The University of New Mexico’s offensive line appeared to be the strongest and most reliable position group heading into this season, year two of coach Danny Gonzales’ rebuilding project. The UNM O-line, with four returning starters, was seen as the key to unlock an offense that featured playmakers eager to explode.
The Lobos’ big guys up front still carry a great amount of importance, yet they know they have been playing below expectations.
“Yeah, it’s obvious,” UNM offensive line coach Jason Lenzmeier said. “I don’t think we have to beat around the bush. We have (been playing below expectations). That’s my fault. For a lot of reasons, some internal, some external, whatever you want to say, but we just gotta keep grindin’ and get better.”
Lenzmeier, a former UNM offensive lineman who has developed several quality offensive linemen in previous coaching stints with the Lobos (2-4, 0-2 Mountain West), said his position group is excited for another opportunity to turn it around, that being against Colorado State (2-3, 1-0) on Saturday at University Stadium.
Younger players, such as sophomore Jack Buford (6-foot-4, 310-pound right tackle) and freshmen Shancco Matautia (6-2, 295-pound right guard) and Leke Asenuga (6-2, 315-pound left guard) have been gaining more playing time, as the Lobos try to find the right group to help UNM snap a four-game losing streak.
“The past couple of weeks we’ve been struggling, not only in the passing game but in the run game as well,” said Matautia (pronounced Mah-tah-oo-tee-ya). He earned his first start last week in his hometown of Carson, Calif., in a 31-7 loss to now 24th-ranked San Diego State.
“I feel like we haven’t been playing loose. If we play loose, I feel like we could be a really good group, a scary group and just drive guys off the ball.”
Matautia, who goes by Ise (pronounced E-say), played at Servite High in Anaheim, one of the top programs in Orange County. He had committed to Idaho State, but instead decided to play for the Lobos just before last year’s Signing Day.
“He’s got a bright future,” Lenzmeier said. “He just has to keep working hard.”
Matautia is inexperienced, so mistakes have happened, but he has shown great potential, Lenzmeier added. UNM has plenty of youth. On offense, running back Aaron Dumas, and wide receivers Luke Wysong and Keyonta Lanier are key freshman contributors.
Against the Rams, the Lobos might start another true freshman in CJ Montes at quarterback if senior Terry Wilson is ruled out with a left, non-throwing, elbow injury. Wilson missed his second day of practice on Wednesday. Montes took the majority of snaps with the first team.
The Lobos will try to break out of an offensive slump that started after New Mexico won its first two games of the season.
UNM is 124th in total offense out of 132 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. During their four-game losing streak the Lobos are averaging:
⋄ 81.25 rushing yards per game
⋄ 118.5 passing yards per game
⋄ 3.25 sacks allowed per game
⋄ 7.75 punts per game
The losses came against two ranked teams, including undefeated SDSU (5-0, 1-0), and then-No. 7-ranked Texas A&M, which upset top-ranked Alabama Saturday to move back into the Top 25 at No. 21.
“You can look at all the stats,” Lenzmeier said. “There’s nothing that we’re doing great right now. That’s why you gotta keep improving. The kids are coming to work. (Wednesday) was a good practice.”
The Lobos have experience with returning starters Cade Briggs (left tackle), Austin Cook (left guard), Kyle Stapley (center) and Isaak Gutierrez (right guard), but nothing is set in stone, Lenzmeier said.
“We can always play better,” Briggs said. “I don’t think we are playing up to what we wanted or what everyone else wanted. But I think we are slowly getting there. Every week we’re climbing back up that ladder.”
UNM has been without right tackle Teton Saltes, who decided not to play his extra senior year granted due to the 2020 coronavirus-shortened season. He was an undrafted free agent for the Jets and later waived after an injury. Coincidentally, Saltes, who greatly improved during last season, will be honored and presented with the Wuerffel Trophy during Saturday’s game.