Derrick Hunter, shown in a 2004 game, is one of several returning starters on offense for Eastern New Mexico University. The Greyhounds begin spring practice this week. PNT File Photo
If the Eastern New Mexico University football program is going to get over the hump in 2005 and reach the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time, coach Mark Ribaudo figures the work starts now.
Ribaudo anticipates 90-95 candidates for the start of spring practice on Tuesday. The Greyhounds have 15 sessions scheduled, ending with the Green & Silver Game at 4 p.m. on 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.”
Ribaudo said ENMU players have compiled more than 1,000 manhours of volunteer service within the community since the start of the semester.
“We’re pretty proud of that,” he said. “It’s something we’ve never done before, but our kids have really taken to it.”
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.”
The Hounds will work out on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays for four weeks, except for the Saturday before the Green & Silver Game. All sessions are open to the public, Ribaudo said, and all will be at the team’s on-campus practice field except for the last three Sundays when they will scrimmage at the stadium.
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 on that side of the ball.
“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 behind Hinson at quarterback and will competed 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.”
ENMU’s schedule is exactly the reverse of last season, with six road games and five at home. The Hounds open with a Thursday game against Central Arkansas at 53,727-seat 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. UCA 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.”
Date Opponent Time
Aug. 25 vs. Central Arkansas-z 6 p.m.
Sept. 3 SE Oklahoma-y 6 p.m.
Sept. 10 at SW Oklahoma-y 5 p.m.
Sept. 17 East Central-y 6 p.m.
Sept. 24 at Abilene Christian-x 1 p.m.
Oct. 1 Angelo State-x 6 p.m.
Oct. 8 at West Texas A&M-x 5 p.m.
Oct. 15 Tarleton State-x 6 p.m.
Oct. 22 at Texas A&M-Kingsville-x 6 p.m.
Oct. 29 Midwestern State-x 6 p.m.
Nov. 5 at Western New Mexico 1 p.m.
All Times MST. x-Lone Star Conference South games. y-Lone Star Conference crossover games. z-at Little Rock, Ark.