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New Leader for a Pack of Lobos : Task of Reviving Slumping Program at New Mexico Falls to Newcomer Leach

Times Staff Writer

Jeremy Leach was not within 500 miles of the disaster. He did not see it, nor did he hear much about it.

Last season, while the University of New Mexico football team was quietly suffering through an embarrassing 0-11 season, Leach was busy leading Granada Hills High to the City Section 4-A Division title, capping his career by directing the Highlanders to a 27-14 upset win over Carson in the championship game.

But last month, when he arrived on the New Mexico campus to begin his freshman year, Leach began feeling the fallout of the Lobos’ lowly season.

“It’s funny, even though I wasn’t on the team last year, I feel like those losses are a part of me,” Leach said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s kind of a pride thing.”

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Leach’s pride--and possibly his physical well-being--will be on the line Saturday when New Mexico plays host to Fresno State in the opener for both teams.

Leach, 18, will be the starting quarterback. New Mexico officials claim that he will be the only true freshman to start a Division I opener at quarterback this season.

“We were thinking of redshirting him, but he showed all of us that he is capable of playing right now,” second-year Coach Mike Sheppard said. “I’m sure he’ll make some mistakes that come with inexperience. But he’s going to be the starter and we’re not going to yank him.”

Instead, Sheppard likely will turn loose the right arm of the 6-foot, 2-inch, 205-pound Leach and let the chips and incomplete passes fall where they may.

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Passing, after all, is the name of the game in the Western Athletic Conference. Last season, five of the top nine passing teams in the country were members of the WAC. Three teams--conference champion Wyoming, Brigham Young and Air Force--appeared in bowl games.

Sheppard, who played at Cal Lutheran and coached at BYU, Idaho State, Kansas and Cal State Long Beach before taking over the Lobo program, has worked with a number of gifted quarterbacks, including former BYU stars Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon and Long Beach standouts Todd Dillon and Doug Gaynor.

During the past seven years, not one team with which Sheppard has worked finished lower than eighth in the nation in passing. Despite losing every game, the Lobos were eighth in the nation with an average of 293.6 yards a game.

Sheppard thinks Leach compares favorably to other quarterbacks he has tutored.

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“As a kid out of high school, he has all the essentials to go on and play professionally when he’s done in college,” Sheppard said. “But that doesn’t mean anything at this point. What ma1953785202adjusts while he’s here.”

Leach’s adjustment to college life has been smooth so far. He has already dealt successfully with a potentially explosive situation when Sheppard announced that Leach had beat out returning junior quarterback Duffy Daugherty for the starting role. Daugherty, who played sparingly last season, quit shortly thereafter.

“After the coaches announced that I was going to start, my biggest fear was how the veteran players would react,” Leach said. “But everyone just came up to me and said, ‘You’re the man. You’re the guy who has to do it for us.’ That made me feel good.”

Leach, however, said it might be difficult to remain calm before taking the field against Fresno State.

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“I think the biggest thing is to get through that first snap and that first completion,” Leach said. “I’m hoping the nerves won’t be going too much before then.”

Once the game begins, Leach will be looking across the line at a defense that constantly changes alignment. Fresno State Coach Jim Sweeney said Leach will see a rush early and often.

“Leach will probably have problems against us,” Sweeney said. “He may cut us to ribbons, but he’s going to be facing multiple defenses. Most people do not use as many defenses as we do or disguise them as well. He’s in for a difficult time I would think.”

Sheppard, however, is convinced that Leach has the poise necessary to improve as the season progresses.

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“I saw him on film and the thing that struck me was his presence on the field,” Sheppard said. “That’s a unique quality you usually don’t see on film. He also demonstrated the other things you like to see--velocity, accuracy, size and intelligence. You want to see someone who puts the ball where its supposed to be thrown.”

Few high school quarterbacks were as efficient as Leach last season. He was voted the 4-A Player of the Year after throwing for 2,666 yards and 35 touchdowns, completing 60.8% of his passes with only nine interceptions. Leach had only 12 passes intercepted in 504 attempts during his two-year career at Granada Hills.

Yet when the day arrived for players to sign national letters of intent, Leach wasn’t exactly sacked by offers. In fact, he had none.

Leach had his heart set on going to UCLA. So much so, in fact, that early in the recruiting process he told Pittsburgh, Penn State and any other school without a West Coast ZIP code that he wasn’t planning to stray far from home and advised them to use their postage budget wisely.

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But when UCLA Coach Terry Donahue announced that the Bruins had signed El Toro High quarterback Bret Johnson and did not intend to invite any other all-stars to join Troy Aikman, Jim Bonds and others in the logjam at the position, Leach was forced to look elsewhere.

Leach, not noted as a scrambler, suddenly made like Fran Tarkenton.

Washington State called a few days before the signing date and offered him a scholarship. Leach, however, was waiting to hear from Arizona State and asked for an extra day to decide.

Meanwhile, Arizona State signed a home-grown quarterback from the Phoenix area and Washington State decided it could no longer wait for Leach, giving the scholarship to another player.

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Leach, supposedly one of the hottest prospects in the state, was suddenly left out in the cold.

“He was so upset on signing day, he was fit to be tied,” said Ray Leach, Jeremy’s father.

Enter Sheppard, who heard from a friend in Tacoma that Leach had not signed with Washington State. Sheppard, with two scholarships still available, conferred with his coaching staff for their feedback about team needs.

Leach received a call from Sheppard that night, set up a recruiting trip for that Friday and signed a letter of intent on Sunday.

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Some might call it a match wrought out of desperation. Leach, however, thinks it’s a match made in . . .

“I figured everything that was happening was God’s will,” Leach said. “When I got here, I couldn’t understand how this wasn’t an option before.”

Sheppard recognizes that it will take much more than Leach to improve a team that was last in the nation in total defense (508 yards and 40.4 points per game).

“We need to have guys have great years behind Jeremy,” Sheppard said. “If he’s not allowed to throw standing up, he’s going to be in trouble. If he is fortunate enough to be standing up, there have to be people open to catch the ball.”

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Sheppard is hoping that a successful season with Leach at the helm will help attract recruits for the next three seasons.

Leach is out to prove that he can lead the Lobos to respectability and that the schools that snubbed him made a mistake.

“I want to show people what I can do,” Leach said. “Now that I’m here, I’m glad UCLA didn’t take me. If I was at UCLA I would be sitting in the stands watching a Heisman Trophy candidate play.

“I’m going to play four years in one of the top offenses in the country. I’m not jealous of anyone else. I think I got the best deal.”

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