Pigskin Preview: Hounds need defense to step up

Kevin Wilson: Freedom New Mexico Senior defensive back Tillman Stevens tries to bring down receiver Noelin Henry during the opening drive of Saturday’s scrimmage at Greyhound Stadium. Tillman, of Baytown, Texas, had 45 tackles and three interceptions in 2009. He is one of nine returning starters on defense for the Hounds.

Dave Wagner

Last season, its second with a fast-paced spread offense, Eastern New Mexico University began to make the adjustment after years of running the triple option.

This fall, Greyhounds coach Mark Ribaudo is hoping to shore up a defense which, often having little time to catch its breath between series, gave up 37 1/2 points and more than 470 total yards per game in 2009. ENMU went 3-8 last year, including 0-6 in the rugged Lone Star Conference South, but now moves into the North Division this season.

Ribaudo, who served as ENMU’s defensive coordinator for seven years before taking over as head coach in 2005, is confident a more experienced defensive unit will show marked improvement.

“We have seven seniors who were starters (last season),” Ribaudo said. “Right now we’re a little banged up, but once we get healed up I think we’ll be pretty tough.”

The returning seniors include inside linebacker Nathan Uland, outside linebacker Devin Sweet, cornerbacks Rodney Mitchell and Tarius Bigelow, safety Tillman Stevens, end Matt Kalisch and end/tackle Wes Byrd.

“The main goals are to limit the running game and keep (the opposition) from big plays,” said Stevens, who is from the Houston area. “Going against our offense every day (in practice) helps get us in shape.”

Uland (hamstring), Mitchell (hamstring) and Kalisch (concussion) have all missed time in preseason, but were expected back in time for Saturday’s season opener against Southern Nazarene at Blackwater Draw. Uland and Mitchell earned preseason NCAA Division II All-American recognition.

“With this offense, you can’t put numbers on a defense,” Ribaudo said. “But I will say this — we need to be better stopping the run and in not giving teams ‘easy’ plays. We have to make the opponent work for everything.

“If we’re healthy, I think we’ll be OK.”

Offensively, there appear to be fewer questions.

Muleshoe sophomore Wes Wood got significant playing time at quarterback when off-the-field problems put starter J.J. Harp on the sidelines. The Hounds’ wide-open attack is similar to what Wood ran in 2008 when he led the Mules to a 15-0 record and the Texas Class 2A Division I state title.

“To be real honest, I’m a little bit nervous,” Wood said. “(But) it’s an honor to be in this position. I’m having a great time and I’m really excited.”

Wood said the Hounds have “kind of jelled together” on offense, and he expects the defense to be solid as well.

“The defense gives us a great look every day,” he said. “Overall, we’re taking steps forward every day.

“We’re ready to roll. We’ve got a bunch of great players on both sides of the ball.”

The Hounds should have a solid offensive line with senior returnees Karlton Graves at tackle, T.J. Cleavinger and Mark Pena at guard and Ryan Torres at center. All are third-year starters except Pena.

A talented corps of wide receivers is led by senior Jesse Poku, and Ribaudo said the Hounds have several capable running backs led by sophomore Troy Harris, the team’s leading rusher in 2009.

“Wes is doing a real good job at quarterback,” Ribaudo said. “They’re really good with the fast-paced thing. You can tell we’ve been in this offense now three years.”

Sophomore Taylor Cannon, ENMU’s placekicker last season, and freshman Michael Cottingham are competing for kicking and punting duties. Ribaudo said either could end up doing both, or they could split them somehow.

The Hounds will still face some of the South’s best in crossover games, but they are looking forward to playing in the North with Texas A&M-Commerce and five Oklahoma schools.

“People think of the North as the (weaker) division,” Stevens said. “I think we have a good shot to do well, but we can’t be complacent.”

ENMU went 2-1 in crossovers last fall, routing champion Texas A&M-Commerce and Southwestern Oklahoma and losing a 49-47 shootout to runnerup Southeastern Oklahoma.

Fast facts
Coach: Mark Ribaudo, 6th year (18-36; 14th year on staff)
2009 record: 3-8 (0-6 Lone Star Conference South)
Returning starters (offense): 8
Returning starters (defense): 8
Top returning players: Karlton Graves, Sr., OT; Jesse Poku, Sr. WR; Darian Dale, Jr., WR; Wes Wood, So., QB; Nathan Uland, Sr., ILB; Rodney Mitchell, Sr., CB; Matt Kalisch, Sr., DE; Taylor Cannon, So., PK/P.
Top newcomers: Perron Sellers, Jr., ILB; Sau Fauhala, So., OLB; Michael Cottingham, Fr., PK/P.