When first-year defensive backs coach Charles McMillian started to breakdown film of New Mexico’s secondary, he had some serious questions about one player in particular.
“He would just run mindlessly, as we would say, by just not going to the football,” McMillian said. “I wouldn’t have thought he was a football player.”
That player turned out to be redshirt junior Brandon Branch, the Lobos’ starting free safety.
Branch is one of the most experienced defensive backs on the team, having played in 21 games since 2012. Branch’s experience didn’t show on film, but McMillian said he’s seen stark improvement from the safety since he’s come to UNM.
“He’s had the biggest improvement from the spring until now,” McMillian said. “You don’t notice him much on the practice field because he’s doing his job. Now the question is, in game situations, can he show up?”
McMillian not only wonders whether Branch will play up to expectations on game day, but the coach has questions about the entire secondary. Last year’s unit ranked 101st out of 123 Division I teams in terms of passing defense, giving up 259.4 yards per game.
“I don’t think I can count on any of them. It’s one of those things that new techniques and new fundamentals as far as a DB, you got to have your eyes in the right place, you got to see formations and got to make the right checks,” McMillian said. “Throughout it all, even though we’re facing our offense, we still have those mental busts where we get tired and we don’t focus. Right now, would I count on any of them? I would say no.”
The other three players starting in the secondary are safety David Guthrie, cornerback Donnie Duncan and cornerback Cranston Jones, according to UNM’s pre-fall camp press release. However, as with all the other positions on defense, the Lobos have depth in the secondary. The Lobos are at least two-deep at every secondary position and the primary backups have in-game experience.
McMillian said he’s willing to alternate players in the secondary during games and wants to give players who have shown him effort a chance.
“I would like to sub, but I’m going to play the best four guys no matter who they are, and hopefully there’s another four behind them,” he said. “I do rotate if it’s possible.”
One of those possible substitutions could be cornerback SaQwan Edwards, who was reinstated to the team last week. Edwards was demoted to second string during spring ball, McMillian said, because he failed to show the appropriate effort.
“(Edwards) sees now that we’ve been better than what we have been. His character has changed, his integrity has changed. He wants to be better,” McMillian said. “He has NFL qualities and he’s just going into his second season playing corner. I can get him there but he has to want it.”
With the season opener against UTEP just eight days away, McMillian knows the secondary still has much to improve upon.
“We still got a long way to go because in the spring we stressed A to B as far as going one spot to another or as fast as you can play,” he said. “The technique and the fundamental part was being taught but not fully. Right now we’re still trying to learn fundamental and technique football as a DB should.”
Rise and Shine
As the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm. Apparently, head coach Bob Davie subscribes to that theory, as he has changed practice from afternoon to mornings this season.
In past years, players reported to south campus in the morning for team meetings and weight training, go to main campus for classes, then return to south campus for practice.
Players will now arrive at the athletic complex at 6:45 a.m., attend meetings, have breakfast, practice, lift weights, have lunch, then leave to attend classes.
“We have a little bit more time to sit there and really eat as a family, where guys aren’t running off to study hall, running off to class like they were in the evening,” Davie said.
Talking about practice
The Lobos held their final full contact scrimmage on Wednesday before next week’s season opener against UTEP.
Davie said the offense made several big plays throwing the ball during the scrimmage.
However, UNM’s top two quarterbacks Cole Gautsche and Clayton Mitchem didn’t participate.
“It was probably the offense. If I had to put a scoreboard on it, I would say the offense won (the scrimmage),” Davie said.
Davie said the team has not done much preparation for UTEP yet but that will change in the upcoming days.
Thomas Romero-Salas is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ThomasRomeroS.