All-conference wide receiver Derrick Hunter is one of several returning starters on offense for Eastern New Mexico University. The Hounds begin spring practice Tuesday. (Freedom Newspapers)
By Dave Wagner: Freedom Newspapers
PORTALES — If the Eastern New Mexico University football program is going to reach the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time, first-year Greyound coach Mark Ribaudo figures the work starts now.
Ribaudo anticipates 90 to 95 candidates Tuesday for the start of spring practice. The Greyhounds have 15 sessions scheduled, ending with the Green & Silver Game at 4 p.m. April 24 at Greyhound Stadium.
Ribaudo, the team’s defensive coordinator for the past eight seasons, will retain those duties while taking over the program from the retiring Bud Elliott.
He said there’s not that much difference in talent level in the Lone Star Conference, adding that winning often comes down to the right mental approach.
“We’ve got good athletes,” Ribaudo said. “In the Lone Star, the difference is (having the right) state of mind. That’s what we want to create here every day.”
The Hounds have posted seven consecutive winning seasons, and shared the LSC South championship with Angelo State in 1999 and 2000. Still, they’ve fallen short in their bid to make it to postseason.
“Coach Ribaudo is bringing in some little changes, and everybody’s enthusiastic right now,” said guard Robert Acuna, who will be a senior. “We’re preparing in the weight room and with our running as if we’re preparing for a game.
Our goal is to win a conference championship, and it all starts right now.”
ENMU returns only senior cornerback Corey White and junior inside linebacker Jeremy Mullins to its starting lineup on defense, but Ribaudo said the Hounds have plenty of talent to fill in the holes.
“We just need to get them as many reps (practice repetitions) in the spring as we can, and let them do what they do,” he said.
On offense, two-year starter Steven Hinson graduated at quarterback, but the only other losses were at the tackle positions.
Acuna noted, though, that senior T.J. Cobb returns at one tackle spot after missing the 2004 season with a medical redshirt.
“We’re trying to ‘rebuild’ at the tackle spots, I guess you could say,” Acuna said. “But I know T.J. is hungry to play. We’ve got a lot of talent at the tackle spots.”
Michael Benton, a redshirt sophomore, has limited game experience and will compete with redshirt freshmen Matt Palmer and Rocky Hartline for the starting job.
“We’ve got talented kids there, but Steve has been the starter for two years,” Ribaudo said. “Those other kids just need game reps.”
The Hounds open their 2005 campaign with a Thursday game Central Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Aug. 25 — the earliest opener in school history.
The contest also serves as a benefit to the Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. Central Arkansas edged the Hounds 38-31 in last year’s lidlifter at Blackwater Draw.
“Everybody’s excited for that one,” Acuna said. “We’re not thinking about anything except playing hard and starting the season with a victory.”