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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 112: New Mexico

I’m going to rest my eyes for a bit. Just wake me up when it’s over. Not a moment earlier, mind you — I can’t watch. It’s too ugly. Two wins in two years? Fourteen losses by 24 points or more? A 35-point loss to U.N.L.V.? Is that even possible? The impossible has been painfully possible under Mike Locksley, who arrived with the highest of hopes but will soon depart a beaten man, one who was resigned to renegotiating his buyout in the most coach-unfriendly way possible in order to retain his rapidly diminishing job security. Or maybe the new buyout package is coach-friendly, in that it will allow New Mexico to cut ties with its third-year coach rather than continue a steep slide from competitiveness to irrelevance. Maybe the terms of the new buyout means Locksley wants out, which would be the best thing for all involved parties.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Albuquerque, N.M.

Nickname
Lobos

Returning starters
11 (3 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 116

2010 record
(1-11, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 119

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Colorado St.
  • Sept. 10
    Arkansas (in Little Rock, Ark.)
  • Sept. 17
    Texas Tech
  • Sept. 24
    Sam Houston St.
  • Oct. 1
    New Mexico St.
  • Oct. 15
    at Nevada
  • Oct. 22
    at T.C.U.
  • Oct. 29
    Air Force
  • Nov. 5
    at San Diego St.
  • Nov. 12
    U.N.L.V.
  • Nov. 19
    at Wyoming
  • Dec. 3
    Boise St.

Last year’s prediction

This I know this true: New Mexico will open 0-3, and end the season with three straight losses. Optimism is never overrated, yet I have no choice but to predict U.N.M. to lose at least nine games. Look at this way. The Lobos will lose six games, guaranteed: Oregon, Texas Tech, Utah, Air Force, B.Y.U. and T.C.U. That’s 0-6. Even if I were to adopt my own advice and think optimistically, I can’t see the Lobos splitting its six games against U.N.L.V., UTEP, New Mexico State, San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming. Even if Locksley could lead his team to a mid-season split in those six games, the Lobos will still end the 2010 season 3-9. Hence my pessimism.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The worst defense in college football. Perhaps the worst defense many of us have ever seen. Definitely the worst defense in New Mexico’s history. That will be the lasting legacy of the 2010 Lobos, who won only a single game for the second straight season. Somehow, this team found a way to regress from a pitiful 2009, which I didn’t think was humanly possible. The Lobos lost games by unfathomable margins: 72 points at Oregon to open the year, but also by 35, 42, 24, 25, 33 and 49 points, sandwiching the season with the two foulest defensive performances by any team in the country. The defensive ugliness did serve one positive, however: it took attention away from an atrocious offense, which finished 106th in rushing, 106th in passing and 116th in scoring. The offense was still better than the defense, in the same way a punch to the stomach is better than a punch in the face.

High point The Lobos somehow won a game. Yes, it’s true. How? Because Wyoming shot itself in the foot over and over and over and over again, negating 536 yards of total offense with four costly turnovers. The Cowboys looked well in control in the second quarter, holding a 21-7 advantage, but a sour second half allowed U.N.M. to get in the win column.

Low point Take your pick. Just consult the schedule, choose pretty any much game other than Wyoming, and you’d probably be right.

Tidbit At least Locksley has company. One other coach in New Mexico history has suffered an equally inept start: Mike Sheppard went 2-21 over his first two years from 1987-88. Like Locksley, Sheppard’s teams struggled on both sides of the ball. While Locksley’s two teams have combined to score 386 points while giving up 963 points, Sheppard’s teams scored 379 points and allowed 962 points. On a per game basis, Locksley has averaged 16.1 points and given up 40.1; Sheppard scored 16.5 and gave up 41.8 points per game. Sheppard’s era continued for three more years: 2-10, 2-10 and 3-9. Locksley won’t last so long unless he turns things around.

Former players in the N.F.L.

