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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. 115: New Mexico State

Welcome to New Mexico, where football teams combine to go 4-21 on the 2009 season.

Not a great few days for the Land of Enchantment on the Countdown. Nor was 2009 a great year for our two teams from the state of New Mexico, with the Lobos, as discussed yesterday, bottoming out at 1-11 in Mike Locksley’s debut season, and New Mexico State losing 10 games for the first time since 2005. No, neither team was impressive. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the Aggies, under the former U.C.L.A. assistant DeWayne Walker, are in far better shape than the Locksley-coached Lobos.

Conference
WAC

Location
Las Cruces, N.M.

Nickname
Aggies

Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 118

2009 record
(3-10, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 114

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 11
    San Diego St.
  • Sept. 18
    at UTEP
  • Sept. 18
    at Kansas
  • Oct. 2
    Boise St.
  • Oct. 9
    New Mexico
  • Oct. 16
    at Fresno St.
  • Oct. 23
    at Idaho
  • Oct. 30
    San Jose St.
  • Nov. 6
    at Utah St.
  • Nov. 13
    Louisiana Tech
  • Nov. 20
    at Nevada
  • Nov. 27
    Hawaii

Last year’s prediction

This season will mark the first step in what could be a painful and lengthy (two or three years, an eternity in this new age of college football) rebuilding process; let’s hope Walker has the fortitude – and the administration the patience – to see this development through to fruition. As for the coming season, I don’t see N.M.S.U. winning more than three games, equaling its victory total from a season ago. Still, it’s better to win three games with some purpose than three games without any sense of direction.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Three wins by a combined nine points, with one victory — by 21-18 — over mighty Prairie View A&M. For the second consecutive season, the Aggies lost seven straight to end the season. Not many games were close; most were by a lopsided margin, including four from Oct. 17 on by 31 points or more. Yes, the Aggies have a long way to go until competing in the WAC, especially seeing as the conference has a clear dominant program in Boise State and two more programs — Fresno State and Nevada — that are locked into the eight-win range on a yearly basis. Still, while New Mexico State will struggle again this season and, potentially, in 2011, it seems DeWayne Walker has a good handle on how to get this program back towards respectability.

High point New Mexico State’s 20-17 win over New Mexico ended a six-game losing streak in the Battle for I-25. The victory also evened its record at 2-2, marking the third consecutive season the Aggies have been at .500 through four games.

Low point N.M.S.U. even pushed its record to 3-3, thanks to a three-point win over Utah State two weeks later, but a seven-game losing streak to end the year gave the program four consecutive seasons with at least eight defeats. The average margin of defeat over that seven-game span was 38-7.6, with the narrowest loss a 13-10 setback to 2-10 San Jose State on Nov. 28.

Tidbit New Mexico State has had only three winning seasons (1992, 1999, 2002) over the last 30 years, a stretch of incompetence rivaled only by Kent State and Vanderbilt, each of whom have a pair of winning campaigns over the same span. Temple also had three winning seasons heading into 2009, but the Owls broke out with a nine-win finish a year ago.

Tidbit (turnovers edition) New Mexico State threw 18 interceptions last fall, the third-highest total in the country. However, while Miami (Ohio) might have tossed more picks (21) than any team in the nation, the RedHawks did so in 265 more attempts than the Aggies.

Former players in the N.F.L.

2 OG Nick Cole (Philadelphia), OG Tony Wragge (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

Top five Walkers in sports history
1. Herschel. Georgia great and N.F.L. running back.
2. Doak. S.M.U. running back.
3. Larry. Colorado Rockies outfielder.
4. Antoine. Boston Celtics forward, well-known gunner.
5. Reggie. Sprinter from South Africa.

Coaching

DeWayne Walker (Regents College ’92), 3-10 after a single season at New Mexico State. No, the record isn’t pretty. Yet such growing pains were surely to be expected in Walker’s first season, and should be excused even into this coming season and the next. As noted, while Walker posted a similar record (slightly better) to New Mexico’s Mike Locksley in their respective debut campaigns in 2009, the feeling surrounding each program could not be more different. Walker has me excited; Locksley leaves me skeptical. Walker came to Las Cruces from U.C.L.A., where he served as defensive coordinator from 2006-8. Though the Bruins won only 17 games over that three-year span, Walker’s defenses were typically among the best in the Pac-10, particularly against the run. Perhaps his crowning moment as the U.C.L.A. defensive coordinator came in the 2006 regular-season finale, where the Bruins defeated then-No. 2 ranked U.S.C. by 13-9 in the season’s biggest upset. That 2006 season, his first, saw U.C.L.A. allow nearly half as many touchdowns as the season before (27 from 48), a monumental improvement. Walker has extensive experience on the college level as both a coordinator and position coach, serving in the latter capacity at U.S.C. (2001-2), California (1996-97), Oklahoma State (1995), B.Y.U. (1994) and Utah State (1993). Early returns from Las Cruces have been nothing but positive. I know it’s early, but Walker looks like he is attacking this challenge in the right way.

