No. 122: New Mexico
By Paul Myerberg // Apr 13, 2012
Over a four-game stretch from Oct. 15 through Nov. 5, New Mexico was one of the worst teams in modern college football history. It began with a 49-7 loss at Nevada on Oct. 15: 257 yards gained on offense, 598 allowed. Next came T.C.U., a 69-0 loss: 85 yards of offense, 3 first downs, 515 yards allowed. That was followed by Air Force, which handed the Lobos a 42-0 home loss: 223 yards of offense, 9 first downs, 3 turnovers. It ended, mercifully, with a 35-7 loss at San Diego State: 162 yards of offense, 486 allowed on defense. Over these four games, New Mexico was outscored by a combined 195-14 and outgained by a combined total of 1,960 yards to 727. This wasn’t against Big 12 teams during non-conference play, mind you, but against Mountain West rivals. Elite teams come around every year; being this bad — this awful — is rare. Last year’s team earned a place in the annals of college football history, even if the Lobos would have prefered not to be under consideration in the first place, thank you.
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
at Texas Tech
- Sept. 22
at New Mexico St.
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
at Air Force
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
at Colorado St.
Last year’s prediction
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? 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. It’s time for a regime change, which is coming soon.
In a nutshell The regime change came about sooner than most had anticipated: Mike Locksley was let go on Sept. 25, after four straight losses to open the year left his career record with the Lobos at 2-26. It’s possible — though hard to believe, seeing how bad U.N.M. was under his watch — that Locksley was an even bigger disaster off the field than he was between the white lines, when he showed himself to be one of the overmatched coaches in college football on a weekly basis. Locksley punched one of his assistant coaches in 2009. He bullied members of his football office. Finally, last September, a prospective recruit was arrested on suspicion of D.U.I. while driving a car registered in Locksley’s name. Ugly. But at least it distracted eyes from actually watching last year’s team, which was horrendous in nearly every manner possible.
High point New Mexico won a game, believe it or not. The victim was U.N.L.V., which won two games. Only three times all year did New Mexico lose by 14 points or less: Colorado State, New Mexico State and… Sam Houston State.
Low point Eleven losses. Take your pick. New Mexico State now owns New Mexico — since 2009, at least. Sam Houston State was strong, true, but a F.C.S. program: U.N.M. had no business losing that game. Sam Houston State and Colorado State had to break a sweat in beating the Lobos; for the rest, winning came easy. This team was a perfect representation of its maligned, woeful former coach: inept, incompetent and out of place.
Tidbit New Mexico enters the tail end of spring ball with 73 players on the roster. Not players on scholarship: players, total. Most F.B.S. programs carry about 105, with a few dozen walk-ons joining the full compliment of recruited players. Not so in Albuquerque, where until the summer, when this February’s recruiting class enrolls, the Lobos have 12 fewer players in total than nearly every F.B.S. program has scholarship players.
Former players in the N.F.L.
7 OG Byron Bell (Carolina), LB Quincy Black (Tampa Bay), C Ryan Cook (Miami), C Erik Cook (Washington), S Glover Quin (Minnesota), OG Robert Turner (St. Louis), LB Brian Urlacher (Chicago).
