I’m comfortable in the game with them and having them by my side, playing together. My boys.”
New Mexico at No. 7 Texas A&M, 10 a.m., SEC Network, 770 AM/96.3 FM