8 WR Hank Baskett (Minnesota), LB Quincy Black (Tampa Bay), C Erik Cook (Washington), OT Ryan Cook (Minnesota), CB Glover Quin (Houston), WR Marcus Smith (Baltimore), OT Robert Turner (New York Jets), LB Brian Urlacher (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Film versions of the Robin Hood legend
1. “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” 1938.
2. “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” 1991.
3. “Robin Hood,” 1973.
4. “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” 1993.
5. “Robin Hood,” 2010.

Coaching

Mike Locksley (Towson ’92), 2-22 after two seasons with New Mexico. The Lobos have been horrific on offense, Locksley’s supposed area of expertise, and the program has taken a tremendous step back on defense, where it had excelled under Rocky Long, his predecessor. What has gone right? Nothing: Locksley has been an enormous disappointment, particularly when considering the fanfare with which he arrived on campus. He joined New Mexico with a wealth of experience and a well-earned reputation as one of the nation’s top recruiters, a title he earned with his superb work as the recruiting coordinator for Ron Zook at Florida and Ralph Friedgen at Maryland. Locksley continued to work under Zook at Illinois (2005-8), where he served as the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. While it was always evident that Locksley could recruit — and that’s often enough to land an F.B.S. head coaching spot — he drew attention for the performance of the Fighting Illini offense under his watch, a unit that had grown from the worst in the Big Ten to perhaps the best. Illinois cracked 5,000 yards of total offense in each of Locksley’s last two seasons with the program, including a school-record 5,525 yards in 2007. Illustrating a willingness to mold his play-calling to his personnel, Locksley’s offense led the Big Ten in rushing in 2007 and then passing in 2008. So you can see why many thought this would work. It hasn’t, and barring a miracle, won’t.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The big moves on the U.N.M. coaching staff include two new coordinators and four new coaches altogether. Locksley promoted from within at coordinator, promoting defensive backs coach George Barlow and quarterbacks coach David Reaves instead of looking outside the program — and not like coaches are banging down the doors to enlist under Locksley, to be honest. The four new coaches: offensive line coach Ron Hudson, wide receivers coach Craig Jefferies, running backs coach Vincent White and secondary coach Mike Woodford. The new quartet arrive from Louisiana-Lafayette, Dunbar High School in our nation’s capital, Southeast Missouri State and nowhere, though Woodford was at Illinois in 2009.

Players to watch

The Lobos bring back three quarterbacks with starting experience: sophomores Stump Godfrey and Taurean Austin and junior B.R. Holbrook. Nothing is settled at the position, but one can’t help but think that the job will be Godfrey’s. He ended last season as the starter, for one, was a highly-regarded recruit and was the best of a bad bunch at the position. Godfrey also gives U.N.M. some athleticism at the position — though Austin is no slouch — which would help given the status of a questionable offensive line. Holbrook might be running third, but that’s due to his continuing battle with injuries. This competition will continue in the fall, and to be honest, Austin fared well enough in the spring where he might end up taking the starting nod. My money is still on Godfrey, however.

Whomever it may taking snaps, the still-unnamed starter at quarterback would be wise to focus on two players in the passing game. Both are all-conference caliber performers, especially tight end Lucas Reed. The younger brother of Brooks Reed, the former Arizona linebacker, Reed is an extremely athletic option who is still learning the intricacies of the position; what he can do now, however, is present mismatches in the passing game. Last fall, Reed made 33 grabs for 459 yards and a team-best five scores, earning all-M.W.C. accolades after a fine freshman season.

At receiver, junior Ty Kirk makes the most of his limited opportunities, thanks to the issues at quarterback: he led the Lobos in catches (38) and receiving yards (477), the second time in two years he has done so. Chris Hernandez is gone, so U.N.M. needs a new possession guy; also gone is third receiver Bryant Williams. Who steps up? Quintell Solomon and Michael Scarlett played as reserves last fall. Junior Lamaar Thomas hasn’t played at all. Perhaps it will be one of a handful of freshmen, such as Detchauz Way, Deon Long, Martize Barr or Donnie Duncan. There are options.

