By Dave Wagner: Freedom Newspapers
If junior quarterback Michael Benton has anything to say about it, the Eastern New Mexico University football team will punch holes in the Lone Star Conference South Division’s preseason poll which placed the Greyhounds last out of seven teams.
Second-year coach Mark Ribaudo doesn’t even want to talk about the poll.
“I think we’re a better football team than we were last year,” said Ribaudo, who has been on the ENMU staff since 1998. “How good are we going to be? I think we’re going to be good.
“I’m willing to go out there and let the chips fall.”
Benton, on the other hand, hopes it fuels the team’s fire.
“I just call it bulletin board material,” he said. “We don’t read too much into that. We let the ‘analysts’ take care of that.”
The Hounds open with a 6 p.m. (MDT) conference crossover contest on Thursday against the North Division’s Northeastern State at Tahlequah, Okla.
It’s the first of back-to-back roadies to start the season. ENMU returns to Oklahoma to play East Central on Sept. 16 before hosting Central Oklahoma the following week at Blackwater Draw.
“Coach Ribaudo has talked about focus,” Benton said. “It’ll just be another challenge, starting with two away games. We need to be mentally tough and just go get it done.”
The 6-foot, 195-pound Benton, who rushed for school records of 1,311 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, said he’s confident the offense will be even more potent than a year ago when the Hounds averaged 28 points a game.
“I feel like I’m ready,” said Benton, from Everman, Texas. “I feel I’ve put in the time (preparing), and all the players have done that. Everybody’s on the same (page).”
ENMU went 5-6 (2-4 South) last season, its first losing record since 1997. Still, that mark included a 38-14 rout of Angelo State and a 52-51 overtime loss at West Texas A&M, the LSC’s two playoff teams.
“It was disappointing, because I definitely think we were a better team than 5-6,” Benton said. “There were only two games that we weren’t in. Angelo State and WT were the two best teams, and we played well in both of those games.”
On offense, two-time All-South receiver Derrick Hunter has graduated, but experience returns in most of the other skill positions.
The biggest concern in preseason is in the offensive line, which graduated all starters except for senior tackle Marcus Smith (6-3, 282).
“Our offensive line is going to have to come together,” Ribaudo said.
“They’re making great progress. They have some big shoes to fill, but we have some talented linemen who’ve been in the program for two or three years.”
Senior Fide Davalos (6-0, 202) is expected to start at running back, with sophomore Clark Hanley (6-2, 220) at tight end and junior Gil Shackelford (6-4, 310) at center.
Competition is wide-open at other positions, although numerous players have significant game experience — notably at fullback with senior Robert Garza (6-2, 227) and juniors J.J. Jennings (5-10, 195) and Patrick Hemphill (5-8, 206) have all been around for at least a couple of years.
“A lot of these guys need game reps, but they’re everything we want,” Ribaudo said. “I think we’re starting to come together.”
Ribaudo, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator since 1998 before relinquishing those duties this season to fifth-year assistant Mike Walton, said that side of the ball should be much-improved with seven regulars returning in senior nose guard Malala Tai (6-0, 330), sophomore end Kyle Wilson (6-1, 232), senior cornerback Michael Fields (5-9, 160), inside linebackers Jeremy Mullins (5-10, 225) and Tony Johnson (6-0, 220) and outside linebackers Tim Ojeda (5-10, 190) and Brandon Harper (5-11, 190).
Again, a number of others who saw action last season will pick up more playing time this fall and compete for starting positions, he said.
Senior Lee Price (5-11, 204) is back for his fourth season as the team’s place-kicker, and is also the leading candidate to handle the team’s punting duties as well.