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UNM football coach coaches local talent

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First-year UNM head coach Danny Gonzales during Lobo practice. (UNM Athletic Communications Photo)

One day in the future can seem like forever until it is that day. University of New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nuñez had to make a move after UNM coach Bob Davie went 2-10 and 0-8 in the Mountain West Conference in 2019.

The future of Lobo football happened on Dec. 17, 2019, when athletic director Nuñez made a prophet out of former UNM coach Rocky Long, who had predicted one day Danny Gonzales, his assistant coach for more than 20 years would be the head coach of the Lobos in the future.

“I’m excited to be back,” Gonzales said. “I’m really glad to have the opportunity to lead our program and to get it back to where we expect it to be.”

Goddard’s Panto in first recruiting class

Former Goddard offensive lineman Anthony Panto is playing for UNM football this season. Panto was second-team all-state as an offensive lineman last season. (Angela Greene Photo)

In one fell swoop, Gonzales has taken steps to put the bite back into the Lobos. Gonzales has gotten the state excited about football. In order to do that, Gonzales is making an attempt to keep the local talent in-state and to make the high school football coaches in New Mexico feel welcomed and a part of the UNM program.

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“First and foremost, it starts with recruiting,” Gonzales said. “If you want to be a head coach, you better have good players. The players that can help us from New Mexico we are going to target. We will look at every New Mexico kid that you can imagine, and recruiting New Mexico kids are going to be a big emphasis like it was when we were here with coach Long. We’re going to go down that path again and do the best we can.”

Goddard’s Larry Luna was selected first-team all-state lineman last season and has verbally committed to UNM in the class of 2021. (Angela Greene Photo)

In Gonzales’ first recruiting class of 2020, he signed Goddard offensive lineman Anthony Panto. Panto looks to be able to contribute as an offensive lineman and help the team when play resumes. For Gonzales, the highlight of the 2021 recruiting class will be massive Goddard lineman Larry Luna, who has verbally committed to UNM.

“Panto was one of the kids we identified,” Gonzales said. “He was right on the borderline of one that we could issue a scholarship, we wanted to see how big he was. He’s got a really nice frame and he’s athletic, and the type of kid we can build our program around. Three-four years in the program, he’ll be big and strong enough with the right attitude. Panto has done a great job since he got here this summer. He’s a hardworking kid and the typical New Mexico kid that we are going to push to the limit and see what we can get out of him.”

Recruiting basis for success

The COVID-19 pandemic effects have seen Gonzales take positives in this adverse situation. Local guidelines and working in smaller groups has seen his coaching staff spend more time individually with his freshman class than at any other time in his 20 years of coaching.

His players could be in the program for two years before playing a football game. UNM could play football in January or in the spring. With that in mind, they have transitioned into an offseason program where they lift weights three days a week; and then two days a week, they go outside and do individualized drills by position.

Gonzales notes any player that plays this year will be a freebie. This year will not count against their eligibility. UNM can only have 85 players on scholarship and plans to take a few seniors to help bridge the gap between year two and year three. Gonzales thought UNM might struggle in their second year the most. He approaches rebuilding the UNM football program to a marathon, not a sprint.

Gonzales plans to look at New Mexico Military Institute players. He feels if NMMI players were qualifiers out of high school, and they have four years to play three years, he will take a look at them. Gonzales would like to stick with freshmen and build up 24-25 freshmen per recruiting class.

“As we have needs,” Gonzales said, “we have taken kids from NMMI before. We will look at the NMMI roster every year, and if NMMI has somebody that can make an immediate impact and we have a chance at them, absolutely we will recruit them.”

Cody French played for Gonzales

Former Goddard Rocket Cody French (12) walked on at Arizona State and played defensive back for UNM coach Danny Gonzales in 2018-19. (Terri French Photo)

The type of athlete Gonzales is looking for in the future is a mean, nasty, hardworking, competitive, just hate to lose kids. Those are the players that were at UNM when he was an assistant coach earlier in his career. Gonzales feels like if he can recruit those kinds of kids and they get on the same page, it will cause problems for teams in the conference.

Look for UNM to run the 3-3-5 defense Gonzales has run at UNM, San Diego State and Arizona State. On offense, picture Oklahoma and Texas. Most people think those teams throw the ball for 1,000 yards a game. Gonzales wants to run the ball for 300 yards and throw the ball for 300 yards a game. He expects to run the triple option. And if teams do not defend the option, they will see it a lot until they stop it.

