Aug. 15, 2009
By David Lepre - Media Relations Assistant
They go by a simple nickname: The Hitmen.
They've served in relative obscurity in the trenches for the Lobos, producing a level of excellence that can't be measured with common statistics. They've been paving the way for a 1,000-yard rusher for seven straight seasons. They've come to symbolize a single-minded toughness that New Mexico's offense has hung its hat on for years. They're the Lobos offensive linemen, and they've produced all-conference performances from numerous members despite multiple changes in offensive coordinators, philosophies and strategy.
So it comes as no surprise that the 2009 Hitmen see no reason why any of their success should change with the Lobos' switch to head coach Mike Locksley's Spread Offense. In fact, the Hitmen are certain that, despite another change in offensive philosophy - one in which they find themselves sleeker, quicker and more athletic, they're going to be celebrating another 1,000-yard rusher at the end of the season.
"Throughout my time here we've always taken pride in having a 1,000-yard rusher," said fifth-year senior and starting center Erik Cook. "It's a tradition here and we don't see that changing now that we have a new coaching staff. They want to see us do that just as much as we want to do it." Cook, the most decorated of the Hitmen, is an All-America and Rimington Trophy (best center) candidate. "Every other position out here has stats, but (producing a 1,000-yard rusher) is our stat," Cook continued. "1,000-yard rushers, minimal quarterback sacks and minimal quarterback hits - those are our stats."
Cook and his fellow Hitmen knew when Locksley was hired that the offense was switching gears from a predominantly power, run-first approach to what he called a, "high-tempo, high-powered" philosophy. "(Locksley) made it clear to us that we're going to keep running game that we've always had here, but also mix in passing game that we haven't established here to bring balance to the offense." That translated to a group of Hitmen that needed to improve its agility, footwork and overall athleticism. That translated to a summer conditioning program designed to make the 2009 version of the Hitmen a more sleek design. Think a fleet of road graters with a new skin designed by Porsche.
"All of our workouts that have led up to this fall have been designed to improve our agility and speed, cutting our weight but also keeping our size and strength," said Cook. "They want us to be those agile, versatile linemen that are fast off the ball."
Sophomore tackle Byron Bell agrees wholeheartedly with Cook's assessment, both of the tradition of the Hitmen and where they're headed. "When I first got here it was instilled in me that we were expected to produce a 1,000-yard rusher," said Bell. "We take pride in running the football and producing good running backs."
Bell also was quick to give strength and conditioning coach Troy Hatton kudos for the line's summer transformation. "Coach Hatton has us in good shape. This summer coach Hatton has us in a very good conditioning program, so on the field I don't even feel like I'm tired even though we've got this fast tempo. The more we're down in our stance before the snap, the more power I feel like I'm building," said Bell.
"Besides," the 6-5, 330-lb. Bell kidded, "We're kind of strong anyway."
"We're still here," said senior guard Joshua Taufalele of the Hitmen. "The foundation is still here. Now we've got better footwork and can really move. We're down in our two-point stance at the line of scrimmage while the play is coming in, looking at the defense and making our reads."
Taufalele notes a marked improvement in the Hitmen's absorption of the new offense. "We've made a ton of progress since the spring and I think it's just getting better. We've been getting better by leaps and bounds. That being said, we've still got to get behind our shoulder pads and establish our run game for the offense to be successful."
"This year will be our eighth 1,000-yard rusher," said junior guard Mike Cannon. "The tradition just keeps going on. Cook's the oldest one. He's been here the longest and I've been here the second longest. Ever since I was a freshman, we've been doing things the same way when it comes to teaching our linemen how to play like the Hitmen and how to be like the Hitmen. Hopefully they'll pass it on when they're seniors."
While Cannon and his mates didn't envision hopping back and forth over bags to start their individual drills at practice, the group - to a man - sing the praises of interior line coach Mike Degory's drill. "That actually has really helped out our footwork," said Cannon. "Hopping over those bags has us with quick feet now. We're much faster and quicker. Coach Hatton had us running the track, running the stadium, running hundreds and definitely has us in shape. About this time last year everyone was pretty much dying during two-a-days. We're definitely in much better shape this year."
"The Hitmen is a great tradition and I love it," said interior offensive line coach Mike Degory, himself a highly decorated center at the University of Florida. "I revel in it. Besides those guys, nobody wants to have a 1,000-yard rusher more than me. I think we're going to continue to do the things they've done well here for years in playing good defense and running the football. Just because we're going to be in some more one-back personnel doesn't mean we're not going to come downhill and attack some people in our running game." Degory pointed to just how valuable a balanced offensive attack is. "I think there's nothing better for an offense than to be able to do both things effectively. You have to have a nice balance and I think we're going to do that. That's our goal offensively."
"I tip my hat to coach Hatton, too," said Degory of his sleek new linemen. "The commitment to what we do offensively isn't just earned in the preseason or the six months of the season. It's year round. With the style of offense that we run with the no-huddle and the fast tempo - you have to have a guy that's in shape and not excessively overweight. When we first got here, it wasn't like we had a bunch of guys that were clunkers running around - they could move well - but they needed to shed some weight. I think they committed to it this summer. We had some guys that dropped 10-15 pounds and they're starting to really feel the difference. I owe that a lot to coach Hatton and to the personal commitment these guys made to eating right and working hard. Athletically, I think we've improved. A lot of that is due to the commitment to what they've done in the weight room and coach Hatton."
As to the Hitmen's new routine hopping over the bags to kick off practice - Degory sees that as a great way to get things going. "It starts from a guy that I learned under. What it does is serve as a quick starter. I remember a lot of my teachers used to put something on the board just to get your mind thinking. I think that's what we do with that drill. The first day they were tripping all over the place and thought they were never going to get it right. Now all of these guys are pros at it. It comes down to footwork and muscle memory. I hope they enjoy it and have fun with it, but I think there is a lot of teaching involved in it, too."
And so the 2009 version of the Hitmen are readying to take the field, more mobile, agile and hostile than in years past but with the same lofty goals in place.