'Violent' defense, 'complicated' offense: UNM football players describe schemes midway through spring practice

Apr. 13—In so many ways, spring practice is a time of mutual admiration. Run into the same guys for five, 10, 15 practices and there's going to be a degree of respect for what the other side is up to.

And after Saturday's closed door scrimmage, New Mexico was no different. Case in point:

"This is how defenses should be," tight end Trace Bruckler said. "They just play with their heads on fire — you know, they're always making noise after plays ... (Defensive coordinator Nick Howell) does a great job getting the mentality built through those guys. And I like the style that they're playing, (the) physicality — just playing tough defense."

"I'm seeing a very complicated offense — which is great to see," linebacker Dimitri Johnson said. "And I feel like, as a defense, seeing this early is helping us prepare to see different types of offense during the season. We're seeing different looks from the offense and it's very helpful, because when we see basic stuff from other teams, it's going to be so much faster for us and we're going to be a team that's fast, hungry and aggressive."

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said on Thursday there's been progress daily for a program that's still a "work in progress." But after nine practices, both the offense and defense are growing comfortable in new schemes and players were more than happy to discuss their roles within them.

DefenseFrom what's been seen, UNM's defense projects as a 3-4 base that places a premium on flexibility with a traditional nose tackle and two accompanying defensive ends. Along with the Mike (in a 4-3 or UNM's previous 3-3-5, the middle linebacker), Sam (strong side) and Will (weak side) linebackers, Johnson has welcomed his workload at the Buck ("weaker outside linebacker," in his terms) spot after spending more time as an edge player last season.

"Which was nothing wrong — it was more of something new, so I had to grow into it," Johnson added. "But now that I'm a true linebacker, it opens the whole defense. I feel like we're able to run a lot more complicated and diverse defense compared to last year. I felt like we were a little one dimensional in what we were doing.

"And I feel like it will throw the offense off, no matter who we're playing this year."

In the secondary, the Lobos tend to employ traditional field/boundary safeties and cornerbacks with the possibility for nickel (subbing a linebacker for five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) depending on the situation or opponent. San Diego State transfer cornerback Noah Avinger said he's worked at both field and boundary spots this spring and has taken to the "violent" football he's seen.

"Even though I'm a cover guy (and) corner's not supposed to be aggressive like that," he said. "But I just love being physical and this is the best program for it."


Offensively, there's a lot to consider. One running back, one tight end and three wide receivers in addition to the quarterback and five lineman has been the most observed grouping through three weeks of practice, but it's far from definitive.

For his part, Bruckler said he's liked the scheme thus far and noted considerable use of RPOs (run-pass option plays), keeping tight ends as run blockers or flipping them into "eye candy" for the defense. Playing fast, with plenty of motion, has only helped keep the defense on their toes.

"You can ask any one of the defensive guys — they'll say, 'how do you prepare for this offense?'" Bruckler said. "'It's one of the most confusing offenses I've ever played against.' There's so many motions, so many guys.

"You got (quarterback Devon Dampier) out wide, you got a wildcat quarterback and you're throwing it to him, he's throwing it — you know what I mean? There's just so much going on at all times."

Notes and quotes

INJURY UPDATES: USC transfer defensive tackle De'jon Benton is officially out of the turquoise (meaning limited or injured) and was seen working at practice this week. After starting spring practice with an undisclosed injury, Benton worked with what appeared to be a third-string grouping during rapid-fire alignment and pursuit drills on Thursday.

Not that the turquoise group is getting any smaller. Garden City (Kansas) Community College transfer cornerback Pierre Kemeni Jr. — per Mendenhall, one of the current second-string corners — and defensive end Joe Ray Maez were both limited on Thursday.

NIL: 505 Sports Venture Foundation director Kurt Roth confirmed to the Journal this week that 25 players — mostly midyear transfers — are under contract with UNM's collective. He said players have to this point received "nominal" payments for relocation purposes with a contract cycle spanning from January to May; following funding cycles will span from May to August and August to November.

When asked about UNM's approach to NIL, Mendenhall declined to discuss specifics:

"I'll just summarize that, I think lots of college football is struggling with how best to not only handle NIL, but how to build young people at the same time — not just reward — and how to build a team at the same time with NIL as an accelerant, not a detractor," Mendenhall said. "I really like our plan. I think it's unique. I think it's different ... I like building young people and I like building team culture at the same time and we have a really cool way we're doing that.

"And I really don't want anyone else to copy us. So that's about as far as I'll go."

JUNIOR DAY: Saturday was UNM's Junior Day, a chance for programs to invite a group of recruits to campus for a tour of the facilities and a chance to observe practice.

A (likely incomplete) list of players who were in attendance:

Junior DB Sajon Thompson, West Mesa High SchoolJunior CB Silas Davis, Lone Star (Texas) High SchoolJunior DE/DT Mason Greathouse, Roswell High SchoolJunior DB AJ Manning, Cleveland High SchoolSophomore OLB/TE Elijah Richards, Cleveland High SchoolJunior DE/DT/TE Aidan Rutley, Roswell High School