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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. 116: New Mexico

The band Los Lobos might not be New Mexico fans, but I think the picture still works.

New Mexico was — at worst — consistent under Rocky Long, who won at least six games in each year from 2001-7 and led the Lobos to five bowl games before being fired after a four-win 2008 season. His replacement, Mike Locksley, not only brought the Lobos to a humiliating low of 1-11 in his debut season, but did nothing but embarrass the program off the field. Take note: three things you don’t want to happen in your foray as a head coach on college football’s top level. One, stand accused of sexual harassment and ageism in your treatment of an assistant in your football offices, even if those charges are later dropped; two, physically assault one of your assistant coaches — and get caught; and three, be forced to accept a one-game in-season suspension from a university that must, less than a year after signing you to a six-year contract, regret dropping the sure thing — Long — for the wrong thing.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Albuquerque, N.M.

Nickname
Lobos

Returning starters
10 (5 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 106

2009 record
(1-11, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 118

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Oregon
  • Sept. 11
    Texas Tech
  • Sept. 18
    Utah
  • Sept. 25
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Oct. 2
    UTEP
  • Oct. 9
    at New Mexico St.
  • Oct. 23
    San Diego St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Colorado St.
  • Nov. 6
    Wyoming
  • Nov. 13
    at Air Force
  • Nov. 20
    at B.Y.U.
  • Nov. 27
    T.C.U.

Last year’s prediction

Honestly, with a new coaching staff and a number of new starters, this team should be happy with merely matching last season’s win total. Worst-case scenario? The Lobos struggle on defense and are unable to gel on offense, and finish in the bottom of the M.W.C. With this schedule, I can’t see this team doing any better than .500. I predict them to match last year’s mark, giving them back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1998-99, Long’s first two years on campus.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A series of off-field humiliations were exacerbated by an inferior on-field product. These numbers might not do New Mexico’s 2009 season justice, but let’s give it a shot: 103rd in total offense, 113th in scoring offense, 112th in passing efficiency, 115th in sacks allowed, 115th in third down conversion percentage and 97th in turnover margin. And that’s just the offense. Without beating this into the ground, the Lobos ranked 113th in scoring defense, 105th in pass defense and 83rd in rush defense, numbers that are especially troubling when considering with how much pride the Rocky Long-coached teams played defense. Now, the worst news: U.N.M. lost to rival New Mexico State for the first time in seven tries.

High point The lone victory on the season came against Colorado State, a team that finished 0-8 in Mountain West play. A silver lining can be found in a 24-19 loss to then-No. 22 Brigham Young, a game where U.N.M. won the turnover battle, outgained the opposition and limited the Cougars to 41 yards rushing on 23 attempts. Unfortunately, still a loss.

Low point Outside of Locksley’s altercation with receivers coach J.B. Gerald? Step right up and take your pick, ladies and gentlemen. A home loss to New Mexico State, U.N.M.’s first loss in the rivalry since 2002? A 37-13 loss at Wyoming, the Cowboys’ only victory of the season by more than a touchdown? A 17-point loss a week later to U.N.L.V.? A 23-20 setback at San Diego State?

Tidbit As if losing to New Mexico State wasn’t enough, the Lobos also won fewer games in a season than the in-state rival Aggies for the first time since 1999. Another first: for the first time in the three-year history of the Countdown, the Aggies are ranked ahead of the Lobos.

Tidbit (defense edition) New Mexico’s 431 points allowed in 2009 might not have set a new program-low — the Mike Sheppard-coached teams of the late 1980s allowed more three times — but it was nearly 80 points more than any U.N.M. team over the previous decade. In fact, seven of Long’s last 10 teams allowed fewer than 300 points, and the one team that allowed more than 327 points — 358 allowed in 2002 — did so in 14 games played, not the 12 New Mexico played last fall.

Former players in the N.F.L.

11 WR Hank Baskett (Philadelphia), LB Quincy Black (Tampa Bay), WR Travis Brown (St. Louis), OT Ryan Cook (Minnesota), OG Erik Cook (Washington), RB Rodney Ferguson (Buffalo), CB Glover Quin (Houston), WR Marcus Smith (Baltimore), OT Robert Turner (New York Jets), LB Brian Urlacher (Chicago), CB DeAndre Wright (Minnesota).

