BY Dave Wagner: Freedom Newspapers
BLACKWATER DRAW — First-year Eastern New Mexico University head football coach Mark Ribaudo said after Wednesday’s intrasquad scrimmage at Blackwater Draw that he’s not sure if the Greyhounds are quite as ready as they’d like to be for the earlier opener in school history — Thursday against Central Arkansas at 53,727-seat War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do after this scrimmage,” said Ribaudo, who spent eight years as an assistant under the retired Bud Elliott, the last seven as the team’s defensive coordinator. “But we’re playing hard, and we’re just trying to get better.”
ENMU was picked for fifth place in the seven-team Lone Star Conference South Division. The Hounds (6-5, 2-4 South in 2004) will be looking for an eighth consecutive winning season.
Ribaudo said the Hounds expect a challenging opener against Central Arkansas, which plans to transition into NCAA Division I-AA after this year and downed ENMU 38-31 last August at Greyhound Stadium.
“(UCA’s) Clint Conque is an offensive-minded coach, and they’re always going to have a good offense,” Ribaudo said. “They’re a good football team in a good conference (Gulf South).
“We’re going to have to play a great game and get some breaks to win.”
On offense, the Hounds return a number of experienced players, including all five linemen. Four were starters last season while the fifth, senior left tackle T.J. Cobb, was a regular before sitting out all of the 2004 campaign with a knee injury.
Back from a year ago are senior center Devin Pilgrim, senior guards Robert Acuna and Tyson Rush and junior tackle Marcus Smith.
In the backfield, redshirt sophomore Michael Benton replaces two-year starter Steven Hinson at quarterback. The running backs are experienced for the most part, while senior Art Tennison returns at tight end.
“Our offensive line should be a strength, and we’ve got a lot of good backs with experience,” Ribaudo said. “And I’ve got a lot of faith in Michael Benton. He doesn’t have much experience, but that kid is a winner.”
The Hounds have tweaked their option offense in preseason, trying to spread defenses out and get the ball to playmakers as much as possible. Still, ninth-year offensive coordinator Mike Howard doesn’t think the changes are that dramatic.
“What we’ve done the last six years is incorporate different types of option so we can still run the option,” Howard said. “Instead of throwing one-receiver routes, we want to be able to throw the ball when we want to.”
All-LSC South wide receiver Derrick Hunter will miss at least one game after suffering a knee injury, putting more of the load on 5-foot-7, 160-pound senior Tristan Selmon early in the season. But Selmon, who caught just three passes a year ago, said he’s ready for the challenge.
“I definitely feel like in my role I’ll be able to help this offense more,” he said. “I’m just going to try to do my job. Whatever they call, I’m going to complete my assignment the best I can.
Selmon sees a more wide-open scheme overall this season.
“I like it,” he said. “It’s an offense that I’ve never seen before. It’s really going to put defenses in a bind because can do so many things out of our formations.”
Other projected starters on offense are senior fullback Robert Garza, junior Fide Davalos and sophomore J.J. Jennings at halfback.
“It goes back to (the fact that) we’ve got good people,” Howard said. “The head coach has a vision, the offensive staff has been working their fannies off and we’ve got good offensive players.”
Senior cornerback Corey White leads a relatively inexperienced defense. White had four of the team’s 12 interceptions in 2004.
Junior linebacker Jeremy Mullins stepped into a starting role in the fifth week last year and is the second-most experienced defensive player. He will play middle linebacker this season.
But Ribaudo said most of the key players on that side of the ball, though, have been around a while and are ready to step in.
“Hopefully, our program has prepared them to step up,” he said. “A key for us is how quickly those kids respond.”
Sophomores Malala Tai and Reggie Ellis will start at the inside down positions, backed up by sophomores Will Porter and Kevin Kimball, with freshman Kyle Smith and junior Ollie Fitts at the ends. At the other linebacker spots are sophomore Royal Bell, senior Kwame Darko and either junior Landon Morton or sophomore Tony Johnson.
In the secondary with White will be junior J.J. Ortiz at free safety and either junior Michael Fields or sophomore Michael Clark at the other corner.
Junior Lee Price is scheduled to handle all of the kicking duties for the Hounds. He has done all the placekicking for two seasons, and last year punted 13 times for a 42.6-yard average.
Ribaudo said the Hounds have the ability to compete in what he expects will be a balanced South race, led by Texas A&M-Kingsville and Midwestern State.
“Those teams were picked at the top, and rightfully so,” Ribaudo said. “They both have a lot of good players coming back. They’re definitely the top teams going in, I think.”