New Mexico has quietly developed a defensive dynasty under head coach Rocky Long and defensive coordinator Osia Lewis. Though the Lobos' defensive dominance has gone somewhat unnoticed by the national media, the statistics tell a different story. UNM is one of just three teams to finish in the top-30 in NCAA Division I in total defense each of the past five seasons, along with Big XII Conference powers Oklahoma and Texas. New Mexico has led the Mountain West in sacks five straight seasons and led the league in rushing defense four of the past five years. While other programs may gain more notoriety because of a few star players on defense, Long's system is built upon a relentless, gang-tackling philosophy.
"I think its just players that believe in a system, learn the system and play hard," he said. "There's no magic other than players making very few assignment errors and playing to the best of their athletic ability."
After losing seven starters, including six all-Mountain West Conference performers, the Lobo defense was generally considered the team's Achilles heel entering the 2004 season. The end result, however, was quite the opposite. New Mexico led the MWC in rushing defense (108.2 ypg), total defense (323.2 ypg), scoring defense (18.7 ppg) and sacks (42), while finishing second with 28 turnovers forced. UNM held a Texas Tech team, which hung 70 points on TCU and Nebraska, to a mere 24, then limited Utah to 28 points. The Utes went on to finish the season undefeated and scored at least 45 points in each of their next six league games.
As usual, it was a team-oriented defense as 12 Lobos recorded tackles for loss, 10 had sacks, 15 broke up a pass and nine recovered a fumble, while only one player (senior linebacker Fola Fashola ) ranked among the MWC's top-10 in tackles. Five players, however, went on to earn first or second team all-conference honors, including senior cornerback Brandon Payne, whose nation-leading 23 passes defended also resulted in All-America honors.
This year's defensive unit has the potential to be among the best in Long's tenure with six starters and 19 lettermen returning in 2005, including first team all-MWC nose tackle Marcus Parker, second team cornerback selection Gabriel Fulbright and linebacker Michael Tuohy, a Freshman All-America pick last year. Some new faces will need to step up to fill voids at linebacker and safety, but Long said he is confident that New Mexico has the depth and talent to keep the defensive performance among the nation's best.
"There's an expectation level that has been developed here and the young guys that are moving up into playing roles understand those expectations," Long said. "I have confidence that we have enough athletes to continue to play pretty good defense, as long as they continue to play with the same enthusiasm and effort."
DEFENSIVE LINEPerhaps the most impressive group of the Lobo defense last year was its undersized and overachieving defensive line. Too short, too light and too inexperienced on paper, the New Mexico frontline emerged as one of the best in the Mountain West, under Lewis' tutelage, in 2004. While the Lobos will miss the energy and tenacity of defensive end Kyle Coulter, UNM returns a pair of senior starters in nose tackle Marcus Parker (Garland, Texas) and defensive end Evroy Thompson (Hockley, Texas). Another veteran in senior defensive end Adam Garday (Peoria, Ariz.) is also back, giving the team a strong, experienced core.
"We were undersized last year and we're still undersized," Long said. "But in the style of defense we play, if they play with the same kind of enthusiasm and effort, they can get a lot of things done."
Primarily a defensive end in his first two years, the 6-2, 269-pound Parker moved inside to nose tackle in the Lobos' new 3-4 scheme last season and played a critical role in the success of the defense. His ability to occupy multiple blockers at the line of scrimmage opened up lanes for New Mexico's blitzing linebackers and safeties. The blockers were rarely able to slow him down, however, as Parker lead all MWC defensive linemen with seven sacks (five solo, four assisted) and notched 12 tackles for loss to go along with 10 quarterback hurries. One of the country's most explosive and athletic interior defensive linemen, Parker's continued improvement this season will be a tremendous benefit for all of his defensive teammates.
"If you are going to play a three-man front, you have to have a really good guy at nose guard," Long said. "If he demands a double team, it allows the whole defense to work. Marcus was that guy for us last year. He played really well and was a big reason we were able to do the things we did on defense."
