By Dave Wagner: Freedom New Mexico
With his squad coming off consecutive winless seasons in the Lone Star Conference South Division, fifth-year Eastern New Mexico University football coach Mark Ribaudo said it’s no surprise the Greyhounds were picked to finish last again this fall.
“We’ve got to do something about it,” he said. “That’s all there is to it.”
The Hounds (2-9, 0-6 South in 2008) began a major transition last season, going from a grind-it-out, triple-option style of offense to a more wide-open spread attack.
Now, with a year under their belts, Ribaudo thinks improvement is on the horizon — even though the offense has no seniors on its two-deep chart.
ENMU opens its 2009 campaign on Saturday at Colorado State-Pueblo, a second-year program that went 4-6 last fall.
Ribaudo said the “feeling-out” process for the new offense is pretty much over.
“I feel our offense is going to be better,” he said. “We have a lot more confidence and knowledge, and we have a lot more speed.
“We’re going to be together here for the next couple of years, and we’re getting better and better.”
Sophomore quarterback J.J. Harp, who didn’t play much early last season but eventually completed 54 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns with seven interceptions, is the clear starter this time. He’s backed up by two freshmen, Muleshoe’s Wes Wood and Eric Flores of Onate.
“J.J.’s the one, and he’s playing like it,” Ribaudo said. “He’s improved his play-calling, his ability to run the offense and get us in the right formation.”
ENMU returns three of its top four receivers from last season in junior Jessie Poku and sophomores Darian Dale and Matt Handler.
Poku, who is from the Dallas area, is entering his third season as a starter.
“Coming from the option, it’s been a road to travel,” said Poku, second on the team last year behind Dale with 55 catches. “Last year was my first year in a spread offense, and it just takes some experience.
“We have a lot more confidence. I guess the word I want to use is ‘swagger.’ We feel like we are a good team, and we will win games.”
The Hounds return three starters in the offense line, all juniors, in tackle Carlton Graves, guard T.J. Cleavinger and center Ryan Torres.
“Sophomores learning a whole new system is kind of tough,” Ribaudo said. “But now they’re really comfortable and doing well.”
Meantime, the defense, which gave up nearly 420 yards and just over 35 points a game last season, will rely on a mix of primarily juniors and seniors.
ENMU, transitioning from a four-man front to a 3-4 look on defense, expects to be more athletic on that side of the ball. The four LBs — senior Eddie Zamora and junior Devin Sweet outside, and junior Nathan Uland and senior Derek Dimitroff inside — all saw plenty of action in ’08.
Senior safeties Texavier Henry and Mark Patterson and junior cornerback Tillman Stevens lead the secondary, while juniors Wes Byrd and Matt Kalisch — both transfers from New Mexico Military — are expected to man the end positions.
“We’ve (linebackers) got an opportunity to make some plays,” said Dimitroff, a Fort Sumner graduate who transferred in from NMMI in 2008. “I enjoy this defense a lot. We have our ‘gaps’ and assignments, but they want us to make plays.”
Dimitroff admitted last season was hard to take.
“It was a rough year; nobody likes to go 2-9, but I think we’re five times … 10 times … 100 times better,” he said. “Our goal is to win them all.”
Poku points to the experience factor for the players.
“We played a lot of freshmen last year,” he said. “Now they have experience and we’re more on the same page.
“I’m really looking forward to this year. I just feel like, as a team, we’re more cohesive.”