Eastern hangs playoff hopes on defense

Freedom Newspapers: Kevin Wilson/Corey White applies a stiffarm to Kwame Darko on a punt return during Saturday’s Eastern New Mexico University football scrimmage.

Dave Wagner

PORTALES — If the Eastern New Mexico University Greyhounds are to end a 20-year playoff drought, they will rely heavily on a veteran defense and an offense that has some explosive weapons.
The Greyhounds have posted a 28-14 record over the past four seasons under head coach Bud Elliott, including 8-3 last year when they came into the final week with a chance to make the NCAA Division II playoffs. They haven’t been in the playoffs since 1983 when the school was a member of the NAIA.
“I think our defense is going to be solid, and our kicking game is good,” said Elliott, whose team opens the season on Saturday at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo. “Offensively, we’re still a little inconsistent. We’ve got to get some questions answered in these first two ballgames.”
Eight starters return on defense, and the Hounds have depth in most positions. Their leading tacklers the last two seasons — senior free safety Jonathon Solis (injured last year) and junior free safety Ty Touchstone — are in stiff competition for starting positions.
“I always feel good about our defense; we always have good kids here,” defensive coordinator Mark Ribaudo said. “We’re fortunate this year that we have a lot of (other) quality juniors and seniors with a lot of experience. It’s fun to coach people like that.”
The defense is particularly deep in the secondary and at end. Returning starters Antonio Wiley and Eric Mims are being pushed at cornerback by redshirt sophomore Corey White, while at least four players are competing at end.
“We’ll play a lot of people and try to wear people down,” Ribaudo said. “We want to get as many kids in as we can and be fresh in the fourth quarter.”
The offense, which has set the school scoring record each of the last two seasons, returns only four starters, but has plenty of players with game experience.
“Our program is set up so that we’re always playing two-deep,” Veteran offensive coordinator Mike Howard said. “We lost more (to graduation) in the offensive line than anything, but we had kids (returning) who played 25 to 30 plays last year.”
Junior Daniel Lujan, who has been moved from right tackle to left guard this season, is the only player with significant starting experience in the line. Other starters back are sophomores Art Tennison at tight end and Dwayne Davis at running back, and junior Sukora Cooper at fullback.
Junior Steven Hinson takes over at quarterback for two-year starter Heath Ridenour. At 5-9, there are some questions about Hinson’s passing ability, but he has shown breakaway ability as a runner from the quarterback position and as a kick returner.
“Last year of offensive football team was really, really close,” Howard said. “We played better as a group than we would have as individuals.
“We’re working toward that this year. I think we’ve got good talent. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to play together.”
The Hounds are also slated to regain the services of senior wide receiver-kick returner Cale Sanders, another big-play performer. Sanders sat out the 2002 season with a torn pectoral in his right shoulder.
He is, however, currently nursing a groin injury and Elliott is taking a cautious approach.
“Cale says he’ll be ready for the first game,” Elliott said, “but I’d be happy if we could have him by the second game (Sept. 13 in the home opener against New Mexico Highlands).”
The Hounds were fourth in the LSC South preseason poll — “that’s the best we’ve ever been picked,” Elliott noted — but must play the three teams ahead of them (Texas A&M-Kingsville, Midwestern State and Abilene Christian) on the road.