Thompson, meanwhile, proved to be one of the Lobos' best stories of 2004, fighting his way back onto the field after going nearly five years without game day action due to an ACL injury and subsequent Mormon mission. Following a stint at linebacker during spring practice, Thompson found a home at end and eventually a place in the starting lineup last year. Despite measuring just 6-0, 247 pounds, he emerged as a legitimate playmaker during the conference season, finishing with six tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks. With his combination of quickness, leverage and pure determination, Thompson should continue to make a real impact up front.
The powerful 6-2, 253-pound Garday will enter spring practice as the starter opposite Thompson, replacing sophomore Michael Tuohy who will move to linebacker this year. Garday appeared in all 12 games last fall after transferring from Scottsdale Community College and coaches expect him to be much improved in his second year of Division I competition.
Several young players could make an immediate impact in 2005, including 6-3, 242-pound sophomore Stephen Hutchison (Elgin, Texas) and 6-4, 260-pound redshirt freshman Kevin Balogun (Odessa, Texas). Hutchison, a walk-on, saw special teams action in all 12 games last year and appears to have a bright future at defensive end. Balogun, meanwhile, is one of the most imposing figures on the UNM defensive line and could earn time in the rotation with improvement during spring and fall camp.
Long also signed a pair of good-sized junior college transfers in 6-3, 250-pound Ryan Boyd (Sacramento, Calif.) and 6-4, 240-pound Tyler Donaldson (Lawrenceville, Ga.). While the two will likely need some time to get comfortable with the defensive scheme, both players are enrolled at UNM and will get a valuable head start by participating in spring practice.
LINEBACKERWith New Mexico's shift to a 3-4 defensive alignment last year, the production and depth of the linebacker corps has taken on added significance. One of the strengths of the team in 2004, the Lobos featured three senior starters at linebacker in Fola Fashola, Nick Speegle and Chrishone Harris, who combined for 237 tackles and 29.5 tackles for loss. Fashola and Speegle, in particular, were the heart and soul of the UNM defense, playing virtually every snap in every game. While their absence leaves big shoes to fill, the talent is there to give New Mexico one of the Mountain West's top linebacker groups once again.
"There is a concern going into this year that we don't have the experience that we had last year and we don't have proven playmakers," Long said. "It's like the defensive line was last year. We have to have some inexperienced guys step up and become playmakers."
Senior inside linebacker Mike Mohoric (Albuquerque, N.M.) is the lone returning starter and will be the centerpiece of the unit. A former walk-on, Mohoric enjoyed a breakout season and was one of the best new starting linebackers in the league in 2004. A consistent force throughout the season, Mohoric finished third on the team with 83 tackles, including 11 for loss. Few players in the MWC were as dangerous to opposing quarterbacks as the 6-3, 240-pound Mohoric, who notched seven sacks and team-high 17 quarterback hurries on the year. Displaying outstanding speed and strength, he also broke up six passes and forced two fumbles. This year, Long said the coaching staff expects Mohoric to raise his performance to another level and lead the unproven unit by example.
Promising junior Quincy Black (Chicago, Ill.) will enter the spring in Fashola's former outside linebacker spot after seeing ample time off the bench last fall. An impressive physical presence at 6-3, 235 pounds, Black proved to be a real steal for New Mexico after transferring from Harper College in June. He appeared in every game and developed into one of the team's most ferocious wedge-busters on kickoff coverage. Possessing tremendous speed and power, coaches and players alike think Black could be a standout player once he masters the defensive system.
Senior Joe Selander (Rio Rancho, N.M.) and sophomore Cody Kase (Valencia, Calif.) will also open the spring in the starting lineup for the first time in their careers. A longtime special teams ace, Selander (6-2, 230) has consistently improved each year and could be the next former walk-on turned star at UNM. Kase, meanwhile, displayed outstanding potential in his first two seasons and could be poised for a breakthrough season of his own. While he already has a firm grasp on the defensive scheme, coaches believe the 6-2, 205-pounder could really develop into an impact player as he continues to increase his size and strength.
