2022 New Mexico Football Breakout Players On Defense
Who will stand out in Rocky Long’s defense?
The next great UNM defender
One must be very impressed by the New Mexico Lobo defense from last year. Defensive coordinator and former head coach Rocky Long did quite a lot from his limited talent on last year’s squad.
Consider this, the Lobo defense made some massive improvements in 2021, ranking 44th in overall total defense and a 57-spot improvement from the previous year, 2020.
UNM allowed 363.1 yards per game, the lowest total in 13 seasons since the 2008 team allowed 335.8 yards per game.
They also ranked 44th overall, and the 2008 team ranked 45th. Last year’s ranking was the best since 2007 when UNM ranked 13th in total defense at 319.9 yards per game.
The New Mexico rushing defense stood at 143.2 yards per game, better than a 20-yard per game improvement from 2020, and it is the best rushing defense since 2008 when UNM ranked 26th at 122.3 yards per game.
Passing-wise, UNM allowed just 219.8 passing yards per game to rank 54th, a significant adjustment from 2019 when the passing defense allowed 321.4 yards per game and ranked 130th (last) in the FBS. It was UNM’s best passing defense since 2010 when the unit ranked 53rd at 218.8 yards per game.
New Mexico’s passing defense goes back further than last year. If you count the final four games of the 2020 season, when UNM allowed just 750 passing yards (a 187.5 average after allowing 1,231 yards, or 410.3 per game over the first three), the Lobos have allowed just 211.8 yards through the air over the last 16 games.
The common denominators, of course, are Gonzales and Long, who were here in 2008. Here is the chart of UNM’s defensive success this year and UNM’s defensive numbers and rankings going back to 2007.
You can expect improvement each year for Lobo fans as this 3-3-5 playbook is opened up, talent is added, and players understand the scheme. Danny Gonzales and Rocky Long are cut from the same defensive-minded mold.
Also, a significant factor is corners Coach Troy Reffett who was on staff with Rocky Long, and he knows the defensive philosophy of both Long and now head coach Danny Gonzales.
One can look at Lobo’s history and see players who played the cornerback’s positions and his great job, especially how they are usually on an island one-on-one with some of the top receivers from opposing offenses. Great cornerback play is a must in this defense.
Rocky Long’s defense still managed to finish fourth in the MWC in total defense and 42nd in Defensive Passing Success Allowed. So pass defense was their bright spot last year.
This Lobo secondary under Coach Davie Howes (Safeties Coach) and Troy Reffett (Cornerbacks Coach) did well, considering the talent they had, no doubt.
The Lobo defensive Line was the 79th rushing success rate and gave up 54 points in the fourth quarter of games.
That will not cut it for DC Rocky Long; make no mistake about it; he is one of the best Defensive Coordinators in all of college football; go ask San Diego State fans from his time there.
The Aztecs made massive improvements under Rocky Long, which showed in games won yearly.
New Mexico is blessed to have him on staff if one considers what he gave up monetarily to coach his alma mater, a large head coaching salary at SDSU, to what his salary is as a Defensive Coordinator is now.
This is rare in today’s college football world of just massive salaries for head coaches and assistants. This is so refreshing.
One must respect his love for football and the University of New Mexico Football program; actions speak louder than words.
Now it’s been this writer’s experience watching this team that Rocky Long defenses tend to start hitting a sweet spot just a few years after it’s been with the teams he has been with.
It can be attributed to adding more talent and a deeper understanding of this Rocky Long’s version of the 3-3-5 defense.
Head Coach Danny Gonzales has stated this about not opening this defensive playbook until players start grasping it entirely in his pressers.
So, watch for this defense to improve from last year, especially in the linebacker’s spot with Cody Moon, Syaire Riley, and Ray Leutele with a year under their belt.
They all combined for 125 tackles, which should go up this year. Rocky Long’s defense is a lot of fun for the linebackers blitzing and stunting on so many plays to create havoc on offensives.
This Defensive should start hitting more cylinders this year as the Lobos have some playmakers, as in Tavian Combs, who at the Lobo position was a tackling machine.
He was listed as 3rd team Athlon Sports Preseason All-Mountain West Team.
Add Ronald Wilson with a 54-stop season and Lobo Veteran Jerrick Reed. In all, four starters are expected back in the defensive backfield.
Reed was a former JUCO transfer who led the Lobos with 89 stops and is one of the hardest hitters in the secondary. He has a knack for being at the right place at the right time to make big plays for the Lobos.
Reed will be on my First Team All-Mountain West Wire team and was recently named 2nd team all Athlon Sports Preseason All-Mountain West Team
Now the Lobos’ leading sacker Joey Noble is gone, but the Lobos return some more depth for Defensive line coach Jerome Haywood.
There’s not a ton of bulk, but Bryce Santana has just enough size to hold up more on the nose. DL Jake Saltonstall started to make some plays last year and was 3rd Athlon Sports Preseason All-Mountain West Team.
Also helping this UNM defensive line is a local product from Los Lunas and a transfer from UCLA, Tyler Kiehne, to help add some depth to the Lobos defense.
Kiehne played with Bryce Santana on the same Los Lunas Tiger team and should have some good chemistry for this Rocky Long defense.
Kienhe, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive lineman, had some size for the Lobos up front and should see lots of action as the Lobos like to rotate their linemen to keep them fresh.
He has four years of eligibility remaining after he did not see game action with the Bruins this past season, but that should really change under Long, especially with his size and strength.
Top New Mexico Lobo Defensive Players for 2022 are:
Jerrick Reed S (2nd team Athlong All MWC) (1st College Football News)
Tavian Combs S (3rdnd team Athlon All MWC) (2nd College Football News)
Jake Saltonstall DE (3rd team Athlon All MWC) (8th College football News)
Ray Leutele LB (3rd team Athlon All MWC) (5th College Football News)
Donte Martin C (4th team Athlong All MWC)
Dion Hunter (should have a breakout year for Lobos,
Syaire Riley, Rico Hanna, Bryce Santana
Honorable mentions Tyler Kienhe (I think he has the potential to do well for this defense) and Cody Moon (lots of upside to this local Albuquerque kid who plays with high motor)
Both of these players, in my opinion, are flying under the radar but should really help this Lobo team. Both high motor athletes for this Rocky Long team.
So bottom line, watch this Lobo defense with more depth, and a better understanding of the 3-3-5 as only Rocky Long can coach it getter back to the old days of Lobo defense flying to the ball, sacking the Quarterbacks and turnovers to help this win some games this year.