By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — The Lone Star Conference’s top rushing team in 2004, Eastern New Mexico University expects to put together another potent flexbone attack next fall despite the graduation of quarterback Steven Hinson.
ENMU averaged just over 220 rushing yards a game last year led by the elusive Hinson, who finished with 1,006 yards and had nearly one-third of the team’s 532 carries.
ENMU assistant coach Michael Walton, who coaches quarterbacks and fullbacks, said there are plenty of candidates at the fullback, slotback and wingback positions.
Six players who carried at least 20 times in 2004 return.
“Our offense goes through the fullback,” Walton said. “We definitely have to have a good guy (at that position). He has to be explosive enough to get through the mesh point.
“We want the defense to have to stop the fullback first.”
Injuries hampered several of ENMU’s backfield returnees a year ago.
Redshirt sophomore J.J. Jennings is the top returning ballcarrier. He gained 366 yards a year ago for a 5.2 per-carry average, including a 124-yard outing at Texas A&M-Commerce.
Jennings played fullback for the final four games because of injuries at that position, but he is ticketed to return to slotback.
“J.J. has some breakaway speed, but he runs hard inside,” Walton said. “He probably has the best breakaway speed of anyone we’ve got.”
Redshirt junior Fide Davalos of Floyd, slowed by injuries last year, is also at slotback and should see significant time. Fifth-year senior Jason Tezeno, who gained 313 yards with a 4.1 average last season, and redshirt sophomore Zach Gerleve are at wingback.
Fullback candidates include redshirt junior Robert Garza, redshirt sophomore Patrick Hemphill, fifth-year senior Sukora Cooper and redshirt sophomore Less Long, a Portales High grad who has no college game experience to this point. Walton said the Hounds are also excited about incoming freshman Marcus Robinson of Irving, Texas.
“I think we’re pretty stacked at the fullback position,” said Garza, who gained 58 yards on eight carries in the 2004 opener against Central Arkansas but missed a couple of games in mid-season with an MCL injury. “Coach has told us he’s pretty comfortable with any one of us in there.”
Cooper has been around the longest, but has had problems with injuries during his career. Meantime, Hemphill averaged 4.3 yards on 40 carries and brings some explosiveness to the position.
As for the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Garza? Walton said he’s simply steady.
“You can count on him like the sun coming up every morning,” Walton said.
Garza, from Idalou, Texas, admits he knows he doesn’t have the world’s greatest talent.
“I just try to run hard all the time,” he said. “I know I’m not any bigger or stronger than anyone. I just try to play smart.”
Gerleve, a rare two-spot athlete at ENMU, is one of the Lone Star Conference’s top javelin throwers in track and said one of the reasons he came to Eastern was the fact he could do both sports. He knows his work is more than cut out trying to beat out Tezeno.
“Track has taken away a lot from football,” he said. “It sets me behind a little bit, but I just have to watch more film and come out and work on my own.”
Gerleve, a graduate of Hot Springs High School in Truth or Consequences, said Tezeno has been helpful to him.
“He’s helped me a lot, just with pass routes, being able to read the defense, stuff like that,” Gerleve said. “I think we’ll have a good offense, an experienced offense. But no positions are set, so everyone’s trying their hardest.”