Arbitrary top five list

Top five singles from the band “Los Lobos”
1. “La Bamba.” From the soundtrack to the movie.
2. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon.”
3. “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes.” Nice use of alliteration.
4. “Don’t Worry Baby.”
5. “Down on the Riverbed.”

Coaching

Mike Locksley (Towson ’92), 1-11 after one season with New Mexico. As noted earlier, Locksley’s debut season was nothing short of a disaster. Beyond his off-field missteps — which were numerous — Locksley’s on-field product ranked among the worst in the country. The Lobos were horrific on offense, Locksley’s supposed area of expertise, and the team took a tremendous step back on defense, where it had excelled under Rocky Long, his predecessor. That’s the bad news… and it’s bad. Yet, in terms of looking at the program’s potential under Locksley, he has 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 has grown from the worst in the Big Ten to perhaps the best. Illinois has cracked 5,000 yards of total offense in each of the last two seasons, including a school-record 5,525 yards in 2007. Behind this impressive offense, the 2007 Illini experienced one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in recent college football history, bouncing back from a 2-10 2006 to finish the regular season 9-3, earning a trip to the Rose Bowl (the program’s first since 1984). Illustrating a willingness to mold his play-calling to his personnel, Locksley’s offense led the Big Ten in rushing in 2007 and passing last fall. Most important, Locksley witnessed firsthand the process involved in rebuilding a program, as he played integral roles in transforming both Maryland and Illinois from moribund also-rans into bowl participants. So that’s the good news. Again, the bad news is that Locksley doesn’t seem to have a clue what he’s doing. That’s the worst news for New Mexico.

Key losses

Offense Three lost starters on the offensive line, led by all-conference center Erik Cook, a three-year starter. (And choice of my Washington Redskins in April’s N.F.L. draft, I might add.) Cook had his finest season in 2009, earning first-team all-Mountain West accolades, despite the overwhelming incompetence of the offense as a whole. Cook had added value because of his versatility; he began his career at left tackle before, like his brother Ryan before him, moving to center as a junior and senior. The Lobos must also replace starting right guard Joshua Taufalele and right tackle Ivan Hernandez.

I’ll touch on quarterback Donovan Porterie in the players to watch section, but his loss opens up the U.N.M. quarterback job for the first time in four years. Porterie did suffer a season-ending injury shortly into the 2008 season, but returned in time to reclaim his starting position heading into 2009. He started his senior season slow — the schedule didn’t help — and ended with a thud (four interceptions in the season finale), but over a seven-game stretch from October through November, Porterie averaged 246 yards passing per game with 11 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The Lobos must also replace two of their top three receiving targets:  Victor James and Daryl Jones combined to make 70 receptions for 767 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Players to watch

The Lobos look good at running back, where they bring back a handful of able ball carriers who, on paper, seem to compliment each other well. Leading the way is sophomore Demond Dennis, who led the Lobos with 427 yards rushing in 2009. Dennis shared starts with James Wright last fall, with Wright adding another 291 yards rushing, second on the team. Also chipping in are Kasey Carrier, a sophomore who played well (269 yards) in his first season on campus, an A.J. Butler (177 yards, 1 score). While none of the four are elite backs, as a group they could combine to give the Lobos a pretty solid backfield. Butler added 32 receptions, third-highest total on the team.

The offensive line, atrocious in 2009, will need to improve on the fly; three starters must be replaced, and there is little returning talent on the roster. One player with all-conference talent, however, lines up at left tackle: junior Byron Bell is one of the better tackles in the Mountain West. The duo of Mike Cannon and Karlin Givens split time at left guard in 2009, but each should grab a starting role on the interior of the U.N.M. line in 2010. This trio has starting experience, which is a good thing. It seems like at least two freshmen (redshirt or otherwise) will earn significant playing time this fall, which is not a good thing.

