March 21, 2010
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The motto that New Mexico coach Mike Locksley and his Lobos will take to the spring practice fields in 2010 is a simple one: "Take the next step."
It's really the continuation of a journey for these young New Mexico Lobos, who took several important steps during the backside of their 2009 season, their first season under Locksley's guidance.
"The last five games, we improved about 50 to 60 percent in almost every vital statistical category," said Locksley, whose Lobos posted a 1-11 mark in 2009. "And the last five games included the three best teams in our conference.
"We had improvement in penalties dropping, turnovers going down, rushing yards increasing, rushing defense improved, big plays allowed on defense went down, and our third-down efficiency improved.
"We got better. We took steps forward. We have to keep doing it."
The Lobos' spring drills begin Tuesday (March 23) at 4 p.m. UNM will have 14 spring sessions leading to the annual Cherry-Silver Spring Scrimmage on Saturday, April 17 at 1 p.m. in University Stadium.
Locksley and his talented staff will be looking at 21 returning lettermen on offense and 20 returning lettermen on defense. UNM lost eight lettermen on offense and eight on defense. That's 41 lettermen back and 16 gone.
As always, there will be considerable interest in the race to see who commands Locksley's no-huddle, multiple-look offense especially with Donovan Porterie as one of the holes Locksley must fill.
The spring candidates are Brad Gruner, B.R. Holbrook and Tate Smith. However, Locksley has two talented freshmen quarterbacks - Tarean Austin and Stump Godfrey -- on the way and they should throw their talents into the mix during fall ball.
"We have three quarterbacks here, who will be given the opportunity to position themselves to be the guy," said Locksley. "But when the freshmen get here, they'll be thrown into the mix.
The word "development" also is a key phrase for UNM's spring drills. UNM needs to improve on fundamentals, techniques and basic skills. Locksley has identified several keys aspects of Lobo football that he expects to see developed over the 14 practices. They include:
"There is a misconception that you don't run out of a spread offense, that it's not a physical offense," said Locksley. "That's not true with our system and you are going to see a Lobo team that is a lot more physical up front.
"It's mandatory that we be able to run the football next season. I think in order to win championships, you have to be able to run. Two of our goals this spring are to establish the run on offense and stop the run on defense. I think doing those two things also develops a physical, tough mentality that we want to be part of our brand."
When you have a respected and efficient running game, it opens things up for the passing game. When you run and pass better, it puts less pressure on third-down situations and efficiency. That also is an area Locksley plans to see improve for the 2010 season.
"We'll put our team in a lot of third-down situations and get them used to competing on third downs," he said. "Those types of yardage situations challenge you on both sides of the ball.
"There were times last year when our players were placed into situations where they had to make critical plays and we failed too many times. That's something we will change, too."
There are a many areas on the team that are loaded with returning talent and a few areas that are lean. UNM returns six receivers, but list only Ty Kirk as a returning starter. The big losses there are Victor James and Daryl Jones.
The defensive line should be a strength in 2010 with six defensive ends/tackles back, highlighted by the return of Johnathan Rainey, Jaymar Latchison and Peter Gardner. "Our defensive line went from being a big question mark to being one of the strengths on our team," said Locksley. "And it's going to be better this year."
The Lobos took a hit in the defensive backfield, losing Frankie Baca and Frankie Solomon, but UNM returns eight cornerbacks/safeties including Nathan Enriquez and Anthony Hooks. Carmen Messina, the nation's leading tackler, leads a pack of six returning linebackers. The Lobos graduated Clint McPeek and Tray Hardaway.
The offensive lost some quality starters in Erik Cook, Joshua Taufalele and Ivan Hernandez, but return four O-linemen including Karlin Givens, Mike Cannon and Byron Bell. The running back crew looks solid behind A.J. Butler, Kasey Carrier, Demond Dennis and James Wright.
There is a lot of proven talent coming back and there should be some instant help from Locklsey's 2010 recruiting class.
"We're pretty excited about going into the spring," said Locksley. "Last spring, the players had to learn a new system, a new way of doing things.
"There was some trial and error in the first year in figuring out how to deal with certain players, figuring out what button to push with one player, and what button to push with another player.
"With any relationship, time is critical in improving communications. We have gone through battle together, we know each other better. Our players know our drills. They know our philosophies. They know our personalities and we know them. All these things help in taking the next step."
In the spring of 2009, the Lobos were looking at a new-fangled offense. Locksley's Lobos spread it out, bypassed the huddle, and looked to find an edge in a quick snap. Locksley says the snap wasn't always as quick as it should be.
"Early, there was a lot of processing going on with the no-huddle," he said. "That got better with exposure to the system and exposure in game situations. This spring we are coming in with our schemes cut in stone and our guys understand them now. They get it."
Locksley said another huge part of spring ball for any program is using the time as a teaching tool. You don't take a step forward, if you aren't doing things right.
"It's a great opportunity to teach fundamentals, techniques," he said. "We'll go out there with a teaching plan. We'll be focusing on anything and everything that we need improvement in."
SPRING DATES (Times subject to change):