Aug. 26—PORTALES — It's been 4 1/2 years since Kelley Lee last led the Eastern New Mexico University football team into a game — a 20-13 victory over Southern Arkansas in the 2019 Heritage Bowl in Corsicana, Texas..
Suffice it to say, the Greyhounds are ready for Thursday's 6 p.m. season opener against New Mexico Highlands at Greyhound Stadium.
"We're tired of hitting each other, I can tell you that," Lee said. "The pieces are falling in place, and we're starting to focus on that opener."
A native of Truth or Consequences, Lee served as the team's offensive coordinator for five seasons before taking the reigns in 2017 and leading the Hounds to a 21-12 record over three seasons.
The 2020 campaign was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee went on to spend the past two years at Veterans Early College H.S in Brownsville, Texas, where he posted a 17-7 record.
Lee replaces Tye Hiatt, who posted a 7-15 mark at ENMU over the past two seasons, including 3-8 (2-7 Lone Star Conference) in 2022.
ENMU is returning to a triple-option style of attack this season, something which Kelley had success with during his previous time at the school. He's been a part of the top five rushing seasons in program history, including a school-record 4,191 yards in 2019.
A number of the players were here with Hiatt, and some were even here during the latter part of Lee's earlier run.
"We've brought in a few transfers, and we've had some pleasant surprises with some of the freshmen who are battling for starting positions and playing time," Lee said.
ENMU returns four starters in the offensive line, with seniors Austin St. John of Clovis and Sam Piotraschke at the tackles, junior Brock Thetford at center and sophomore Christian Griego at guard. The lone newcomer is junior college transfer Tavita (David) Ma'ake at guard.
There are basically all new players at the skill positions, including freshmen Elijah Zeh at running back and D'andre Fillmore at wide receiver.
It's a three-way competition at quarterback, Lee said, between senior transfer Tristan Robbins and redshirt sophomores Mario Sanchez and Rashad Carter.
"All three of them can throw the ball," Lee said.
Rounding out the offense are two more redshirt sophomores, Ja'Calvin Newsom at running back and Jace Martin at tight end.
On the defensive side, juniors Trey Cain and Talon Sanders will be the safeties, with senior Dedrick Moore and freshman Micah Lewis at the corners. Cain is a transfer, while Sanders and Moore both started at times a year ago.
Inside linebackers are senior Tim Jones, a returning starter, and junior Colton Madison. Outside linebacker are seniors Eric Williams and Colby Russ, both returning starters.
The interior line has senior Kevin McCracken, a returning starter, and juniors James Apsey and Estavan Lowery, both of whom saw significant playing time a year ago.
"There were definitely a couple of games we could've won," Jones said of the 2022 campaign. "We weren't as close as a group as we should've been, and that affected us sometimes on Saturdays."
Lee is looking for the defense to be able to hold up its end of the bargain.
"We have a lot of experience up front and at linebacker, and have a couple of guys with experience on the back end," Lee said.
ENMU allowed an average of 31 1/2 points last season and Jones, who is from Sierra Vista, Ariz., thinks his platoon has the talent to improve on that.
"They (coaches) brought in a couple of transfers and freshmen who can help us," he said. "It helps to have to compete for a job."
Freshman Kaden Bell is slated to handle the team's placekicking duties with senior Francisco Moreno, a transfer from Central Oklahoma, doing the punting.
"We can't overlook anybody, or underestimate anybody," Jones said. "The biggest thing with this coaching staff is their attention to detail. They pretty much preach that to us every day."