By Dave Wagner
PORTALES — Veteran Eastern New Mexico University football coach Bud Elliott still looks forward to the start of practice each fall.
A broken hip sustained during spring practice when he couldn’t avoid a collision on a play which spilled over the sideline has slowed Elliott a bit, but coaching football helps keep him feeling young.
“I still get excited when I start seeing these kids and I think about the possibilities,” Elliott said Thursday as he prepared to begin his 36th season as a college head coach and 10th at ENMU. “Of course, after I broke my hip, it makes it a little tougher.”
Elliott and his staff welcomed around 135 prospects to Thursday’s opening practice, conducted in shorts and helmets under a blazing New Mexico sun. The Greyhounds have a longer-than-usual time to get ready for their Sept. 6 season opener at Adams State.
Coming off an 8-3 season, ENMU was picked fourth in the Lone Star Conference South Division preseason poll. Ironically, the Hounds must play all three teams chosen ahead of them — Texas A&M-Kingsville, Abilene Christian and Midwestern State — on the road.
ACU, in particular, has been a thorn in their side — the Wildcats have beaten ENMU each of the last four years, including last fall at Blackwater Draw on a 49-yard field goal as time expired. This year’s game in Abilene is the South opener on Oct. 4.
“That wasn’t one of my better games last year,” said senior cornerback Eric Mims of Amarillo. “I have that game marked on the schedule. If we can get over that hurdle, it would be big for us.
“Going into my (final) season, the perfect end would be an LSC championship and to make the (NCAA Division II) playoffs.”
Eastern, which returns eight players who started all or most of the time on defense last year, is particularly deep in the secondary. Free safety Jonathan Solis, ENMU’s leading tackler two years ago, returns after missing all of the 2002 season with an injury while his replacement, Ty Touchstone, is also back after leading the team in tackles last fall.
“Hopefully, we can build on what we had last year,” Mims said. “We have most of the (defense) back from last year. I think that gives us a solid nucleus to build on.”
On offense, the Hounds have good experience in the skill positions, but lost four starters in the line. They do have several linemen back with experience, though.
Among them is 6-foot-4, 310-pound senior tackle Sergio Allelo of Abilene, who sustained a shoulder injury in practice following last year’s opener and underwent season-ending surgery.
He’s still waiting to test the injured shoulder in contact this weekend, but remains optimistic.
“It’ll be my first test to see if it’ll hold up,” he said. “I’m not really nervous; I’m more excited than anything. It’s not so much the strength as being able to push off and withstand game contact.”
The Hounds are anxious to get senior wide receiver-kick returner Cale Sanders back in action. Sanders, who has drawn some interest from pro scouts, tore his right pectoral while weight lifting last August and had to sit out the season.
Junior speedster Steven Hinson is ticketed to start at quarterback, although Elliott hopes sophomore Jesse Garcia-Perez will figure in somewhere.
“I think offensively we’ve got some holes to fill, but we’ve got some pretty good people to fill them,” Elliott said. “They’ve just got to stay healthy.”