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UNM football: Three things I liked, one thing I didn't from the Lobos' spring game

Apr. 20—Cherry 42, White 0.

What did the score of New Mexico's spring game tell head coach Bronco Mendenhall about his team?

"Just capability," he said nonchalantly on Saturday afternoon. "I think we have some dynamic players offensively. We have a quarterback that can run and throw and, yeah, some good weapons.

"But again, it reflects consistency more than anything else."

In front of an announced crowd of 1,250, all of UNM's capabilities and inabilities, consistencies and inconsistencies were laid bare to the public for the first time this spring over 100 or so snaps. Fans were invited onto the field after the game for an autograph session with players and like that, the Lobos' first public showing until the fall came to an end.

Of course, there was plenty to go over. Here are three things I liked and one thing I didn't from the Lobos' first spring game under Mendenhall:

Three things I liked

The 'funnest' offense: There was no unique scoring system similar to other spring games around the country — a stop worth three points, an interception worth a touchdown, etc. UNM rolled the balls out, got its offense and defense set and went for it.

So, Cherry (offense) 42, White (defense) 0 wasn't a great indicator for a day where the offense started hot, fell into a lull and finished with one final surge. As good as the offense looked at points, there were still a fair share of drives to nowhere — far from a blowout.

What might be a good indicator? How quarterback Devon Dampier, who played all but two of roughly 100 snaps, felt on Saturday afternoon.

"Funnest ain't a word," Dampier said with a smile. "But this offense is probably the funnest I've ever been in."

That joy was evident when Dampier reared back on third and long during UNM's first drive, linking up with wide receiver Nic Trujillo for the first of his two long touchdowns. When the sophomore quarterback roared around the edge for a 55-yard rushing score of his own. Pre-snap movement, run pass options, some more traditional option work, it was all there.

How much of the play calling was held back because a crowd was in attendance — even if they weren't supposed to take still photos or video — isn't known.

But with the plays UNM did show, Dampier and a new-look offensive line looked maybe more comfortable (or in Mendenhall's words, capable) than expected.

"It's total freedom," Dampier said. "(Offensive coordinator Jason Beck has) trusted me a lot — I'm happy I've been able to gain his trust. And he's able to tell me at any point and he knows I'm gonna make it at the highest level I can."

Defensive improvement up front: UNM looks like it might be better off on the defensive front than it was last year. Emphasis on might. And that's with the understanding the road to improvement isn't far off — the Lobos were among the worst pass rushing teams in the country last season by nearly every metric.

Coaches know it. Players do, too.

"We didn't have many sacks here — like, bottom tier in the country," defensive end Gabriel Lopez told the Journal.

Saturday, there were glimmers that might change. With no official stats (and all the difficulties that come with no jersey numbers), it looked like Lopez had two on Saturday. Returning linebackers Dimitri Johnson, Jayden Wilson and Ja'shon Lowery looked opportunistic in the rush at worst, particularly disruptive at best. New players — edge Okiki Olorunfunmi and linebacker Moso Tuitele — continued to show they're capable of producing.

Last week, Johnson said he felt some returners on the defense were not only being given a new chance, but their skill sets were being utilized correctly. It feels that's happening on the defensive front more than anywhere else at the moment.

Of course, how much can you trust one spring game? After all, UNM was bullish about its offensive and defensive lines last spring. The offensive line more than delivered; their defensive counterparts underwhelmed. It's a long way of saying the quality of those units — whether they end up as strengths or weaknesses — won't be up for grading until Aug. 24 and everything after that.

But spring practice is about promise, right? And if there was one group that showed there's some newfound hope there — or at least, a group the staff are getting more out of at the moment — it was the front seven.

The running backs: By the Journal's count, Andrew Henry had two touchdowns and Javon Jacobs had one.

The number of carries looked relatively even between Henry, Jacobs and Eli Sanders. The official numbers would have been fascinating to see as there's a lot at play between those three.

Henry's burst is still as good as any, but he can be a bruiser when necessary. Sanders, the biggest listed back at 6-foot, 200 pounds, tends to freelance more — even if it sometimes draws the ire of his position coach Charles Mack, who urged him to get north and south during one of the first drives of the day.

"He knows how to create some runs when we need him," Dampier said of Sanders. "He's one of those guys that's gonna get the first down. Javon's kind of a both (receiving) and running back — he knows how to run and he's probably our best route running back.

"When he has a one-on-one with a linebacker, I mean, I'm gonna expect him to win every time."

All of that was on display Saturday, and in abundance. Last spring, UNM had a deep running back room but no clear bell cow. This year, they don't either, Mendenhall declining to answer whether he felt one was ahead of the pack.

Which, all things given, might be the point.

"Three-headed monster," Trujillo said of the running backs. "Any of them can go at any time."

One thing I didn't like

More inconsistencies with the secondary: Saturday was not a long day for the secondary in the way that it sometimes was last season, when occasional routine plays turned into backbreakers. But with some new pieces in the fold (namely cornerback Noah Avinger) and a key returner (safety Tavian Combs) out, it was apparent there's plenty more work to be done there.