What will the Lobos do on defense?
There’s a new defense coordinator
Now it’s time to cover a hallmark of the New Mexico Lobos football team, the defensive side of the ball for the spring for the UNM program under head Lobo football coach Danny Gonzales.
If there’s one thing UNM Lobos are proud of, it’s defense. Just ask former Lobo Brian Urlacher, who led the nation in tackles his senior year with 178 under that 3-3-5 defense of Rocky Long in 1998.
During Rocky Long’s prosperous era, the Lobo Defense had a reputation for being one of the most physical teams in the conference, despite the lack of tremendous talent.
I knew the Lobo defense of being physical, flying to the ball and being the wood every game.
That was then, and that is now in 2023. Danny Gonzales Lobos comes into the season without former Lobo defensive coordinator and head coach Rocky Long as he took over the defensive coordinator job at Syracuse.
This comes after Syracuse defense coordinator Tony White took the job of defense coordinator in Nebraska after joining the program in 2020.
Rocky Long is known for this very aggressive defense, invented by Joe Lee Dunn in Memphis in the early 1990s, which has proven to be very effective against high profile attacks in FBS.
That’s the same defense Tony White ran as Syracuse’s defense coordinator for the past three seasons before taking the Nebraska job that opened the door for Long.
It was a perfect fit for Rocky Long as Tony White, going back with Rocky Long as a player, up until the UCLA days when Long invited this potential player from El Paso in 1999 and led Long’s 3-3-5 defense.
Syracuse successfully employed Long’s system under White’s tutelage, finishing 29th in total defense that season just a few years after finishing 115th in 2019. The Orange also ranked 19th in passing yards allowed and 36th in goal defense.
So Rocky didn’t abandon ship as much as some have said for the opportunity to coach at a Power 5 conference where this defense is already underway.
Long and his wife Debbie still call New Mexico home and have a home here, too. It was just an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, training at a Power 5 school.
He’s known for his gratitude as a player and coach and many lifelong (I’m one of them) friends here in Albuquerque.
It’s a small world in college football coaching circles, like Tony White was with Long and Gonzales in New Mexico.
Both Tony White, now at Nebraska, and Zac Barnett at Mississippi State learned that defense from Long and Lobo head coach Danny Gonzales.
Later, Lobo head coach Danny Gonzales brought Tony White to ASU when Herm Edwards was head coach. Both are part of the Rocky Long coaching tree.
In early January, Danny Gonzales named a longtime assistant, Troy Reffett, as the new Lobos defensive coordinator.
“I’m excited to have Coach Reffett as defensive coordinator because it gives us continuity in what we’re doing defensively,” Gonzales said. “He has a tremendous track record and will be able to continue coaching the program that has proven successful for us over the past few years.”
Reffett returned to the Lobos for a second stint with the program as part of Gonzales’ first staff appointed in 2020.
Lobo corners were great under his tutelage; The past year has been another solid year, although many true newcomers have entered the rotation.
Senior Donte Martin was the leader of Lobo’s defensive group, despite missing three games and leading all corners in PBUs and tackles. Martin is poised to break Lobo’s long-standing record for career abandonments.
Reffett also had successful stints as a coordinator with North Texas as Mean Green qualified for three bowl games, including the 2018 New Mexico Bowl.
He also has successful runs with ULM, including the second-best NCAA defensive turnaround in yards per game allowed in 2008-09, reducing that total by nearly 100 yards per game.
He also had a 14-year coaching career at UTEP, including the last two seasons as defensive coordinator in 2002 and 2003.
Defensive coordinator Troy Reffett paid his college football tuition if you look at his coaching resume and knows 3-3-5 defense like no one else on the defensive staff.
Danny Gonzales has stated that he will stick to signals from the sidelines from Rocky Long, but this year will call on the defense with input from his defensive coach, particularly Reffett.
The Lobo Defense made significant progress in 2021, finishing 44th overall in overall defense, a 57-point improvement from 2020; It’s becoming increasingly common in FBS football during this period.