With as many as six players expected to be regulars in the linebacker rotation, the door is open for several other new faces to make their mark. Sophomore George Carter (Albuquerque, N.M.) and redshirt freshman Herbert Felder (Apopka, Fla.) could also vie for time this year. The 6-3, 227-pound Carter was a contributor on special teams last year and is penciled in behind Selander at inside linebacker. Felder (6-1, 210), meanwhile, was one of the Lobos' top scout team linebackers as a rookie last fall and will open the spring behind Black at outside linebacker. Hard-working junior Justin Clayton (Los Angeles, Calif.), also showed some real signs of improvement last year, while redshirt junior Yimin Bauman (Phoenix, Ariz.) could also challenge for a spot in the rotation.
Sophomore Michael Tuohy (Moreno Valley, Calif.) is the wildcard of the group as he begins his first year at linebacker after earning Freshman All-America honors last year as a defensive end. The 6-2, 240-pound Tuohy stepped into the starting lineup midway through the season and emerged as perhaps the top freshman defensive player in the MWC, finishing with 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. Though undersized on the front line, Tuohy displayed tremendous quickness and tenacity, which should prove just as valuable in his new outside linebacker role.
CORNERBACKOne of the most important positions in New Mexico's blitzing defense, experience and talent are critical at cornerback, where players often find themselves locked in man-to-man coverage without help from a deep safety. While the job can be thankless at times, UNM has boasted some of the top cornerback talent in the league in recent years.
Last fall was no exception with both starters, Brandon Payne and Gabriel Fulbright (DeSoto, Texas), earning all-Mountain West Conference honors. Payne turned in one of the best statistical seasons ever by a Lobo defensive back, leading the nation with 23 passes defended, including a school-record 17 deflections and team-leading six interceptions. Fulbright enjoyed his finest season as well, snaring five interceptions and breaking up seven passes. He also forced a fumble and recovered another that he returned 68 yards for a touchdown. Despite the loss of Payne, Long said he expects the UNM cover men to continue to be among the league's best in 2005 with Fulbright and fellow senior Jerrell Malone (Rowlett, Texas) back to anchor the position.
A 5-10, 170-pound stick of dynamite, Fulbright has proved to be one of the premier defensive backs in the MWC over the past two years. Since moving over from safety in 2003, he has started 22 games, notched nine interceptions and broken up 13 passes while earning second team all-conference honors in back-to-back seasons. One of the top natural talents in the country on the corner, Fulbright's unique play-making ability and fearless attitude sets him apart from bigger players he faces.
"Gabe has great quickness and anticipates where the ball is going to be really well," Long said. "Some of it is a natural ability to make plays that some guys have and some guys don't. Gabe has it and he's been a playmaker ever since he's been out there."
On the other side, the 6-1, 180-pound Malone gives the Lobos size, athletic ability and experience at corner. A converted safety like Fulbright, Malone has proven his ability on the field, starting eight games over the past two years. As New Mexico's third corner and first man off the bench in the nickel package last year, he saw his role increase dramatically and his level of performance steadily improve as well over the final month of the season.
Both backups, sophomore Juamar Hall (San Angelo, Texas) and senior Mike Powdrell (Albuquerque, N.M.), gained a good amount of game experience in 2004 and will vie for time in the nickel package this fall. Hall (5-11, 171) appeared in 11 games on special teams and showed real promise at corner in practice, while Powdrell (5-10, 185), a converted wide receiver, played in five games and got his first taste of secondary action on game day.
"I think Jerrell and Gabe are quality corners and I think Mike Powdrell and Juamar Hall have the ability to be really good too," Long said. "Jerell and Gabe have proven that they can play, so we've got a lot of experience there and we feel pretty comfortable with our corners."
SAFETYThe UNM safeties could be perhaps the deepest and strongest group on the team this year with as many as nine talented players battling for time. While the loss of second team all-MWC selection Josh Bazinet and veteran Kevin Walton leaves a bit of a leadership void, Long said he believes the group will be much improved overall.
"Last year we had a lot of first year players at safety that made some rookie mistakes," he said. "We expect all of them to be much better and more experienced this season. We recruited three junior college safeties that will all be here for spring practice, which makes a big difference, and we also have some redshirt freshmen that we think will be really good players for us down the line."
