Who’s going to be that pass rusher off the edge?
Trent Sellers and Erin Austin are auditioning three times a week.
Austin, from Brentwood, Calif., in the Bay Area, and Sellers, from Tyrone, Ga., southwest of Atlanta, came to the University of New Mexico with impressive résumés as defensive ends adept at getting into the other team’s backfield.
Last fall at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., Austin was in on 47 tackles with five sacks and 16½ tackles for loss. At Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, Sellers led the team’s defensive linemen with 40 tackles and 8½ tackles for loss.
Stats are merely stats, and a great many things can affect those numbers. But, last season, the Lobos did not have a productive pass rusher at defensive end.
Garrett Hughes, who in 2016 had 7½ tackles for loss and 6½ sacks, had corresponding numbers of four and two last fall as a senior. Cody Baker and Emmanuel Joseph, who return this year, combined for 4½ and four.
As a team, the Lobos finished with 21 sacks, ranked 95th in the nation (among 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams). They had 59 tackles for loss, ranked 99th.
Expectations for Sellers and Austin are high, but not sky-high just yet — not even their own.
“I’m taking it one step at a time,” Austin said after Wednesday’s spring practice session. “I’ve got to get better now. I’ve got to get bigger, stronger, faster.
“… I’m taking it gradually, but by Sept. 1 I’ll be ready.”
The Lobos open the 2018 season on that date against Incarnate Word, an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision school in San Antonio, Texas.
Sellers is a “bounce-back,” having spent two seasons at Georgia Tech — the first as a redshirt — in 2015-16.
“At the time, I felt like it was a good fit for me, somewhere I could go and thrive,” he said. “… Some things changed, and I decided it was best for me to open up my options and go somewhere else.”
One of his fellow Georgia Tech D-lineman was Desmond Branch, the former Cleveland Storm all-stater who signed with UNM out of high school. Branch redshirted in 2014, found the UNM program not to his liking and transferred to Trinity Valley College in Athens, Texas. He signed with Tech in 2016.
Branch is a good friend, Sellers said, and the two discussed Branch’s UNM experience before Sellers signed in December.
Junior college transfer Trent Sellers works out during practice. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)
“Everything’s a different fit for everybody,” Sellers said. “Everybody goes through things differently, has different situations. (Branch) told me to go wherever I feel like I could go and be successful, and that was my mindset, too.”
Sellers chose UNM over offers from Memphis, New Mexico State and Southern Mississippi.
Austin had offers from San Diego State and UNLV, New Mexico’s Mountain West Conference rivals. Two factors, he said, combined to bring him to Albuquerque.
First, running back Ahmari Davis, a Laney teammate, decided to sign with UNM.
“We wanted to go to school together,” Austin said, “because it’s always good to have somebody that you’re familiar with to go through this process with.”
Second, but equally important, UNM defensive line coach Stan Eggen challenged him.
“It was just his determination, the things he was saying about being great, not being average,” Austin said. “It wasn’t just winning games. …It was winning conference (championships), winning bowl games.”
The year before Austin’s arrival at Laney, the Eagles had gone 4-6. They went 9-2 in both of his two seasons there.
Last year, the Lobos went 3-9.
“I wanted to come here and help (rebuild), put the pieces together,” he said.
Eggen said that, through 10 of 15 spring workouts, he has been pleased with his group. Baker, who started 11 games last fall as a junior, leads the way.
“I think we’ve got more depth right now (than in the past),” Eggen said. “We’ve still got a long way to go before we’re ready to play, but I really believe that when I come into that meeting room I see guys, all of them, that can help us.”
Of Austin and Sellers, he said, “They’ve been a very pleasant surprise. I knew they were gonna be good, but they’ve exceeded (expectations). They don’t flinch, and I’m excited about their progress and what they’ll bring to us next fall.”
INJURY REPORT: Senior quarterback Coltin Gerhart has missed practice time with an ankle injury, defensive coordinator and acting head coach Kevin Cosgrove said.
“We’re working him (back in) slowly but surely,” Cosgrove said. “He’ll be fine going into the fall.”
Saturday: UNM football “Spring Showcase,” 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Dreamstyle Stadium