VETERAN MAVS READY TO RUMBLE
Russ Martin has seen just about everything in his coaching career.
He’s never seen this: Colorado Mesa’s football team returns a starter at all but four positions this season.
Nearly 30 players with at least one start in the Mavericks’ 2016 conference-championship season are back for more in 2017.
“We had a lot of injuries last year through those first five games,” Martin said. “We weren’t the same team we were those first five games. We had a lot of guys who were playing early on who were sitting over there watching.
“Technically we’ve got 26 different guys (actually 28) who started for us last year coming back. We have returning starters at every position we’ve got. We’ve got our punter back, our kicker back, our long snapper back.”
According to CMU’s current roster and last season’s depth chart, there are four positions where the Mavericks do not have a returning starter — left guard and right tackle on offense, defensive tackle and one outside linebacker spot.
“I have never been associated with a team with this much experience coming back,” said Martin, who has been a college coach since 1985.
That makes their junior quarterback, Eystin Salum, quite happy. He started one game last fall, but played in eight others before an injury ended his season.
“It makes me comfortable knowing we have a great defense out there, a defense that knows how to stop the ball and get it back in our hands,” said Salum, one of the most dynamic players in the conference.
He threw for 851 yards and eight touchdowns last season (51 of 85, with one interception), and was the second-leading rusher on the team with 668 yards and four TDs on 87 carries.
In front of Salum are two of the best linemen in the conference, 6-foot-8 left tackle Austin Fleer, a preseason all-conference pick, and center Aaron Simons.
“They have a ton of experience there and I got a little bit of experience myself last year starting, so it definitely helps with team camaraderie,” Salum said.
It won’t just be Salum’s show on offense. He’s got a ridiculous amount of weapons, starting with running back David Tann, who rushed for 1,061 yards and 20 touchdowns last season (he also caught five TD passes).
Jonathon Beverly and Brett Ojiyi had good springs, and sophomore Justice Jackson should push for playing time in the backfield. Also back is Daryl Hawkins, Mesa’s second-leading rusher in 2014 (461 yards, 6 TDs in nine games), who has not played the past two seasons.
Salum’s legs are a true weapon, but he’s also got an arm — and virtually the entire receiving corps back.
Marcus Hines and Josh Brown both had more than 600 yards receiving, Peter Anderson had a breakout game in the NCAA playoffs, and Virnel Moon is back after missing the final five games for violating team rules.
With several starters skipping spring practice, mainly to heal from offseason surgery or nagging injuries, even more players got some much-needed reps.
That made the start of fall camp better, with less teaching and more preparation for the season.
“Obviously there’s a great carryover,” Martin said. “We had seven starters who didn’t even take a rep in the spring because of injuries or other things.
“They were out there actively coaching their players, and as we get going, I think obviously that helps you. We have a number of players who can step in and play immediately and we have high expectations of.
“You want to have as much experience back as you can. Like I said, I’ve never been affiliated with a program with this much experience coming back, so we do have high expectations.”
Those expectations carry beyond defending their RMAC championship.
“There’s a lot of noise around the tri-champions,” Salum said of CMU, Colorado Mines and CSU-Pueblo all being crowned as champions, even though the Mavericks defeated the other title-holders. “I don’t know if anyone on the team is happy with that. That’s another thing to push for, to be outright champion and not have any question mark.”
It will take a total team buy-in for the Mavericks to stay atop the conference. The schedule is the same as last season, only flipped in terms of travel, so Gauntlet II begins Aug. 31 at Stocker Stadium against rival Western State.
This year, though, the Mavericks won’t be taking a sigh of relief after those first five games, which culminate on ESPN3 when they play at CSU-Pueblo on Sept. 30.
“The biggest thing is not worrying about who our opponent is,” senior defensive end Blake Nelson said. “Last year a couple of times we played to the level of our opponent.
“At times that won us games against Pueblo and Mines, but it lost us games against Dixie and Black Hills. We have to focus on playing our game, focus on our team, each of us doing our individual jobs. If we do that, we can play to a level nobody else in this conference can compete with.”
Nelson and Dustin Rivas lead a defense that bent, but didn’t break very often. The defense will get middle linebacker Tom Saager back from a foot injury that sidelined him all of last season, another injury that helped create all the depth the Mavericks hope to enjoy this fall.
The defense came up with 14 interceptions and five fumble recoveries to help stop drives.
And, of course, there were the blocked kicks (four by Rivas alone), two scoop-and-scores by Antonio Clark, and a certain goal line stand along the way.
Rivas said he, Nelson, Tann, Salum and Martin talked about all those late-game thrillers and how it would be nice to stay away from so many this fall, even though they love those big plays.
“The football can fall either way and it’s better not to be in those situations,” Rivas said. “(The key is) taking control of the game early on and holding control.
“Those moments are special in a football game, and I always talk about big-time players making big-time plays in big-time games. Any time it’s late in the game, those are plays people remember.”