The University of New Mexico’s defensive unit has a rather simple motto/formula for what appears to be a complex scheme:
■ Know what to do and how to do it.
■ All 11 to the ball in bad humor.
■ Keep them out of the end zone.
“We preach that on a daily basis,” UNM coach Danny Gonzales said at his press conference on Monday. “And, they believe in it.”
The Lobos’ defense has shown remarkable improvement in the two seasons since Gonzales became coach, and it has been a bright spot in a losing season (3-8, 1-6 Mountain West) that ends Friday morning against Utah State (8-3, 5-2).
In 2019, Bob Davie’s final season as coach, the Lobos finished 125th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense, allowing 485.9 yards per game during a 2-10 season.
This season, through 11 games, UNM is 47th in total defense, allowing 356.1 yards per game. What’s even more impressive is that the Lobos’ 3-3-5 defense has maintained high-level play even though the offense ranks 130th and dead last in the nation in total offense, averaging 239.4 yards per game, and has been held to zero points in four games, including a 37-0 loss at Boise State on Saturday.
The Lobos have improved in several other defensive categories over the past two seasons. Their motto is effective, yet, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have one of the greatest defensive minds in the game, a man whom Gonzales refers to as “the greatest defensive coordinator in all of college football” in Rocky Long.
Gonzales said he has learned from Long since 1998, when Gonzales played for the Lobos and Long was the head coach. They’ve been coaching together for all but two seasons since Gonzales started as a graduate assistant under Long in 1999.
“When Coach Long and I sit in a room we know exactly what we’re going to do and what the plan is and what the idea is, and we bounce ideas off each other,” Gonzales said. “(Cornerbacks coach) Troy Reffett has worked in this system for a long time. (Defensive line coach) Jerome Haywood was with us at San Diego State. We’ve got a proven product that is being led by the greatest defensive coordinator in college football.”
True freshmen Ray Leutele, a linebacker, and Ronald Wilson, a safety, along with redshirt freshman safety Tavian Combs have been crucial in the Lobos’ improvement on a defense that has benefitted from senior defensive end Joey Noble’s standout season.
In addition, the defense has overcome injuries to senior linebacker Reco Hannah, who played in four games, and senior nose tackle Langston Murray, who played in nine.
“Everyone thinks that New Mexico is a place that you go in and walk all over them,” said senior safety Jerrick Reed II, a 2020 All-MWC selection who leads the Lobos in tackles (82) and passes broken up (seven). “But I think Coach G and Coach Long have said it all the time, ‘You just have to wake up and stop taking the BS from other teams.’ I feel like we did.”
HONORING COACH: In addition to honoring the seniors during Friday’s game, the Lobos will honor the late Joe Lee Dunn, who was UNM’s head coach 1983-86 and defensive coordinator in 1980.
Dunn died last month at age 75.
Long was on the UNM staff as defensive backs coach when Dunn was defensive coordinator in 1980. Long has said in the past that Dunn’s 3-3-5 scheme initially inspired him.
“Between Joe Lee Dunn and Don Matthews, who Coach Long worked with in Toronto, those two schemes are what we combined to what Coach Long has put together and what we do on defense,” Gonzales said. “Joe Lee Dunn was a great individual. He came through Albuquerque every offseason to watch our tape on his way to Las Vegas where he had a lot of fun. Great respect for that man. It’s really sad that he’s gone. We’ll honor him on Saturday because he was a great part of this program both as a defensive coordinator and as a head coach. There’s a lot of people running the 3-3-5 now that when he did it people thought he was crazy.”