New Mexico returns three players who saw significant game day action last year in seniors Charles Brown (Shaw, Miss.) and Ken West (Midwest City, Okla.), and sophomore Tyson Ditmore (Las Cruces, N.M.). The 6-0, 203-pound Brown enjoyed a strong Division I debut in 2004, starting eight games opposite Bazinet and finishing with 38 tackles, three tackles for loss and six pass deflections. West (5-11, 180) played in seven games before being slowed by injuries, while the 6-2, 200-pound Ditmore appeared in nine games as a true freshman. While Brown and Ditmore are both penciled in atop the depth chart, the competition for the starting spots is wide-open and should be one of the most compelling of the spring.
A trio of redshirt freshmen in 6-1, 195-pound Jake Bowe (Albuquerque, N.M.), 6-2, 180-pound Blake Ligon (San Angelo, Texas) and 6-0, 180-pound DeAndre Wright (Clinton, Md.) will get their first real crack at the starting lineup this spring. All three saw significant time on the scout team last year and showed signs of being true impact players in the years to come.
The addition of junior college transfers Aleem Harris (San Bernardino, Calif.), Darvin Peterson (Mesquite, Texas) and Othellus Swift (Apopka, Fla.) will intensify the competition at safety. The 6-3, 225-pound Harris was rated as one of the nation's top junior college safeties last year at Chaffey College, recording 95 tackles as a sophomore. Peterson (5-10, 200) and Swift (5-9, 180), a sophomore, also displayed good potential at the junior college level and could contend for a place in the safety rotation as they get comfortable with the defensive scheme.
New Mexico faces a significant challenge this spring in finding a replacement for two-time all-conference honoree Wes Zunker, who cemented his place as one of the top kickers in school history last year. Junior Kenny Byrd (Albuquerque, N.M.) stepped in for an injured Zunker during the 2002 season and worked hard over the next two years, improving his leg strength and accuracy dramatically. Zunker's back-up last season, Byrd (6-0, 172) will enter spring practice as the top candidate to assume the starting role, though several others, including sophomore Conrad Bokich (Albuquerque, N.M.) and junior Garth Archibald (Chico, Calif.) could make things interesting. According to head coach Rocky Long, however, it's Zunker's intangible skills that will be missed the most.
"Kenny and some of our other kickers could be really outstanding," he said. "We're not concerned with the leg strength or ability of the kickers, but the concern we have is how they'll handle a stressful situation. Wes Zunker was one of those guys that no matter the situation in the game or how critical the kick was, nothing like that bothered him and you were sure he was going to kick it well."
Fourth-year starter Tyler Gaus (San Diego, Calif.) returns to handle the punting duties after quietly turning in a fine campaign in 2004. While he has continued to improve his distance and hang-time, Gaus emerged as one of the best placement punters in the country last fall, mastering the lost art of the "coffin corner" kick. The 6-2, 205-pounder was a secret weapon of the Lobo defense as he dropped a career-high 25 punts inside the 20-yard line last year, including 13 that landed on or inside the 10, with just three attempts rolling into the end zone.
"I think Tyler did as good a job as anybody in the country, putting the ball inside the 20 or 10 - he really developed that skill," Long said. "He's gotten a little more consistent every year that he's been our starter and we expect more improvement this year, which will make him a high quality punter."
Sophomore deep snapper Jon O'Brien (Tehachapi, Calif.) is also back after turning in a solid debut season last fall. O'Brien's continued development and improved speed on deep snaps this spring will help make the Lobo punt unit one of the most underrated in the conference.
As usual, the Lobos will be a threat with their punt block team. Last year, New Mexico blocked a pair of punts at Air Force, both of which were returned for touchdowns. Since the start of the 2000 season, UNM has blocked 15 punts, seven of which have been returned for scores.
The UNM return game also showed signs of becoming a real threat late in the year and could be much improved in 2005. Marcus Smith and senior Daniel Ramirez (Muleshoe, Texas) both showed some explosiveness on kick and punt returns last fall, and a large group of new players will compete for their chance to shine on special teams this spring.