April 1, 2010
By David Lepre
Media Relations Assistant - New Mexico Athletics
New Mexico opened spring practice without a defined starter at a number of positions.
Middle linebacker isn't one of those positions.
Just over two weeks into spring practice, the linebacker unit has at least one position locked in. Middle linebacker Carmen Messina had a breakout season in 2009, leading the nation in tackles with an eye-popping 162.
Messina worked sideline to sideline from his middle linebacker position, notching 8 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 5 hurries, 1 interception, 1 pass breakup 2 forced fumbles and even a blocked kick.
He was named honorable mention All-America by both Sports Illustrated (SI.com) and Collegefootballnews.com, as well as First Team All-MWC. Messina, who is equally adept at dropping into coverage and forcing against the run, is the tip of the spear in New Mexico's defensive attack.
Messina was flanked by highly productive starters Clint McPeek and Tray Hardaway last season. Both are gone to graduation. The competition begins to determine who will be playing to the side of either of Messina.
As to who has earned the inside track, well, it depends on whom you ask. Should you question linebacker coach Toby Neinas, maybe even Messina doesn't have a guaranteed lock on a starting job.
"It's still pretty early," Neinas said. "I think our fundamentals have improved. I think our understanding of the defense has improved. I think its competitive at all spots."
Then, after cracking a wry smile, Neinas fessed up.
"Now, it's easy for me to say that, and there's some coaches' speak in there," he confessed. "But, we're trying to develop as much competition as possible at all the spots."
Neinas says the difference between the linebacker play from last season at this time to today is, well, night and day.
"One thing I'm very pleased with, I think we're much further along this spring," Neinas said. "It makes it a little bit easier for the guys, which allows us to concentrate more on the fundamentals and our technique."
Messina agrees with his coach.
"Last year at this time, we were struggling with our basic schemes," Messina said. "This year, everyone is good. We're all helping each other learn and communicating well -- another problem we had last year at the beginning.
"This is a very young group. They're talented and they want to get on the field, so I'm excited. It's great being able to be back out here. Especially with one year under my belt in the system. We've advanced so far."
A speedy, athletic group of `backers are clawing at each other for the opportunity to play on Game Day. More athletic, according to Messina, then last year's bunch.
"We definitely have a lot more speed," he said. "Especially with these young bucks. They're definitely flying around. They want to get on the field as soon as they can, which is very exciting, because it pushes everyone to get better."
"You're going to see a good six rotating in," Neinas said. "We have an advantage at `backer in that we probably have more numbers than at any other position. You may see 9-11 backers. You'll see a lot of our guys rolling in and out of there."
As to who may have the inside track at the `Sam', or strong-side linebacker, and Will (weak-side) spots this fall, two candidates seem to be getting the majority of the reps: Joe Stone and Spencer Merritt.
Stoner, a sophomore from Midwest City, Okla., saw action in all 12 games last season. According to Neinas, Stoner had a strong offseason that's carried over to spring practice.
"Things have been going pretty well," Stone said. "I've been doing my best to get around, flying around the ball. Need to shore up some tackling, but other then that, it's coming along well."
Stoner, listed at 5-10, 224 lbs., has delivered some big hits during team drills this spring. Physical play is his forte, so it comes as no surprise that he's not satisfied with where his unit is at in the bruise-delivering department.
"We're not quite as physical as last year," Stoner said." But we're going to get there. We've got a lot of young guys. We're going to get more physical as spring ball moves on and we get into fall camp."
Merritt saw considerable action last season as well and has taken the majority of the reps on the other side of Messina. The two share a home state. Merritt and Messina both hail from the Chicago, Ill., area - Messina from Addison and Merritt from Aurora. The two suburbs are separated by about 20 miles.
Merritt wasn't too chatty after Saturday's practice. He only admitted to being a bit rusty.
"Things are coming along pretty well," he said. "It's been a little rusty, but it's coming back every day. We've been working well together. I think the new energy we have will be good."
"This is a huge spring for Spencer Merritt," Neinas said. "Spencer's really going to get a chance to show what he can do. Obviously, he's a big, tall, good-looking athlete. He looks like a linebacker when he gets off the bus."
Merritt is listed as 6-2, 220 lbs.
"Terel is one of the sharpest guys we have," Neinas said. "He kind of gets bored sometimes in meetings because he so advanced mentally with the scheme and such. Cody (Neely) is very much the same way as Terel in that regard. Cody's probably the best communicator of the linebackers. He's always getting everybody lined up and talking to them.
"James (Montgomery) is has a very insightful knowledge of the scheme. All those `Mike' guys have a very insightful knowledge of the scheme, because we put so much on those guys, with the checks and such. He was getting the safeties lined up the other day. I was very pleased to see that."
"That's going to be a heck of a fight between those two, because Harris has a lot of ability, Dallas is a very, very fine open-field tackler," Neinas said. "I'm really optimistic about both of those guys."
Junior Julian Conley's strong offseason caught the eye of Neinas.
"Julian had a great offseason -- fantastic offseason" he said. "He's got a chance to play our Sam `backer position. He's done really, really well."
"We have a number of things we want to get better at this spring, and almost all of them are fundamental," Neinas said. "So far, so good. It's still real early. There's a lot of competition out there. I can't begin to tell you how things are going to unfold."
There's that coach-speak again.