By Greg Archuleta
With the University of New Mexico football season less than a week away, one unit enters with a lot of question marks. The other unit enters with a lot of confidence.
Most eyes at Dreamstyle Stadium on Saturday will be on the Lobos’ new-look offense against Incarnate Word. But it’s that new-look offense that has the UNM defense rarin’ to go.
It’s thanks to the switch in offensive scheme from strictly triple-option to a spread-option hybrid. The spread-option is more representative among college football programs across the country.
“We’re more game ready going into the first game than we have been in a really long time,” Lobo defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove said Saturday after practice and Albuquerque Police Department/Lobo Youth Day. “We’re playing against the type of offense we’re going to see a lot. What we’re doing right now helps us adapt and be game ready a lot faster than before.”
Cosgrove has been the man in charge of leading the unit back to respectability. A member of the staff who arrived with head coach Bob Davie in 2012, Cosgrove didn’t take over as defensive coordinator until 2014.
The defense, the pride of Albuquerque for many years under former coach Rocky Long, was abysmal in 2013. It gave up 42.8 points per game and 516.6 yards per game.
It forced only seven turnovers.
It’s no coincidence that the program returned to postseason play in 2015 because the defense turned the corner. UNM surrendered 437.6 yards per game. But it also forced 25 turnovers, collected 30 sacks and amassed 92 tackles for losses.
“The key is getting the system and staying with it,” Cosgrove said of the turnaround. “It’s figuring out what works best to have the best chance to compete in our conference and then recruit the right type of players for our defense.
“Our system is player friendly. It’s easy to understand. The most important thing is that we execute every defense we call, guys knowing what to do and know how to get there. Effort from A to B, from snap to whistle.
The Lobos have been able to improve on the yardage aspect since then. But the momentum-changing plays have dissipated. UNM forced 26 turnovers in 2016-17 combined (13 each in 2016 and 2017). The sacks fell to 21 in 2017 and the tackles for losses leveled off at 59.
“Coach Davie has put major emphasis and so have we,” Cosgrove said of the defensive staff. “We address it every day. We have got to be able to get our offense a turnover, eliminate plays for our opponent. The momentum it gives your team is critical.”
Senior captain and middle linebacker Alex Hart says the defense works on drills everyday to put pressure on the football and create takeaways.
“It all comes through practice,” says Hart, the team’s leading returning tackler (58 stops in 2017). How you practice is how you play. We’ve gotta come out and go through a blitz full speed or go through a coverage full speed and finish the play. Trying to get that ball out. We’ve been doing drills that have been helping a lot of guys, me included.”
Hart says he sees a wealth of depth on defense that should help the unit create more consistent pressure in 2018. Seniors Cody Baker and Jermane Conyers, and junior Aaron Blackwell are anchors on the defensive line.
Hart, sophomore Rhashaun Epting and senior Evahelotu Tohi lead a deep linebacker corps, and the Lobos are also deep in the secondary with senior cornerbacks Jalin Burrell and D’Angelo Ross, and safeties Bijon Parker and Stanley Barnwell.
“I feel good about the first 11 and a few spare guys,” Cosgrove says. “We’ve got to develop more guys, got to be able to count on the next guy to go A to B and do what we need him to do.”
For UNM to erase the memories of 3-9 and a seven-game losing streak to finish 2017, the defense has to help put the offense in opportune situations.
“We don’t want to have the feeling we had last year,” Hart said. “There isn’t a day that I don’t think about it. We’re game-ready.
QB Decision: Davie said UNM would have a depth chart on Sunday, six days before the opener, so that the team can get its game plan installed and have six days to prepare. The big question mark remains at quarterback.
The battle is between junior Tevaka Tuioti and senior Colton Gerhart.
Davie said the QB who has protected the ball the best and made the best decisions during practice will win the job.
Davie, however, also noted Tuioti’s game experience.
“Tevaka played a lot of football last year. Go back to the second half against New Mexico State,” Davie said. “We came roaring back in that game. He played in several other games. We’ve got a pretty good idea who both of them are.”
Davie said he was not planning to rotate quarterbacks as UNM has done in years past.
“Whoever gets it needs to know they have the job, and there’s not somebody warming up in the bullpen,” he said. “When we name the starter, that’s the direction we’re going to go and they will be the starter.
Asked where his team was preparation-wise compared to a week out in years past, Davie said, “In excitement level, it’s as excited as we’ve ever been, without a doubt. There’s a newness to it, especially on offense. Three and nine (that UNM record in 2017) motivates everybody.”