By Dave Wagner
A starting quarterback returning punts and kickoffs isn’t exactly commonplace, but Eastern New Mexico University’s Steven Hinson welcomes the opportunity. After all, he was a capable return man during his first two seasons while serving as the backup QB to Heath Ridenour.
“Whatever helps the team, I’m ready to do it,” said the 5-foot-9, 170-pound senior from Olney, Texas. “I don’t worry about it. If you worry about getting injured, you probably will.”
The Hounds (6-5 in 2003, 2-4 in the Lone Star Conference South Division) hope to do something they haven’t accomplished in veteran coach Bud Elliott’s previous 10 seasons at the school — make the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Hinson rushed for a team-leading 831 yards last fall while throwing for just over 1,000 yards. Redshirt freshman Michael Benton and junior Jon Bell are his backups.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence this year,” Hinson said. “There’s nothing new to me now. We just want to play ball and get to where we need to be.”
The Hounds would like to make a playoff run for the 72-year-old Elliott, entering his 37th and final season as a college head coach and just one win short of 200 for his career. They have a chance to make a statement right away against Central Arkansas in Saturday’s 6 p.m. opener at Greyhound Stadium.
The Bears were hurt by injuries last fall and struggled to a 5-6 mark, but have been a quality program and should provide a strong test behind senior quarterback Zac Clark, who threw for more than 3,000 yards in 2002 before sitting out last season with an injury.
Elliott said Central Arkansas has plenty of speed, and reminds him a lot of Lone Star Conference South Division power Texas A&M-Kingsville.
ENMU has to replace running back Dwayne Davis, who did not return for his junior season due to a team violation after rushing for 624 yards in 2003, but most other positions on offense are in good shape. A knee injury likely will sideline senior tackle T.J. Cobb for the season, but the Hounds still return significant depth up front and at the skill positions with running back Jason Tezeno, wide receiver Derrick Hunter and tight end Art Tennison.
“I think we’ve got some real good weapons,” Elliott said. “Our quarterback is a tremendous threat, and Derrick Hunter is as good a wide receiver as there is in the Lone Star Conference.”
On defense, all starters return except for a linebacker and a tackle from last year’s platoon, which allowed about 18 1/2 points and 288 yards per outing. Defensive leaders are senior linebacker Jeff Howard, senior free safety Ty Touchstone and senior strong safety Adrian Quigley.
“We’ve got some experience and we’ve got some good players,” defensive coordinator Mark Ribaudo said. “We just have to take it one game at a time and see what teams throw at us. It’s a long, hard season and offenses are getting better and better and quicker and quicker.
“But we’re going to attack people and try to make things happen.”
Touchstone, who led ENMU in tackles two years ago before relinquishing that honor to Howard last season, said there are no easy games on the schedule, especially this year with Central Arkansas and highly-regarded Southeastern Oklahoma among new opponents.
“In our conference, every game we’re going to be tested,” Touchstone said. “If you’re not playing at the top of your game, you’re probably going to get beat.”
Head coach: Bud Elliott, 11th year (62-44-2)
2003 record: 6-5 (2-4 Lone Star Conference South)
Returning letterwinners: 38
Returning starters: 9 offense, 9 defense, 4 special team
Top returnees: Robert Acuna, Jr. G, 6-0, 300; Steven Hinson, Sr. QB, 5-9, 170; Derrick Hunter, Jr. WR, 6-0, 180; Daniel Lujan, sr. G, 6-2, 285; Jason Tezeno, Jr. RB, 5-11, 175; Jeff Howard, Sr. LB, 6-2, 230; Courage Idemudia, Sr. LB, 6-0, 200; Adrian Quigley, Sr. SS, 5-9, 180; Ty Touchstone, Sr. FS, 5-11, 180; Brandon Wickware, Sr. T, 6-3, 280, Corey White, Jr. CB, 6-0, 165; Lee Price, So. PK, 5-11, 195.
28 — Central Arkansas, 6 p.m.
4 — at Southeastern Oklahoma, 6 p.m.-y; 11 — Southwestern Oklahoma, 6 p.m.-y; 18 — at East Central, 5 p.m.-y; 25 — Abilene Christian, 6 p.m.-x.
2 — at Angelo State, 6 p.m.-x; 9 — West Texas A&M, 2 p.m.-x; 16 — at Texas A&M-Commerce, 1 p.m.-x; 23 — Texas A&M-Kingsville, 6 p.m.-x; 30 — at Midwestern State, 6 p.m.-x.
6 — Western New Mexico, 1 p.m.
Note: All times Mountain. x-Lone Star Conference South Division game. y-Lone Star Conference crossover game.