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September 23, 2011University of New Mexico linebackers coach Toby Neinas called his unit together for a meeting before the first game of the season.
He was about to announce the two starting linebackers for UNM’s season opener against Colorado State.
Last season, while running a 4-3 defense, the Lobos started three linebackers: Carmen Messina, for 11 games and Joe Stoner and Spencer Merritt for all 12 games.
“Last season, we primarily went to those three guys as our linebackers,” Neinas said.
But not this year. New defensive coordinator George Barlow implemented a 5-2-4 defense. This meant there would only be two starting linebackers. And with a linebacker unit that could go six deep, competition for the two starting spots was at its highest during the spring and preseason.
When Neinas announced that Messina and sophomore Dallas Bollema earned the starting positions, there weren’t any harsh feelings from Merritt or Stoner.
Now Stoner is the backup to Bollema at wide linebacker, while Merritt sits behind Messina at middle linebacker.
“It’s never fun to lose your starting job,” said Merritt. “But at the same time, when you have someone like Carmen in front of you, it’s nothing personal. Carmen is a great player. If I were to lose my job to someone, I’d rather it be him.
“We are all team players and we want what is best for the team,” Stoner added. “That’s what matters most.”
Neinas said that despite losing their starting spots, Merritt and Stoner “never missed a beat” in practice. That has paid off on the playing field as both get quite a bit of playing time.
“Being a starter is more of a status position than anything else,” Stoner said. “We are still getting a lot of reps in the games. We are practicing as much now as we did last year. There really hasn’t been that much of a different.”
Neinas said that depending on the situation a reserve player could get more playing time than a starter. But for the most part, the starters get in about 30 plays a game, while a reserve player can get in about 20 to 25 plays.
“As a unit, we talked during the spring that the days of playing 70 to 80 plays a game were gone,” Neinas said. “We have a good deep rotation of linebackers and we want to keep that position filled with fresh bodies.”
The change hasn’t affected their relationships either. Merritt said the linebacker corp is pretty tight and when they spend time together off the football field an Xbox is usually involved.
“I have a PS3 (Playstation 3),” said Stoner. “I don’t like the controllers on the Xbox. When we get together, we have a lot fun. We’ll see each other when we are out doing stuff or around campus as well.”
On the football field, the support has been there. In the first three games of the season, it has been these four who have been rotating back and forth. And before one guy goes on, there is usually a conversation he has with the teammate he’s replacing.
“Carmen will come up to me and give me pointers about what a certain lineman or running back is doing to try and block him,” Merritt said. “We are always helping each other like that. When one of us notices something during the game, we make it a point to let the others know. We are a tight group. We help each other. That is the only way we are going to get better.”
The tips are paying off. Bollema leads the team with 29 tackles. Messina is behind him with 24, while Merritt and Stoner have 13 and 9, respectively.
“I’d like to see those guys listed in the top four in tackles on our team,” Neinas said. “They continue to improve and get better.”
All four know that the improvement needs to continue is UNM is to start notching wins. After holding Colorado State to 14 points in the opener, the Lobos gave up a total of 111 points to Arkansas and Texas Tech in consecutive weeks.
“We need to make plays,” Stoner said. “It’s that simple.”
“When we go back and see the game films, we are noticing that the mistakes we are making as a defense are little things,” Merritt added. “They are correctable mistakes and we need to fix them in practice.”
Against Saturday's opponent, Sam Houston State, the defense will face an option attack.
“When it comes to an option defense, it’s about every defensive player sticking to an offensive player and not ending up in the wrong spot on the field,” Stoner said. “We will have players who we are assigned to and it’ll be important that we keep that player under wraps. That’s how you control an option attack.”