By Dave Wagner: Freedom Newspapers sports writer
PORTALES — Bud Elliott has had considerable success in his 10 seasons as Eastern New Mexico University’s football coach, but one thing he hasn’t been able to do is lead the Greyhounds into the NCAA Division II playoffs.
This could be the season, the veteran coach said as the start of preseason drills approaches. In addition to a Division II playoff field which has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, the Hounds are loaded with experienced seniors at key positions.
“We’re real excited,” said Elliott, who is beginning his 37th campaign overall as a college head coach. “I think we’ve got a chance of being pretty good.”
Of 18 players — nine each on offense and defense — listed as returning starters, 13 are seniors. ENMU is 62-44-2 under Elliott and bidding for a seventh consecutive winning season.
“We have a lot of guys back,” said senior offensive tackle Aaron Payne, who was a starter at the beginning of last season before being sidelined with a sprained MCL for a couple of games. “With the number of guys with game experience and the guys who just love this program, we just have a ton of experience right now.
“I think this is probably one of the best defenses we’ve had here. And on our offensive line, every returning guy has had two or three years experience.”
The team is scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. practice today without pads. Elliott said that because of new NCAA regulations limiting the number of preseason workouts, the Hounds will alternate between one and two practices a day.
“This is going to be one of the great senior classes to come through Eastern, I think,” said Elliott, one win shy of 200 for his career (199-174-9). “I think there’ll be some competition going on, but I don’t see many (surprises). It’s going to be tough for the newcomers (to break through).”
ENMU’s opener could be testy. The Hounds entertain Central Arkansas of the Gulf South Conference in a 6 p.m. start on Aug. 28 at Blackwater Draw.
The Bears have enjoyed considerable success in recent years, although injuries contributed to a 5-6 record in 2003.
“They’ve been a perennial top 25 football team and have been in the playoffs several times,” Elliott said. “They’ve been one of the top teams in the Gulf South, and they’ve got a quarterback that can really throw the football.”
In the LSC’s preseason poll this summer, ENMU was picked for fourth place in the seven-team South. Payne said he’s sure they’ll finish higher than that, but also knows the competition is usually pretty stiff.
Texas A&M-Kingsville has won or shared each of the last three South titles. The Javelinas, ranked fourth in Division II in preseason, reached the playoff semifinals in 2003 before they were eliminated.