Lobo football finishes spring; now it’s time to get stronger

Sophomore tight end Trace Bruckler, the University of New Mexico’s versatile threat, got a step ahead of his defender as he ran free across the middle.

All he needed was the ball, but redshirt freshman quarterback CJ Montes overthrew him by a matter of inches. Otherwise Bruckler probably would have taken the catch to the house Saturday at UNM’s Cherry & Silver scrimmage at University Stadium to end its spring football session.

Would-be TD plays like these were sorely needed to be executed during the Lobos’ 3-9 2021 season, and will be needed if they are to transform from underdog to contender in the fall.

“I didn’t feel too good about it,” Montes, who led the first team, said of the throw. “But it was just a ‘next play’ mentality. I had to dust that play off and get to the next play.”

Montes had an up and down scrimmage. He did throw a touchdown pass to running back Bobby Wooden, who found a hole in the UNM defense for a 40-yard catch-and-run TD.

Montes, who had one nightmarish start in 2021, actually performed at a high level throughout much of his first spring with the Lobos. He’ll be in contention to become the Lobos’ starter, as will Kansas transfer Miles Kendrick, who is recovering from a broken leg injury sustained in November. Kendrick said he’ll be ready for preseason camp in August.

The Lobos also have sophomore Isaiah Chavez and junior walk-on Connor Genal at quarterback. UNM could possibly add another QB; the Lobos will “hunt up” for one in the coming weeks, New Mexico coach Danny Gonzales said.

Montes, who threw for 2,200 yards and 19 touchdowns during his junior year in 2019 at Paraclete High in Lancaster, California, wasn’t the only player who had a great spring.

Redshirt sophomore running back Nate Jones, the Lobos’ second leading rusher in 2020, improved greatly over the final two weeks of spring. He elevated so much that Gonzales held him out of Saturday’s scrimmage to save him for the fall.

Lobo defensive and Justin Harris runs drills before the UNM football team’s spring-ending intrasquad scrimmage at University Stadium on Saturday. (Liam DeBonis/For the Journal)

Jones showed that he has come a long way. He missed last spring because he didn’t meet team standards off the field. He then entered the transfer portal, but returned to the Lobos and earned his way back into good standing by excelling as a scout player during a redshirt season in 2021.

“(Jones) coming out here and running great (on Saturday) wasn’t going to make us any better,” Gonzales said. “But Sherod (White) and Bobby (Wooden), those guys needed work. After Tuesday I was happy where we were with Nate, more so for what he has done off the field. That means more to me than anything.”

Wooden scored two touchdowns, including a short rushing TD, during the scrimmage. He has shown that he can be an effective contributor as a receiver, too. He was “probably the most improved” player during the spring, Gonzales said.

The Lobos’ offensive line, with several new players, also showed remarkable improvement, both Gonzales and offensive coordinator Derek Warehime said.

Sophomore Collin James, a transfer from Abilene Christian, is expected to be the Lobos’ starting center. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Sillemon, Arrison Cole and Shancco Matautia will most likely gain more playing time this season.

“We’ve grown faster on the offensive line than I thought we were going to,” Warehime said. “That’s not because of the talent. But just with new guys coming in and seeing what we do defensively, it’s really hard to learn base roots.”

UNM’s defense has challenged the offense throughout the spring. Saturday, it appeared that defensive unit, guided by defensive coordinator Rocky Long, had the upper hand.

UNM’s defense made a big jump in 2021, finishing No. 44 in total defense in the nation after ranking No. 101 during Gonzales’ first season as head coach in 2020.

But for the Lobos to take the next step to reach a dominant level, the offense must step up, Gonzales said.

“The biggest thing we need on defense is attitude,” Gonzales said. “We got some talent and we’ve shown what we can do. Now they have to play with their hair on fire, play relentless. As soon as we get that part of it, we can be really good on defense. We are a couple players short of being dominant. We can be great on defense if we’re good on offense.”

Gonzales said the important part of the offseason is here, as the Lobos will aim to get stronger through work in the weight room. He scheduled the spring earlier than usual to devote more time for strength work.

SEPT. 3: Season opener, Maine at New Mexico, time, TV TBA

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