Aug. 3, 2004
Defensive OverviewSince Rocky Long's arrival at New Mexico, hard-nosed, aggressive defense has been the Lobos' calling card. While many have tried to emulate the scheme, few teams in the country can match the intensity and physical style of play exhibited by the players in Long and defensive coordinator Osia Lewis' trademark blitzing system. UNM is one of just five schools to finish in the top-30 in total defense each of the past four seasons, along with Kansas State, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. The Lobos have also led the Mountain West in sacks each of the last four years. In 2003, New Mexico led the MWC and finished fifth in the nation in rushing defense (86.1 yards/game). In conference games only, the Lobos led the league in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense. UNM also boasted nine all-conference defensive players including a pair of first team selections in safety Brandon Ratcliff and defensive end D.J. Renteria. Fellow defensive ends Daniel Kegler and Zach Rupp led the league in sacks and tackles for loss, respectively, while Ratcliff, cornerback Gabriel Fulbright and safety Sidney Wiley ranked among the MWC top-10 in interceptions. New Mexico also had a pair of 100-tackle linebackers in Daniel Gawronski and Billy Strother. This year's defensive unit will feature several new faces as Long and Lewis look to replace seven starters. A strong, deep linebacker crew, along with a solid trio of corners, returns to lead the squad. However, the coaches will need several newcomers to make an immediate impact in the safety and defensive line rotations. "We think we have some quality linebackers coming back, as well as some real good depth at the corners," said Long. "We've got a couple experienced, quality guys at safety, but we don't have much overall experience there. Our depth at D-line and at safety is a huge concern."
The LinebackersNew Mexico lost a pair of emotional and physical leaders in Gawronski and Strother, but the linebacker rotation should remain strong in 2004. Stalwart senior Nick Speegle returns with a streak of 31-straight starts on the outside over the past three years. A two-time Honorable Mention all-MWC selection, the 6-6, 240-pound Speegle has notched 225 career tackles, including 80 last year. Since joining the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2001, Speegle has quietly established himself as one of the best linebackers in the Mountain West. Tough, smart and a leader by example, Speegle is a force to be reckoned with against the run and in pass coverage.
"He's not real flashy, so sometimes he doesn't get the recognition he deserves, but Nick always knows what to do, he does it full speed and he makes a lot of plays for us, which is what I think football players are supposed to do," said Long. "He's a total team guy, so I don't think impressions other people on the outside have really matter to him at all. What matters to him is that he plays well and our team plays well."
The Lobo defense received a tremendous boost after the spring practice season when the NCAA announced that senior Fola Fashola was granted a medical redshirt season for 2003 and was eligible to take the field again. Poised for a breakthrough campaign last fall, Fashola notched 11 tackles and three sacks in just under two games before suffering a season-ending torn ACL on one of the final plays of the night versus Texas Tech. With his long-awaited return, UNM regains the services of its vocal and emotional leader. A sideline-to-sideline sparkplug on the field, the 5-11, 209-pound Fashola appears healthy and could emerge as one of the surprise players in the MWC this fall. "Obviously, he's a huge plus to our team," said Long. "He's an awfully good football player, he's got experience and maturity, and he's a playmaker."
"Overall, I think we're a more athletic group now, but we'll still be as physical as we always have. We expect to be in the top-20 or 30 in the nation in total defense every year - nothing changes."
-Defensive coordinator Osia Lewis
"We use a lot of linebackers and they'll be in the mix more this year than ever before," said Long. "They have to play up to the standards that our linebackers have in the past, but I think they're capable and ready to do that." Several other new players could be in the fold as well this spring, including redshirt freshman Cody Kase (6-2, 202). Kase turned heads with his play-making ability in spring practice and should find his way onto the field this year at outside linebacker or in a special teams role.