Wright: Jimmys, Joes and first-year woes for UNM football

Apr. 20—Darrell Royal, the legendary University of Texas football coach, is widely credited with the first utterance of the following — echoed throughout the decades by scores if not hundreds of his fellow coaches:

"It's not the X's and O's; it's the Jimmys and Joes."

The New Mexico Lobos do have a Jimmy, or at least a James (Bailey, a Texas A&M transfer offensive lineman). They do have a Joe: former Cleveland Storm standout Joe Ray Maez, now a UNM defensive end.

But for the Lobos, it's also the Devons and Dimitris, (Dampier and Johnson), the Calebs and Christians (Medford and Ellis) and the Tavians and Taviens (Combs and Ford) who will tell the tale of coach Bronco Mendenhall's first season as head coach.

Those, and their current teammates, and a bunch more whose names we don't yet know, because they've yet to arrive.

The Lobos held their 2024 spring game/scrimmage on Saturday, which, as an indicator of how many games they'll win in the fall is totally unreliable. Until Dampier is throwing against someone else's secondary and dodging someone else's pass rush, until Ford is blocking someone in a different-colored jersey, until Combs (once healthy; he sat out Saturday's game) is blanketing another team's star wideout, the 2024 season holds only conjecture.

That's always the case, whether it's UNM or Michigan or Alabama (new coaches there, too).

It's rare, almost unheard-of, to hear a head coach pan his team's act in the spring. Mendenhall, predictably, said he liked what he's seen throughout the spring, and again on Saturday, in terms of effort and buy-in.

Consistency? Not so much, he said. That's what summer workouts and fall camp are for. Asked after the scrimmage what constitutes a successful spring, in particular for a first-year coach, Mendenhall said the following:

"A lot of it has to do with working to establish your culture, and does that manifest when you watch the team play. Understanding your roster, seeing who you have, making sure there's enough opportunity to get clarity on that.

"And then make sure you use (the players) appropriately. ... Culture, player evaluation, scheme installation; all those things kind of go together at the same time."

Regarding players, Mendenhall needs a lot more of them. Barely 60 players suited up for Saturday's scrimmage, with four more — Combs and Maez among them — pedaling stationary bikes on the east sideline while rehabbing injuries.

Yet, Mendenhall said he expects to have almost twice that number by the time the Lobos take the field against Montana State on Aug. 24.

"Full roster," he said. "We'll be able to carry 115 as a full roster.

"We have open scholarships, either through players that left prior to my arrival or players who have left since I've been here. So lots of work to do there, and then adding walk-ons, but we anticipate being at 115 by the time the season starts."

The Bronco Different Drummer Effect, meanwhile, was very much in evidence on Saturday.

When I arrived, I was expecting to be handed a numerical roster as in past spring games. Only there were no numbers. Players had only last names on the backs of their jerseys, illegible from the stands — several hundred fans attended — and barely so from the sidelines.

Lobos radio broadcaster Robert Portnoy, equipped with a spotter and a pair of binoculars, did his best to identify ball carriers, receivers and tacklers. He wasn't always successful, especially where tacklers were concerned.

As well, photographers were prohibited from shooting even still photos of the scrimmage itself — limited to photos of pre-scrimmage drills.

Does anyone, other than perhaps the media, have a problem with that? Probably not, especially if Mendenhall can become the first UNM first-year coach to have a winning season since Marv Levy in 1958.

Levy (7-3) and Bob Titchenal (5-3-1) in 1952, in fact, are the only UNM first-year coaches since 1950 to have winning seasons in their first year. Both of those records were achieved during the one-platoon era, when rebuilding was far easier.

Since Levy in 1958, Bill Weeks (5-5 in 1960), Rudy Feldman (0-10 in 1968), Bill Mondt (4-6-1 in 1974), Joe Morrison (4-7 in 1980), Joe Lee Dunn (6-6 in 1983), Mike Sheppard (0-11 in 1987), Dennis Franchione (3-9 in 1992), Rocky Long (3-9 in 1998), Mike Locksley (1-11 in 2009), Bob Davie (4-9 in 2012) and Danny Gonzales (2-5 in the COVID year of 2020) have been the new guys and paid the price.

Including Dudley DeGroot's 2-8 inaugural season in 1950, Lobo coaches' first-year records since then is 50-107-2.

And, lest we forget, Mendenhall went 2-10 in his first season at Virginia.

Also, lest we forget, that was his only losing season in 17 years as a head coach.

Jimmys and Joes and X's and O's; Mendenhall has demonstrated a talent for both.