By Dave Wagner
Eastern New Mexico University special teams coach Michael Walton has added quarterbacks coaching duties to his plate for the 2005 football season, and he knows his work is cut out.
The Greyhounds, who completed the first of four weeks of spring practice on Saturday, must replace a two-year starter in Steven Hinson. But Walton, a linebacker at ENMU in the late 1990s, is anxious to go to work.
“It’s definitely hard to replace somebody with experience,” he said. “But I think the young guys we have are capable of doing it.”
Redshirt sophomore Michael Benton of Everman, Texas, is the only one of the three candidates with any college game experience — and that’s on a limited basis. Also competing are redshirt freshmen Matt Palmer of Lovington and Rocky Hartline of Levelland, Texas.
“Right now he’s the frontrunner, but he’s definitely still got to prove himself,” Walton said of Benton. “We believe he’s got a lot of ability. He just needs to get some reps and get confident in the offense.”
Benton has an advantage going in because the Hounds’ option attack is similar to what he ran at Everman, when he led his team to back-to-back Texas Class 3A championships his last two years. He’s also been around the ENMU program for two seasons.
Benton said he’s looking forward to the competition.
“It’s healthy,” Benton said of the quarterback battle. “It really brings out the best in people.
“I’ve got a feel for the atmosphere and the speed of the game. I know it’s a lot faster (than high school) and you’ve got to make decisions so quick.”
Palmer, who led Lovington to a Class 3A state runnerup finish two years ago as a senior, said his strong suit is as a passer.
“At Lovington, we ran shotgun and threw the ball a lot,” he said. “I’m more of a passing type (of quarterback). Michael’s pretty good at running and passing, and Rocky’s more of a runner.”
With defensive coordinator Mark Ribaudo replacing the retiring Bud Elliott as head coach, Palmer said the Hounds may tweak their offense a bit without making major changes.
“I think it’s pretty much the same game plan,” he said. “We still have (offensive coordinator Mike) Howard as the offensive coach, so it might change a little.”
Hartline won nine games in two years at QB in Levelland after the Lobos suffered through a winless campaign when he was a sophomore. He knows spring practice will go a long ways to determining who starts.
“I’d say it’s going to be real close,” Hartline said. “We’re all young, and we’ve all got a lot to learn.
“My redshirt year helped me a lot in learning the offense. Just watching Steve play in games and watching him in practice helped me out a lot.”
Walton admits he’s learning as he goes.
“I’ll probably learn as much from (the quarterbacks) as they learn from me,” he said. “I’m ready to see what happens and start competing. I think we’ll give each other good competition and (that will) pick our level of play up.”