Tidbit (coaching edition) In an effort to improve upon his team’s awful offense, Walker tabbed Mike Dunbar as N.M.S.U.’s new offensive coordinator. Dunbar has coordinated offenses at major stops in the past, spending time at Minnesota (2007-8), California (2006) and Northwestern (2002-5). Dunbar was fired at Minnesota not for his failures — though the Gophers did struggle at times on that side of the ball — but because Tim Brewster wanted to move away from Dunbar’s spread philosophy to a more pro-style attack. However, Dunbar has had success with the spread at a school like Northwestern, which, like New Mexico State, was forced to move the ball without a commensurate talent to its opposition.

Key losses

Offense Not too many lost contributors on the offensive side of the ball. One was wide receiver Marcus Anderson, who finished third on the team with 22 receptions and 208 receiving yards while averaging 11.4 yards per his 18 punt returns. The undersized Anderson, a former JUCO transfer, posted 50 grabs for 617 yards and a team-best nine touchdowns in 2008; he was one of many receivers who excelled in Hal Mumme’s offense. The Aggies must also replace a pair of multiple-year starters on the line in David Norman and Joe Palmer. Norman, another former JUCO transfer, started four games at tight end in 2008 before making the permanent move to the offensive line over the second half of that season. Palmer started games at both guard spots as a junior and senior.

Defense The Aggies will face a major rebuilding job at linebacker, where all three starters and a leading reserve must be replaced. Jason Scott, with 104 stops, and Ross Conner, with 102, finished one-two on the team in tackles, while Jamar Cotton added 40 tackles and a sack from his outside linebacker spot. Scott was an immediate difference maker at linebacker upon arriving on campus from junior college in 2008, adding 84 stops as a junior before setting a new career-best as a senior. Sam King was a spot starter at both outside linebacker spots as an upperclassman; N.M.S.U. would love to have one more year of eligibility from its top backup.

Players to watch

Three players are in the running for the starting quarterback role, with incumbent Jeff Fleming clinging onto the job under center as the Aggies wrapped up spring practice. Fleming was far from impressive last fall — N.M.S.U. only averaged 87.8 yards passing per game last fall — throwing for only 789 yards and 4 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Knowing the importance of adding talent to the position, if only to bolster competition, Walker signed JUCO transfer Matt Christian. While he was sidelined for much of the spring with a shoulder injury, Christian was the top performer during N.M.S.U.’s spring game, completing 16 of 25 attempts for 150 yards and a score. His performance, which came on the heels of average showings from Fleming and Tanner Rust, a redshirt freshman, made quarterback a position to watch when the Aggies resume practices in August.

Given how inept the passing game was in 2009, it’s nearly a miracle that running back Seth Smith was able to crack the 1,000-yard barrier. He didn’t do it by much — 1,016 yards with a touchdown — but Smith was effective enough to lead me to believe that if the Aggies can form even an average passing attack, he could excel in 2010. The senior will be spelled by the junior Donavan Roberts and the sophomore Victor Johnson, while Johnson could also double as the team’s fullback. If New Mexico State is to improve through the air, it will help to return three of its top four receiving targets from 2009. Junior receiver Todd Lee led the team with 28 receptions last fall, while senior Marcus Allen (26 grabs), led the Aggies with 308 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Kyle Nelson, fourth on the team with 12 receptions, will share time with Kyle Hipp, lightly used last fall, at tight end.

The offensive line, which started coming together under Walker’s watch in 2009, returns three players with significant playing experience. Seniors Dwayne Barton (left tackle) and Sioeli Fakalata (right guard) and junior Mike Grady (center) will again lead a line that allowed only 23 sacks last season; this trio will also help break in a pair of new starters, with JUCO transfer Aundre McGaskey already penciled in as the man at right tackle. McGaskey, along with Fakalate, will give the Aggies two big, strong blockers to lead the run game on the strong side.

Walker had an immediate impact on the defense, especially in the secondary. The Aggies finished 38th nationally in pass defense and 53rd nationally in pass efficiency defense, with cornerback Davon House, a first-team all-conference pick, excelling under Walker’s watch. House led the WAC with 13 pass breakups while adding a team-best three interceptions. House is just one of four starters coming back in the N.M.S.U. secondary, joining cornerback Jonte Green and safeties Stephon Hatchett — though Ben Bradley holds the starting role entering the summer — and Alphonso Powell. Obviously, the secondary will be an area of strength for the Aggies.