So there will be no disappointment on defense, which shot up 50 spots under Rocky Long when he took over. Now Gonzales and the staff will be working with Gonzales, the caller from the last game, as head coach.
Keep an eye on defensive players
Lobo players to watch out for this year Donte Martin from Corner, Zach Morris, Josh Williamson, Hunter Sellers followed by Desmond Hardy.
Martin could be one of the best lockdown corners in the Mountain West Conference.
He has a good chance of making the first-team Mountain West Conference as this author will most likely place him there; he is so good
3-3-5 defense relies on lockdown corners as so many games on an island are in a press-man situation.
A good example would be former Lobo Glover Quin, who was coached by Troy Reffett. He played four seasons in the NFL with the Houston Texans and six seasons with the Detroit Lions.
Well that defense has to have excellent linebackers too with all the stunting that’s going on, it’s like organized chaos but linebackers have to be solid.
Look for local 6A powerhouse Cleveland High School player Dion Hunter (who played for current Lobo Quarterbacks coach Heath Ridenhour). He’s also looking to take more of a leadership role in that defense.
Alec Marenco should have a significant year. Despite being injured at the Spring Ball, he’s a lightweight player with an excellent nose for football, and at 6’3, 220, he has good height and speed for the lobos.
Also injured at jumping ball but a very good linebacker when healthy is Ray Leutele, one of those players who always seems to be in the right place and time to make big plays on this defense.
Other players to watch out for are Syaire Riley, Dimitri Johnson and Mihalis Santorineos, Marquios Jones.
The Lobos are deep at this point with over 16 linebackers on the roster, but those have excelled, but with injuries others are trying to step onto the field.
Tavian Combs is at the safety spot for this year’s Spring Ball after recovering from a cruciate ligament tear against UTEP last year.
Combs is one hell of a playmaker and is expected to be back in June. So look for him to start on this strong lobo back position.
Christian Ellis is another lobo back but can play other security positions for Troy Reffett.
Jer’Merius Lewis (former nephew of Lobos & NFL Glover Quin) was out this spring trying to make some noise again for the Lobos.
Others who stand out are Marvin Convington, 5-11 sophomore from Mansfield, Texas, D’Arco Perkins-McAllister and former Lobo receiver turned safety Bobby Wooden.
A 5-11 Lobos player with impressive athleticism, Wooden hails from Pearland Texas, the same hometown as former Lobo running star Kasey Carrier.
Aaron Smith of Long Beach, California would also attempt to get onto the field from the safety point.
Up front, the lobos are larger and deeper than in previous years for defense. Both Troy Reffett and head coach Danny Gonzales have commented that they are not as deep in secondary as they would like but are way ahead.
Defensive ends looking very good during spring training are Gabe Lopez, Kyler Drake, Hunter Rapollla, Destiny Gainer and Joe Maez.
Nose Guard the Lobo return with Tyler Kiehne and Bryce Santana, two solid local New Mexico players from Los Lunas High School, strong characters for the Lobos.
When asked how the Spring Ball was going, coach Troy Reffett said: “I was happy with some of the new players that came in, Gabe Lopez, Hunter Rapolla, Dimitri Johson, Mihalis, those guys came up front and added to our atheism contributed and they are smart soccer players who have chosen the scheme very well.
And on the backend, these guys brought another level of speed with Marvin and D’Arco that will help us well. “And we have six new guys who are a good fit and will help us.”
For many of them, thinking with these new people about what we expect from them is an increasing process, and it’s a process that’s getting better every day.”
Gonzales was asked last week why such an early spring practice didn’t spread the practice to 30 days, which they could.
“We’re comparing the short time so close to the actual season and the players are struggling with injuries and just tired of hitting each other. We need to get stronger, so the early lifts give us more time in the weight room where we need to get stronger.
Gonzales expressed his delight at the competition at the wide receiver seat and the boys up front, and expressed what he sees as talent and competition.
So we’ll see how the Lobo defense performs without a long, but if you watch Spring Ball if you’re a Lobo fan, you’ll love the greater size and depth and the amount of talent that Gonzales brought to this year’s team has.
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Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire