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Dons football team learning new system

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By Dave Kavanaugh

Training camp has taken on a new meaning at West Las Vegas this fall.

New head football coach Mike Ulibarri has made sure of that.

Ulibarri wants his Dons football players to learn and embrace not only a new set of X’s and O’s but also a new mindset about playing the game.

First, the latter. “At every position, you have to be a player, you have to be an athlete,” he says. What that means is a focus on helping the team, regardless of job description.

“I’m trying to get these players to believe in what we’re doing ... We have good signs (of promise) all across. We just have to be consistent on all phases of the game.”

As defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for WLV in the early part of this decade, then as head coach at Santa Fe High, Ulibarri developed a reputation as a mentor big on discipline, order and hard work. While his tough-love approach doesn’t rest well with every athlete, a number of former players say they respect it and believe it works, translating into success on the field.

Among those believers are members of the Dons coaching staff, many of whom played for Ulibarri the last time West made the postseason.

“We’re not overly strict, but we’re not passive,” Ulibarri says. “We’re strict in a football sense, in a school sense, and in a life sense.”

West lost one of its better senior classes in recent memory this offseason, leaving the squad young and relatively inexperienced. Of the healthy turnout of 47 players, just seven are seniors. Competition for positions is deliberately open to all classes.

The lack of experience showed in the season opener, a 31-0 loss at Taos.

Still, Ulibarri says this team controls its own destiny.

“This team can be as good as it wants to be. This team has talent. Sometimes you have bad breaks. But for us it’s all about the next play.”

As for the X’s and O’s, West is going with a variation of the spread option it employed in Ulibarri’s previous tenure. “We try to give them the ball in open space,” he explains. “We have some good athletes.”

That will usually entail three or four receivers, although coaches are looking for balance with an effective ground game.

On defense, the Dons favor a 4-6 and an aggressive approach that looks to blitz and create turnovers. “There’s some gambling,” Ulibarri says. “We’ll take chances. But we want to pin our ears back and get after it.”

For these approaches to work, being in top shape is crucial. “I love conditioning,” he says. “We want to practice at game speed. It’s hard for these kids to get used to.”

It’s all an exercise in learning. But Ulibarri says this group — as a matter of fairness, he opts against naming any individuals — “is picking it up faster than expected ... We’re all learning. Everybody is always learning.”