In terms of receiving targets, the Lobos bring back a pair of talented sophomores in tight end Lucas Reed and receiver Ty Kirk; also expected to make a contribution is senior Bryant Williams, who made 26 receptions for 283 yards a season ago. Reed was a valuable intermediate target for the Lobos, making 17 grabs for 233 and a score. Kirk was a revelation at wide receiver, leading U.N.M. in receptions (36) and yards (427) with a pair of touchdowns. Also in the mix is Chris Hernandez, who made 14 grabs for 177 yards in 2009 for a team-best 12.6 yards per reception.

New Mexico does not lack for talent in its front seven on defense, a group led by the first-team all-M.W.C. linebacker Carmen Messina. The junior led the nation last fall with a whopping 162 tackles — a total aided by the number of plays opposing offenses ran on the Lobos, but an impressive total nonetheless. Here’s a fun game: do something — push-ups, sit-ups, a sip of milk — every time Messina makes a tackle. U.N.M. will rebuild an otherwise inexperienced linebacker corps around Messina, with sophomore Joe Stoner one player to watch as he gains experience in the Mountain West. Seniors Cody Neely and Terel Anyaibe will also fit into the mix at outside linebacker.

The Lobos can team Messina with ends Jonathan Rainey and Jaymar Latchinson to give themselves a pretty good base of talent up front. Rainey, a second-team all-Mountain West pick, posted 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks — both team highs — in 2009. Latchinson was also disruptive: eight and half tackles for loss and four and a half sacks, as well as an interception. Not a bad pair, and when you add senior tackle Peter Gardiner, a JUCO transfer who started immediately for the Lobos, not a bad group.

The secondary is in far worse shape. In an effort to beef up the competition and talent level, Locksley signed five defensive back recruits in New Mexico’s most recent recruiting cycle. The Lobos do return a capable cornerback in junior Anthony Hooks, who started all 12 games of 2009, but the secondary as a whole lacks play making ability. Perhaps sophomore Nathan Enriquez, who had a pair of interceptions against Texas Tech, can help New Mexico boost its 97th-worst turnover margin of 2009.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback Yeah, why not. Not to say that Donovan Porterie had a particularly strong senior year — it wasn’t bad, especially given Porterie’s dreadful knee injury suffered shortly into the 2008 season — but the four-year starter did finish his career ranked among the top 10 in U.N.M. history in passing yards, touchdowns, completions and completion percentage. Five — yes, five — players are in heated competition to step into the starting role under center. The leader as we enter the summer is sophomore B.R. Holbrook; the remaining two returning quarterbacks, Brad Gruner (knee) and Tate Smith (shoulder) were limited by injuries during spring practice. Yet Holbrook likely deserves to be the favorite over the summer months due to his relatively solid play during the spring, which included a fine performance in New Mexico’s final scrimmage. More contenders are on the way: Locksley inked a pair of freshman signal callers, Stump Godfrey and Tarean Austin, and all signs point towards the pair receiving every opportunity to earn snaps in their debut season. If the season started today, it would be either Holbrook or Gruner, though Gruner will miss most of the summer with his knee injury; nevertheless, I wouldn’t be shocked to see either freshman earn meaningful playing time in 2010.

Game(s) to watch

September won’t be kind. Neither will be November. So the Lobos need to look at an easier mid-season stretch as the most important period of the season. Of course, the rivalry game with New Mexico State always means more.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. What could go right? The Lobos begin to find their rhythm on offense and score points on the weaker teams on the schedule. The defense, though far from strong, prevents New Mexico from being blown out by the second division of the M.W.C., a nearly weekly occurrence in 2009. Locksley’s best case is Rocky Long’s worst case, which has me wondering how long a leash the former Illinois assistant has in Albuquerque.

Dream season Locksley faces no harassment charges, punches no assistant coaches and suffers no in-season suspensions, and the Lobos finish 6-6.

Nightmare season New Mexico goes 1-11, losing again to New Mexico State, yet Locksley keeps his job.

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. Though, come to think of it, I’m sure New Mexico basketball recruiting is worth following.

Up Next

Who is No. 115? After years of being told to think about the children, it was comforting to see that our next university puts guns back on its mascot one year after removing the firearms altogether.

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