You know what would help this offense immensely? A good running game, that’s what, though we shouldn’t hold our breath. The offensive line, which I’ll touch on below, has experience and depth issues to address, which hurts New Mexico’s chances of turning things around on the ground. If the line does come together, on the other hand, both of last season’s leading rushers are back in the fold. The first is junior Kasey Carrier, who paced the Lobos in rushing (373 yards) while contributing slightly in the return game. There’s also senior James Wright, though he had the worst season of his career in 2010. Keep an eye on sophomore DeMarcus Rodgers, who might be running third on the depth chart but was the team’s most explosive back during the spring. Godfrey and Austin could contribute in the running game, which helps.

The strength of the defense — and this is a relative term — can be found on the second level, where New Mexico returns all three starting linebackers. Two of the starters take a back seat to senior Carmen Messina, the program’s best at the position since Brian Urlacher. He’s a tackling machine: an F.B.S.-best 162 stops in 2009, 115 (6.5 for loss) a year ago, New Mexico can rest easy in the confidence that even if no one else steps up, Messina will always be there. What’s really unfortunate is that he gets lost in the shuffle, thanks to U.N.M.’s overwhelming incompetence on this side of the ball.

Junior Joe Stoner returns on the weak side, where he started all 12 games in 2010, but it’s no certainty that junior Spencer Merritt retains his role on the strong side — the Lobo position, which asks a defender to play a hybrid linebacker-safety role. As of now, Merritt has been pushed over to the weak side, behind Stoner, in favor of JUCO transfer DeShon Marman. The latter’s athleticism might lead to more big plays from a defense in dire need of a spark. At worst, Merritt’s demotion provides the unit with more depth.

The Lobos lost Peter Gardner on the interior of the line, but his departure should allow for increased playing time for sophomore Calvin Smith, perhaps the highest-rated high school recruit New Mexico has ever signed. Smith played in all 12 games as a true freshman. At worst, he’ll be part of a tackle rotation that includes returning starter Ugo Uzodinma (27 tackles, 3.5 for loss), Brett Kennedy and Reggie Ellis. Smith’s development is what I’ll be watching, but the star of the line is senior Jaymar Latchison (49 tackles, 2 sacks). There will be a new face at the opposite end, with junior Jake Carr currently atop the depth chart.

The entire secondary returns, minus part-time starter Ravonne Carter at safety. Anthony Hooks and DeShawn Mills started each game last fall; Hooks will start again, though Mills will need to beat out junior Emmanuel McPhearson to retain his starting role. As elsewhere, depth is at a premium. If Hooks went down to injury, for example, New Mexico would be in really bad shape — cross your fingers. Senior strong safety Bubba Forrest finished second on the team in tackles (100) while leading the way with a pair of interceptions, so he’s as close to a sure thing as you’re going to find in the secondary. Junior A.J. Butler made seven starts at the other safety spot last fall, and depth will come from junior Freddy Young and senior Jamarr Lyles.

Here’s the story on defense: New Mexico was maligned for its run defense last fall, which was far and away the nation’s worst. Though Smith could make a difference if he plays up to his abilities, there’s absolutely no reason to expect a night-and-day improvement. The pass defense, however, was just as bad — just with a smaller sample size, thanks to opponents’ ability to run the ball with such regularity. Why pass when you can run? The defense simply can’t get it done.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line About those returning starters: there’s experience nearly across the board, just not along the offensive line. The Lobos lost three full-time starters, including all-M.W.C. pick Byron Bell, and a fourth linemen who split time at tackle in 2010. As we all know all too well, it all — three alls in seven words — begins up front with the big boys, so even if the rest of the offense has taken a big step forward, the lack of line experience fills me with trepidation. The lone returning full-time starter is sophomore center Dillon Farrell, who despite his age is the group’s lone sure thing. He’ll be flanked by sophomore Calvin McDowney at left guard and senior Mike Muniz on his right, which makes sense; they’re the only other interior linemen with any game experience. Another sophomore, Darryl Johnson, will be at right tackle after starting the final six games of 2010. The key to the whole group? Try JUCO transfer Korian Chambers, who enrolled in the spring and immediately moved into the starting job at left tackle. Credit Locksley for one thing: he can recruit. Chambers was an absolute must-have, considering the four lost starters. So, to recap, the U.N.M. line returns one full-time starter, one senior with experience, will start three sophomores and have a JUCO transfer starting on the blind side.

