The plugs: Mavs’ defensive linemen know and like their jobs

Three of a kind: Mesa State defensive linemen, from left, Nainoa Campbell, Tony Kelly and Domonique Lewis understand their main role is to take up blockers so linebackers can make plays for the Mavs.


N.M. Highlands (0-3, 0-1 RMAC) at Mesa St. (0-2, 0-1)

Saturday, 1 p.m., Stocker Stadium

Last week: Mesa State lost at Nebraska-Kearney 31-9; Highlands lost to Colorado School of Mines 49-21

Series: Mesa State leads 23-10. Last season: Mesa State won 51-7 in Las Vegas, N.M.

Players to watch

Mesa State: Michael Mankoff has completed 13 of 30 passes for 115 yards and one TD. Zach Adair has 40 rushing yards and J.R. Hamm 38. Look for Will Halboth to get plenty of carries this week. Trent deBraga and Spencer McAdoo lead Mesa with 18 tackles each.

Highlands: Quarterback Robbie Armijo had completed 24 of 44 passes for 325 yards and one TD; James Finklea is the Cowboys’ leading rusher with 63 yards and one TD; Kevon Williams has caught 14 passes for 203 yards and one TD.

Game notes: The Mavericks were 0-2 last season when they played Highlands, the first of three straight wins. Halboth had 96 yards rushing in that game; Joey Applehans, who is still recovering from offseason ankle surgery, rushed for 179 yards that day. … The Cowboys have been outscored 42-6 in the first quarter this season. … The Mavs do not have a rushing touchdown yet this season. … Coach Joe Ramunno said the Mavericks want to get former starting quarterback Robert Felberg involved with the offense because of his athleticism. “His skill set is coming around,” Ramunno said. “We’re going to get him on the field somehow.”

They’re the “whatever it takes” guys for the Mesa State College football team.

Nainoa Campbell, Tony Kelly and Domonique Lewis are the three down linemen on the Mavericks’ defense, and they’ve adopted that “whatever” attitude.

Against Missouri Western State University in the season opener, the defense was on the field for 87 plays, a little more than 40 minutes of a 60-minute game.

“We like being out there,” said Campbell, a 6-foot-2, 275-pound defensive end from Honolulu.

“We want to be on the field,” echoed Lewis, the Mavs’ other defensive end, a 6-2, 265-pound junior from Salt Lake City, Utah. “If we’re called, we’re going to go out there and do our jobs, try to give the offense the ball back.

“We want to be out there 90 plays like against Missouri Western, or 30, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about getting into the action. You don’t earn a scholarship sitting on the sidelines.”

The Mavericks (0-2, 0-1 RMAC) finally have a home game Saturday, playing New Mexico Highlands (0-3, 0-1 RMAC) at 1 p.m. at Stocker Stadium. It’s their first game against a non-ranked opponent, but they refuse to think that way.

“It’s college football,” Campbell said. “Whatever team shows up is going to win. We’re not taking them for granted. We’re going to play them like it’s Kearney, Chadron, Missouri Western.”

Like Mesa, the Cowboys haven’t had a lot of success on offense. They’ve tried to have a balanced attack, averaging 35 passes and 23 rushes a game. However, they’re averaging only 60 yards rushing and 185 yards passing and are being outscored 38-11 on average.

It’s up to the defensive front three to adjust to whatever style of offense they face each week, but the basic goal is the same.

“Our role is to plug the holes and let the backers make plays,” Lewis said. “If we’re making plays up front, the backers can sit back and watch it happen and it makes our defense better.”

The Mavericks don’t do a lot of blitzing, instead playing assignment-based defense. One of those assignments is for the defensive line to get penetration and put pressure on the quarterback, despite being outnumbered up front.

“The coaches are confident in our ability to get pressure,” said nose tackle Tony Kelly, a 6-3, 295-pound senior from Montrose. “We just do our jobs, fill our gaps and everything works out fine.”

The experience of the three down linemen allows Mesa State to play a 3-4 defense, giving them more help in the secondary to defend the pass.

“Coach (Bill) Stafford has been a big part of them, getting their talents and drawing that out,” head coach Joe Ramunno said. “I’m impressed with those guys’ work ethic; they’re team guys. Nainoa and Tony being seniors, they’ve been through this, they had battles when they were younger and they’re great examples to our young guys of how you persevere and become great players.

“They’re very athletic and Tony, really, for as big a kid as he is, has great skills. I knew that when we recruited him out of Montrose. He’s very, very tough and has really developed into a good football player.”

With the 3-4, the defensive linemen don’t get a lot of attention, but at least once a game, these three come up with a big play.

Last week, Campbell stuffed a run in the end zone for a safety against Nebraska-Kearney and he’s broken up one pass, recovered a fumble and is credited with hurrying the quarterback once; Lewis has two tackles for lost yardage and one sack; Kelly has one sack and two tackles for lost yardage.

They’ve combined for 26 tackles, but leave the big hitting to the linebackers.

“The 3-4 is made for linebackers to make plays,” Campbell said.

“You have to have that relationship between your front and your linebackers,” Ramunno said. “Your linebackers are supposed to be your tacklers. Our d-linemen, they’re like offensive linemen. They’re the most important, but you’re not known. At least defensive linemen get some sacks.”

Most of Mesa State’s experience is on the defensive side, and the linemen say they’ll keep plugging gaps and trying to get the ball back as the offense finds its way.

Playing at home this week, they hope, will go a long way toward everything coming together.

“We haven’t scratched the surface yet,” Campbell said of the Mavs’ potential.

“Nowhere near what we’re capable of,” Kelly added. “Nowhere close.”

But what will they do without a two-day bus trip this week? The answer is kind of like their jobs: Whatever it takes.

“Rest at home, sleep normally,” Kelly said. “Play Madden. Do homework. Eat normally. Sleep.”


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