The defensive line returns three 2009 starters of its own, led by the talented end pair of Pierre Fils and Donte Savage. The juniors combined for 19 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last fall, accounting for 35 and 62 percent of the team’s total, respectively. Though the duo is undersized, there is no discounting the production. Fils and Savage are also good fits for this defense; having two strong pass rushers, along with this secondary, will help New Mexico State match last season’s production. Tackle John Finau was a good fit as a run-stopper on the interior of the defensive line after transferring into Las Cruces from junior college, though he does not bring much to the table in terms of a pass rush. His likely companion on the inside of the line, Kawika Shook, is undersized for the interior, but he can move outside and play end as well.

Position battles to watch

Linebacker All three starters must be replaced, as well as last season’s top reserve. As was the case at linebacker, Walker reached out to the JUCO ranks in order to find immediate help. One such transfer, Frank Padilla, was originally believed to be the answer in the middle, but he’ll likely find himself starting on the strong side come September. Padilla’s move opens up the middle for Boyblue Aoelua, a former special teams performer. For N.M.S.U. fans, he’s your Boyblue. The starter on the weak side will come down to B.J. Adolpho and David Quiroga, with Adolpho holding the edge at the end of spring practice. Finding reserves will be key; Quiroga will be one such reserve, while Kenny Evora has the size to play on both the strong side and in the middle.

Game(s) to watch

Oct. 30 through Nov. 13. Though the opening two weeks of the season — San Diego State and UTEP, the latter a rivalry game — present New Mexico State with an average shot at a solid start, the trio of games opening up the final month of the season present the Aggies with an opportunity to break their current tendency of breaking down over the final two months of the season.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It will take time for DeWayne Walker to get New Mexico State into the top third of the WAC, and no one is expecting any miracles. Certainly, such a finish in 2010 would be a miracle. Walker attempted to address his team’s abysmal passing game by adding Matt Christian at quarterback, but it remains to be seen if the JUCO transfer can duplicate his strong spring game showing when practice resumes in the fall. The offense as a whole, even with three returning on a pretty good line, will struggle to score points this season; even with a good secondary, the defense is not good enough to keep the Aggies in most games. So it doesn’t look good for New Mexico State in Walker’s second season. Still, there are things to like. The offensive line, as noted, might be one. So is running back Seth Smith, who broke the 1,000-yard barrier despite not receiving any help from his quarterback. The defensive line has a pair of talented pass rushers at end to go along with that experienced secondary. But the Aggies simply don’t have the horses to compete in the WAC, and surely not to play with the B.C.S. conference opponents on the schedule. The coach is there, however. I really believe that.

Dream season The Aggies go 7-5, only the program’s second winning season in the last decade.

Nightmare season Walker has some room for error, but it would not be good for his standing to see the Aggies finish 2-10.

In case you were wondering

Where do New Mexico State fans congregate? Not a tremendous amount of options, but check out Crimson Illustrated and Aggie Alert for N.M.S.U. chatter and recruiting coverage. Additional coverage of N.M.S.U. football can be found at the Web site of the Las Cruces Sun-News. Fans should also check out BleedCrimson.net, which loyal reader Ted believes to be the best all-around site for N.M.S.U. sports news.

Up Next

Who is No. 114? Our next school just signed a new baseball coach, one from rival L.S.U., to go along with its new football coach, a former offensive coordinator with the program.

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Comments

  1. Nicky Hartofolis for the Heisman!

  2. Wrong says:

    This is ridiculous. D- Walks will have this team in a bowl game this year. This is clearly a top 65 team.

  3. David says:

    What you fail to mention about Matt Christian is he is a transfer from Fresno State and was a pre-season JUCO All-american before a freak collar bone injury. He will be the one to turn that program around this year. It will happen.

  4. Ted says:

    bleedcrimson.net is the best site for all around NMSU Aggie sports coverage.

    Paul: I’ll update the list. Thanks for the heads-up.

  5. Mike says:

    You didn’t talk about Kenny Turner. He is fast and is going to be a huge compliment to Seth Smith and a great receiving option out of the backfield. I still don’t see them with more than four wins though… With no Linebackers they will have trouble against even average teams.

    Go Aggies!!!

  6. MATE says:

    You can’t blame last years Offensive problems on the QB’s. No schemes, dropped passes, lack of blocking, all took it’s toll.

    Fleming was OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR in JUCO, in the same conference as Christian. Fleming and Turner have history playing together in JUCO, expect them to pick-up where they left off!

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