Game(s) to watch

If the Lobos aren’t 3-2 by Oct. 8, the first of two byes on the year, Locksley might as well pack up his office and walk away. With Colorado State, Sam Houston State and New Mexico State coming at home, however, the Lobos could start well. The schedule grows more and more difficult as it develops, so a solid start is a must if U.N.M. wants to, say, win more than one game.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Here’s the thing: I like New Mexico’s roster, by and large. The recruiting efforts of the current staff are beginning to pay off, as youngsters thrust into action far ahead of schedule are now more accustomed to the college game, which will lead to a better product on the field in 2011. The talent level really isn’t that bad, even if the defense remains a major, major question mark and the offensive line stands as an unknown. The Lobos will be better, in essence. The real issue — once again — is the coaching. Why should we have any faith that U.N.M. will be substantially improved in the win column, particularly when there are a number of intimidating teams on the schedule? All the improvement in the world isn’t going to mean much with dates against Arkansas, Texas Tech, T.C.U. and Boise State, among others, especially when the current staff has done little to show itself capable of putting a winning product on the field. In short, while the team is more talented, more experienced and deeper nearly across the board, there is really no reason for significant optimism until a coaching change is made. Now, I do think the Lobos will be better: I think three wins is easily attainable, and four is very much in the realm of possibility. It won’t be a pretty three or four wins, however, and the  Lobos will continue to have their doors blown off by the best in the Mountain West. It’s time for a regime change, which is coming soon.

Dream season You wouldn’t believe it if you hadn’t seen it with your own two eyes: 7-5, 5-3 in Mountain West play.

Nightmare season You not only believe it, you see it coming: 2-10, 1-7.

In case you were wondering

Where do New Mexico fans congregate? I would suggest first taking a trip to Lobo Lair, the program’s best fan-run site. You can also frequent The Red Menace and Lobo Land, especially if you’re one of those fans who can’t get enough of New Mexico football recruiting. Did I miss anyone?

Word Count

Through nine teams 23,049.

Up Next

Who is No. 111? Thirty-three percent of the alumni drafted from tomorrow’s program have won a Super Bowl.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Dave says:

    The Disney animated Robin Hood (you know, with the foxes) is way better than the one with Kevin Costner, who won the title of “worst English accent of all time” with that performance.

    Also, am not getting the Chuck Norris reference…?

    Paul: “Lone Wolf McQuade.” Tying into the one-win Lobos. Digging deep for non-football photos.

  2. Clayton says:

    Just a stab in the dark, but it’s probably Buffalo. Seems like they should be coming up, and James Starks just won a super bowl as the packers running back. Can’t imagine there’s a lot of Buffalo NFL players out there.

  3. wildcat6 says:

    Well, here’s the Buffalo NFL alumni listing from last year, and except for Starks I don’t think any of these guys won a Super Bowl (all three of the Colts are post-2006):

    Former players in the N.F.L.
    6 S Mike Newton (Indianapolis), OG Jamey Richard (Indianapolis Colts), WR Naaman Roosevelt (Buffalo), DE Trevor Scott (Oakland), RB James Starks (Green Bay), QB Drew Willy (Indianapolis).

    …unless he’s referring to going back in time, which is possible.

  4. Ezra says:

    I counted four “alls” within 9 words…

  5. M Meyer says:

    I did some internet research. So, 6 players from Buffalo who played in the NFL were drafted. An additional 7 were signed as undrafted free agents, so they wouldn’t count. James Starks and Gerry Philbin (Jets 1969) won Superbowls. I figure Paul wouldn’t make us look up stats for schools with a large number of draftees.

  6. David says:

    “Digging deep for non-football photos.”

    If I mention the Black Knight from The Holy Grail here, can I prevent that picture from being used for the Army entry in the countdown? :-)

  7. jjtiller says:

    Former four-star DT Calvin Smith will transfer from New Mexico

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