Junior Tony Johnson, left and senior Jeremy Mullins listen to assistant coach Todd Wallis Thursday on the first day of Eastern New Mexico University football practice. (CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks)
By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — Jeremy Mullins and Tony Johnson were part of an Eastern New Mexico University defense which struggled mightily at times last season, giving up 30 points and just over 380 yards a game.
As two of nine regulars returning on that side of the ball, though, the Greyhounds’ inside linebackers are confident things will be better in 2006.
“We had a good spring,” said Johnson, a 6-foot, 220-pound junior from Levelland, Texas, on Thursday’s opening day of fall workouts.
“Everybody was on time to everything. We just want to play as a family.”
Mullins, a 5-10, 225-pound senior from Merkle, Texas, and Johnson were 1-2 on the team in tackles during last year’s 5-6 campaign (2-4 in the Lone Star Conference South), finishing with 78 and 75 total stops, respectively.
Second-year coach Mark Ribaudo, who also serves as ENMU’s defensive coordinator, believes the Mullins-Johnson tandem could prove to be something special this season.
“They’re good kids and good linebackers,” he said. “I think we’ve got the best inside linebackers in the conference. They’re the quarterbacks of the defense.
“They’ve paid their dues and worked their butts off. I think they had a great year last year.”
Mullins has perhaps the most experience of anyone on defense, having started since the last part of his sophomore year. He calls the defensive signals for the Hounds.
“Our whole philosophy is that we want to be aggressive,” he said. “We want the offense to be worried about what we’re going to do.”
Experience should help the defense this season, he said.
“Last year we had some good games, but we were kind of a younger team,” Mullins said. “For a lot of guys, it was their first time on the field and at times we might’ve had some miscommunication. But in (spring practices), I think everyone was on the same page.
“It takes a while to learn a college scheme, but this is at least the second year in the system for almost everyone.”
The Hounds have been projected for last place in the seven-team South this year, but Johnson is quick to dismiss that notion.
Johnson, who started nine games last fall, said he thinks Mullins will be a good leader for the defense despite his relatively laid-back nature and he enjoys playing with him.
“He makes the calls on defense, and I trust him,” Johnson said. “I’d go to war with him on any day.
“We have a bond; we just click. We’re pretty much like brothers.”