Brandon Harper, right, tries to make a defensive stop on running back Less Long during a drill in Thursday’s ENMU football practice. (Freedom Newspapers: Kevin Wilson)
By Dave Wagner: Freedom Newspapers
PORTALES — With all four starters lost to graduation, it’s almost like starting over for Eastern New Mexico University defensive line coach Todd Wallis.
Still, Wallis believes the Greyhounds can be solid next season.
“We had a pretty good recruiting class two years ago,” said Wallis, a former ENMU fullback who is in his fifth year as an assistant coach but his first in charge of the entire defensive line. “Now’s the time that those guys have to step up and be the starters.”
Ten players — five at end, five at tackle — are competing for playing time during spring practice. Wallis said that whatever happens, the Hounds will rotate players in and out to keep fresh bodies on the field.
Only redshirt sophomore end Olie Fitts has had a lot of previous playing time, and he said he’s ready to accept a leadership role.
“I want to make sure everybody knows what we’re doing,” said Fitts, who’s from Midland, Texas. “It’s kind of my job to make sure the front line stays intense.
“I kind of leaned on the big DTs when I first came in. Now other guys will lean on me.”
Fitts also competes in track at ENMU and, while that has a definite upside, it also forces him to miss football drills on occasion.
At the same time, Wallis said it allows others to benefit with more chances in practice.
“Those other guys need the reps that they’ve been getting,” he said. “Olie’s biggest asset is his speed. Running track is really going to help him in the long run.”
Fitts and redshirt freshman Kyle Wilson have the inside track right now at end, Wallis said. They’re getting pushed by redshirt junior Bryson Frazier and redshirt sophomores Jorge Melendez and Matt King.
Competing at tackle are junior Malala Tai; sophomores Kevin Kimball, Will Porter and Reggie Ellis, and freshman Roger Deleon. All have redshirted one season.
“All the guys (who graduated) were here five years,” Wallis said. “They played behind good guys, too, and when it was their turn they stepped up.”
Tai, a 6-foot, 330-pounder from Arlington, Texas, said it’ll be a challenge to replace the players lost to graduation — Robert Caballero, Larry Roybal and B.J. Biggar at end and Brandon Wickware and Tremaine Johnson at tackle.
Tai does, however, have some experience. He started a couple of games last season due to injuries.
“It’s going to be a little different,” said Tai, who expects to play more of a nose guard role than a traditional tackle. “I kind of got a taste of it last year, so it’ll be interesting to see (how it goes).”
He said the thing he realized in starting is that stamina becomes a big factor, as opposed to just going in for a handful of plays.
But he’s determined to earn a starting spot.
“I’ve already told some of them, ‘If you can take my spot, take it. But I’m not giving it to you,’” he said. “I’m out there busting my tail to earn it.”