Gonzales knows about the toughness of a Goddard football player. He coached Cody French for two seasons. Gonzales was the defensive coordinator under Herm Edwards at Arizona State. Gonzales has a soft spot in his heart for French. Gonzales walked on at UNM, and French walked on at ASU. Gonzales coached French as a defensive back and performed well enough to become a Special Teams ace from 2018-19. French left a baseball scholarship at Odessa College to follow his passion and play at Division I.

“I love Cody (French),” Gonzales said. “He did a great job for us on Special Teams at ASU. He earned his way and was one of the senior captains on the Special Teams his senior year. He won some awards at the ASU banquet for his unselfishness and devotion to the team. He was a safety for me. I loved having him in my group, I can’t say enough good words about that kid. Plus, he’s a New Mexico kid and I’m partial to those kids anyway.

Getting the band back together

Gonzales will be reunited with his main foundation in assistant coach Rocky Long. Gonzales was an assistant coach for 20 years under Long. He felt Long protected him in the coaching business. He made sure every time Gonzales had a chance to leave, it would be a good move for him and his career.

“I trusted Long with everything,” Gonzales said. “Really, I trusted him with my career. When Eddie (Nuñez) called, the first call I made was to coach Long, to get his mentorship and advice. When I took this job, I tried to convince him to retire from San Diego State, and come help me build this Lobo program up.”

Gonzales spent two years as the defensive coordinator at ASU before coming back to UNM. He says that what you see from Edwards when he was at ESPN is the real thing. He’s there in the building at 4:30 a.m. working out, positive and honest with his players. He gives his assistant coaches the responsibility to do their jobs. He doesn’t micro-manage, yet he knows what is going on in the program. Gonzales had the opportunity to work with former Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. Being at ASU helped him learn football from a different perspective. It helped prepare him for being the head coach at UNM. Gonzales believes it was necessary for him to go to different programs and see a different way of doing things in order to help make him a complete coach.

“When we were fired here at UNM in 2008,” Gonzales said, “I was crushed. I thought I would be here forever. I had hoped to lead our program. But having to go away and perfect our model at San Diego State and then to go away from Rocky for a couple of years and seeing things from that perspective with Lewis and Edwards and the leadership responsibilities they gave me there, I don’t think I would be nearly as prepared for this opportunity had I stayed here this whole time.”

Gonzales was the 1998 winner of the Chuck Cummings Memorial Award. That award is given to the Lobos player that exudes morale and spirit. He still has those awards hanging in his office. He expects the Lobos to compete for a conference championship as early as year three, and at the latest, year four. Gonzales tells his team he’s not afraid to play any team, anytime, anywhere.

UNM has some money games coming up in the next couple of years. Gonzales loves the rivalry with New Mexico State. He grew up in New Mexico so the games with the Aggies are personal with him. One of his top two goals is to win a conference championship, and the other is not to lose to the Aggies.

Coaches and walk-ons welcomed

The way the program is run, UNM will try to recruit walk-ons the same way they recruit scholarship kids. They will evaluate them and bring them into the program, eventually, the walk-ons will be able to help the team.

Gonzales believes having walk-ons are an important part of the team. If they have a good walk-on program, it will give them depth and create competition, in which they will need to give their offenses and defenses a good look on scout teams. Those teams will help the team prepare for games on Saturdays. When Gonzales was there before, UNM had some walk-ons make it to the NFL. He stresses that walk-ons along with recruiting will be a great emphasis on rebuilding UNM football.

“I think high school coaches are significantly more innovative than what we do in college,” Gonzales said. “They have to be innovative to be more successful. Those coaches can’t recruit, they have to play with the guys they have. Between our coaching clinics and the opportunity to pick their brains and recruit their players; the high school coaches in New Mexico have an open-door policy with me. They’re welcome to come up here anytime they want to watch practice and spend as much time as they want with us to pick our brains and let us pick theirs. I want to learn from them and they can learn from us. I want to keep our New Mexico kids home.”

Gonzales understands a player might want to be a Lobo or play major college football. He lives by the motto that there are three things that no one can take from an athlete: effort, attitude and want to.

“If you’re willing to put in the effort, and you have the right attitude, then no one can stop you from the desire you have. No one can take those three things from you — you can be successful in any situation you want. Any kid in the state of New Mexico that thinks they’re good enough to play here, come and prove it. We are going to give you the opportunity, if you have the effort, attitude and want to, there is no reason you can’t.”

Sports editor J.T. Keith can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 304, or sports@rdrnews.com.