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Hopeful Lobos report to football practice

The numbers, Bob Davie believes, do not lie.

Four recruiting classes. Seven home games. Three run-pass (or pass-run) quarterbacks, recruited to the system.

Fifteen defensive backs. Twelve wide receivers. A 3-3-5 defense. Two prolific running backs. Exactly 100 players, scholarship and walk-on, on the roster as of Sunday.

It all adds up, the University of New Mexico’s fourth-year football coach said last week, to a team that can be playing in a bowl game come December.

“I’ll be disappointed if we don’t,” he said.

The Lobos, 4-8 last year and 11-26 during Davie’s tenure, begin preseason practice this afternoon on their South Campus practice fields. Most if not all of the remaining practices leading up to the Sept. 5 opener against Mississippi Valley State will be held in the morning.

All practices, unless otherwise announced, will be open to the public.

Around the Mountain West Conference, at least, the Lobos are not burdened by great expectations. The media members who cover the MWC picked New Mexico to finish sixth and last in the league’s Mountain Division – one spot lower than they were picked last year.

Perhaps the Lobos can take some encouragement from the dramatic leap made last season by Air Force, the one team picked to finish below them in 2014. The Falcons made a mockery of that prediction, going 10-3 – including a victory in a bowl game.

What encourages tight end Reece White and cornerback Cranston Jones the most, though, is what they’ve seen with their own eyes since last November.

When Jones lined up against the offense during spring practice, he saw blinding speed at wide receiver – and quarterbacks with the ability to get those wideouts the ball.

“They’ve added a lot more speed to the edge,” Jones said. “Kind of moved Carlos (Wiggins) and Ridge (Jones) to the outside and moving them around a lot more, creating more of a deep threat downfield.

“Which actually helped us a lot in the secondary, covering those little scat receivers on the outside running deep downfield. If you can run with Carlos Wiggins or Ridge Jones, you can run with anybody.”

Improving UNM’s passing attack – the Lobos ranked 123rd nationally last year in passing yards per game – was job one during spring practice.

The results were encouraging, with junior college transfer quarterback Austin Apodaca pushing incumbent starter Lamar Jordan to a new level. Redshirt freshman JaJuan Lawson also threw the ball well during the spring and might be the fastest of the three.

Davie said he’ll withhold judgment until he sees that leap forward in an actual game. But he’s optimistic the improvement is real.

“I think we’ve become balanced, I really do,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting for us.”

Now, when Davie says “balanced,” he doesn’t mean the Lobos will throw the ball as often as they run it. He just means opposing defenses will cheat up to stop UNM’s bread-and-butter, triple option-based running attack at their own peril.

“We’re not gonna deviate much, because that (the running game) is what makes us what we are,” he said. ” … We have some running backs.”

Senior Jhurell Pressley and junior Teriyon Gipson, who combined for 1,892 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns last season, return to lead a ground game that ranked fourth nationally (310 yards per game).

The Lobos lost all-conference center LaMar Bratton, the linchpin of the offensive line. But returnees Reno Henderson, Garrett Adcock, Johnny Vizcaino and Eden Mahina have 54 career starts between them.

But while the offense was gaining all those yards and scoring all those points in 2015, the defense was giving up more of both.

White said that when he looked across the line of scrimmage in the spring and in summer workouts, he saw significant improvement.

“There’s been some big jumps,” he said. “A lot of the coverage has been a little bit tighter. They’ve been switching around playing a little bit more man to man, working on that with more DBs on the field and with some of the guys showing bursts of talent.

“I think it’s gonna be a breakout year for those guys.”

In the spring, the Lobos switched from a 3-4 defensive alignment to a 3-3-5. The change gives UNM more speed on the field and allows the Lobos to match up more easily, without having to substitute, against any formation the opposing offense might employ.

Davie, acknowledging the stress no-huddle offenses have put on his defense the past three years, had the UNM offense running no-huddle almost exclusively in the spring.

Special teams figure to be a strength.

Wiggins, the senior wide receiver, made the Mountain West preseason all-conference team – he was UNM’s only representative – as a kick returner. Wiggins and Ridge Jones each returned a kickoff for a touchdown last season.

Rio Rancho senior Zach Rogers appears set as the punter, but sophomore Jason Sanders is expected to push Rogers for the starting job as the kicker.

The Lobos enter the preseason in good health.

All-Mountain West junior linebacker Dakota Cox, who tore an ACL late in UNM’s game against Boise State last November, has been fully cleared to participate. But Davie said he’ll err on the side of caution in bringing Cox along.

Three of UNM’s four non-conference games – Mississippi Valley State, Tulsa, New Mexico State – will be played at University Stadium. The Lobos’ only road non-conference game is a Friday night contest at Arizona State on Sept. 18.

If the Lobos are to get the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility, common wisdom suggests they’ll have to do that in their first eight games. They finish the season against Utah State, Boise State, Colorado State and Air Force – teams that won a combined 42 games last season. But Davie notes that, of the four, Boise State is UNM’s only road game.

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