Five players to watch in UNM's spring football game

Apr. 19—New Mexico's spring game on Saturday will not only serve as the public's first glimpse of the team since practice began four weeks ago, it'll function as a true live spring game: first team defense versus first team offense, second team offense versus second team defense and so on.

The only catch? Players won't have jersey numbers — only names on the back.

In light of that, here's five names to watch during the Lobos' first spring game under head coach Bronco Mendenhall:

Devon Dampier (QB)

As close to an obvious choice as a player to watch as there is on the roster right now. Dampier has earned strong reviews from teammates and coaches since before spring practice started and barring an injury, he'll enter the season as UNM's clear-cut starter — a position he's never been in before.

"(I'm) just trying to handle it the best I can," the sophomore quarterback said earlier this spring. "I'm trying to lead and just make sure I'm following what our coaches want to (instill) in people, what our will is — we go by, 'earned, not given.' That's our mentality everywhere, so I kind of try to stress that on everybody."

And while Dampier wasn't unknown heading into the spring — the Saguaro (Arizona) High School alum passed for 525 yards and rushed for 384 with 10 total touchdowns last season — his perceived growth will be something to watch. As late as Tuesday's practice, he looked like a sharper passer in a new offense, flashing the same qualities on the run that made him so dynamic during his freshman season.

Thursday, the defense kept him more subdued. A spring game performance is the furthest thing from definitive, but as the only outing for public consumption, consider it a chance for Dampier to reintroduce himself.

Eli Sanders (RB)

Last spring, UNM's running backs room had plenty of intriguing options, but no true bell cow. Jacory Croskey-Merritt, now at Ole Miss, made that competition a moot point after joining UNM for fall camp last year, and the rest was history.

This year, the Lobos have three quality options — Sanders, Andrew Henry and Javon Jacobs. Sanders, an Iowa State transfer, has been maybe the most intriguing back this spring, frequently lining up in the shotgun for wildcat snaps.

It's unlikely there will be any resolution to the three-party competition this spring — one that Sanders has relished — but if there's a back to watch Saturday, it's him.

"That's a blessing to have," Sanders said of the competition earlier this spring. "And those guys are hard workers, hard competitors. So it just makes me want to compete more, makes we want to come out to practice and perfect my craft, knowing that they're all trying to get better as well."

Noah Avinger (CB)

A San Diego State transfer, Avinger has been perhaps Mendenhall's most mentioned cornerback this spring in part due to his experience and leadership. UNM needs players to establish themselves at corner and Avinger has taken those steps — even if his own performance won't be a primary focus come Saturday.

"Just overall, a defense (that's) flying around, being physical," he said last week when asked about what he wants to see from the spring game. "I'm not looking for a personal aspect, because that'll come if we're all engaged as a unit and defense. So as long as we're all on the same page, communicating, being physical, the plays will come."

Jawuan Singletary (OL)

UNM lost plenty of talent from last season: A game-breaking 1,000-yard rusher along with its top two cornerbacks and linebackers. But few departures have been more troublesome than that of the offensive line, a successful unit that lost nearly all of its primary starters via the transfer portal.

Out of a plethora of new names, the 6-foot-2, 315-pound Singletary has been the most observed replacement for former center C.J. James on the first team. Single out the Grambling State transfer Saturday in an offensive line room that's heavy on rotating lineups but low on known quantities.

Okiki Olorunfunmi (Edge)

Olorunfunmi, a Weber State transfer, has seen steady work with the first team defense over the last week. At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, he might be one of the more imposing players on UNM's defense, flashing some of the pass rushing abilities the Lobos desperately needed last season.

"Lots of growth, lots of progress, and he's becoming a very good football player," Mendenhall said last week. "We've had an injury (ahead of) Okiki, so he's getting basically double the volume, and wow, has he taken off in terms of his production."