By Dave Wagner, Freedom Newspapers
As a freshman at West Texas A&M in 2004, Jeremy Hibbler suffered through a 2-8 season.
The following year, the Amarillo native led the Buffaloes in tackles from his strong safety position on a 10-2 squad that won the Lone Star Conference South Division championship and reached the NCAA Division II playoffs.
After sitting out last season, Hibbler has transferred to Eastern New Mexico University — his brother, Justin, played for the Greyhounds from 1998-2000 — and he hopes to help orchestrate the same kind of turnaround here.
The Hounds open the season on Saturday at Bacone College, an NAIA school in Muskogee, Okla. ENMU went 3-7 overall and 1-5 in the South in 2006, and was picked for last in the conference’s preseason poll.
“My second year (at WT), we were picked last in the (South),” he said.
Justin Hibbler is currently serving his second tour of duty with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. Jeremy said he expects to be home in November.
The younger Hibbler was familiar with ENMU from when his brother played here, and said he visited friends at the school the last couple of years.
He didn’t play in 2006, deciding to transfer because he wasn’t happy at WT.
“You only play well if you’re happy,” said Hibbler, who will play the “Hound” position at ENMU, a combination of linebacker and strong safety. “I’d rather come to a struggling program and try to help them turn it around, than be at a winning program and not be happy.
“I knew a lot of the guys before I came here, because I used to visit a couple of friends here. I liked the team and the players, so (transferring) wasn’t a hard decision to make.”
Third-year coach Mark Ribaudo said Hibbler should provide a major boost to the defense.
“We’re happy to have him,” Ribaudo said. “He’s going to be a real good addition to our football team.”
Ribaudo said he’s been pleased with the team’s progress in preseason.
“We’re ready to go against somebody else,” he said. “I think we’re running the option pretty well, and I’m delighted with our young (offensive) linemen. They’re going to make ‘young-kid’ mistakes, but they’re aggressive and physical.”
Senior Michael Benton returns for his third season as a starter at quarterback. He’ll have an all-senior backfield including fullback Patrick Hemphill, running backs Kyle Harris and Jason Walker and slotback Zach Gerleve.
“We’re very fortunate to have Michael Benton,” Ribaudo said. “He shouldn’t be rattled, and he should be able to execute the offense.”
While the Hounds will have an all-new offensive line, Ribaudo said some of the younger linemen are challenging the older players for starting time.
On defense, Ribaudo said he’s concerned about injuries to juniors Kyle Wilson and David Reed and redshirt freshman Willie Williams. “We think they’re going to play (at Bacone), but we don’t know for how long,” he said.
Sophomores Brandon Haug and Tony Johnson are the top returnees at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Devin Sweet of Clovis and junior Brandon Dominguez are leading candidates at free safety, where starter Mark Patterson was lost for the year to a knee injury in preseason, while seniors Jimmy Wright and Derek Higgs are the top candidates at cornerback.
“We have a good mix of old guys and young guys (at linebacker),” Ribaudo said. “And I think our secondary is going to be much-improved, although they haven’t really been tested yet.”
Freshman Jordan Walker is set to handle placekicking chores, while Haug and sophomore Tim Hall will probably share punting duties.