Arbitrary top five list
Members of Lou Holtz’s coaching tree
1. Pete Carroll.
2. Urban Meyer.
3. Barry Alvarez.
4. Monte Kiffin.
5. Bob Davie.
Bob Davie (Youngstown State ‘77), entering his first season. Davie was hired last Nov. 17, with two games remaining on New Mexico’s season, in a move that surprised, well, everybody. Davie had been out of coaching since 2001, his final season at Notre Dame, and had spent the last decade as a college football analyst at ESPN. At least his work on television allowed Davie to remain close to the game, if not entirely involved in the game itself: his broadcast work did allow Davie to keep his finger on the pulse of college football, which means he shouldn’t be overly surprised by, say, the spread. However, it’s only natural to wonder about how quickly Davie, 11 years away from his last coaching job, can get back into the swing of things as an F.B.S. head coach. He’s most remembered for his disappointing five-year stint at Notre Dame, where he replaced Lou Holtz in 1997 after three years as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. The Irish finished below .500 twice over Davie’s five years, though he did win nine games twice: 1998 and 2000, earning a B.C.S. bid in the latter season. It’s somewhat unfortunate that Davie’s turn at Notre Dame has overshadowed his career as an assistant; he was a superb coordinator, especially over his five years (1989-93) running R.C. Slocum’s defense at Texas A&M. Davie knows football — or knew football, when he left the game in 2001. Whether he knows enough about the current landscape of college football remains to be seen.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Changes are afoot, as you’d expect. U.N.M. is familiar with Davie’s new offensive coordinator, Bob DeBesse, who held the same position at Sam Houston State over the last two seasons. Last fall, DeBesse’s offense gashed the Lobos for 48 points, 547 yards of offense and 23 first downs. DeBesse will install the same balanced system, one that featured a 2,000-yard passer, a 1,600-yard rusher and another back with just shy of 1,000 yards. Other noteworthy additions to Davie’s staff: former Nebraska and Minnesota defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove will coach the inside linebackers, and former prolific Purdue receiver Taylor Stubblefield — he held the F.B.S. record for career receptions until last fall — will coach the wide receivers after one year in the same capacity at Central Michigan.
Players to watch
Don’t ask what DeBesse’s new system will be called. Will the Lobos run the Pistol? That’s the goal, according to DeBesse, but he has been quick to point out that he will tailor New Mexico’s game plan to fit the weapons at his disposal — in year one, at least. Unfortunately, the dearth of talented skill players on the roster should turn a Pistol into a cap gun: New Mexico simply doesn’t have the weapons to run a Nevada-like system, and will instead need to dial back any hopes of explosiveness in favor of a more simplistic offensive approach.
Credit DeBesse for understanding this fact. Many coaches — most, perhaps — would demand that his players sink or swim; if DeBesse had taken this route, the Lobos would have sunk like a stone. Maybe DeBesse’s flexibility comes from the fact that he’s an F.C.S. lifer: this is his chance to make some noise on the F.B.S. level, and you don’t do that by putting round pegs into square holes. Having some depth would help DeBesse’s cause; sadly, the Lobos are as thin as any team in the country not transitioning up from the F.C.S. level.
Good news first. Ty Kirk, who has tied or led the Lobos in receptions in each of the last three years, is back at full strength after missing a good portion of last season with a knee injury. The Lobos also bring back tight end Lucas Reed (22 receptions for 241); both Kirk and Reed are strong, experienced options for U.N.M. to rely on in the passing game. The bad news: Deon Long, a burgeoning star at receiver, left the program in January. A would-be sophomore, Long led New Mexico in receptions (47), receiving yards (809) and touchdowns (4) last fall.
To be fair, the Lobos have a few options at receiver. In terms of game experience, the receiver corps might be the offense’s deepest position: Kirk, Quintell Solomon and Lamaar Thomas played extensive snaps last fall, and the Lobos could also call on younger, less experienced options like Daniel Adams, Donnie Duncan and Jeric Magnant. Is it a proven group? Not beyond the top two or three.
It’s one thing to worry about the quality of your offensive linemen. It’s another to worry about the quantity of offensive linemen at your disposal, an issue Davie and offensive line coach Jason Lenzmeier face as the Lobos work their way through spring drills. Two offensive linemen, J.V. Mason and Zach Boerboom, left the program earlier this month, leaving U.N.M. with only eight offensive linemen in the roster — for now, the Lobos can’t even fill out a two-deep. Another four linemen will arrive over the summer, but to adequately stock its line, New Mexico would need each to play immediately and not take a redshirt.
So Davie and Lenzmeier cross their fingers, hoping that New Mexico’s starting five can stay healthy. The Lobos actually return five players who made at least seven starts last fall: center LaMar Bratton, guard Calvin McDowney and tackles Korian Chambers, Dillon Farrell and Darryl Johnson. While the staff is still evaluating their line options, it seems likely that Chambers will remain at left tackle and Bratton at center. U.N.M. could keep Farrell at right tackle, where he ended last season, and move McDowney — the team’s biggest lineman — over to right guard, where he’d replace Mike Muniz. The Lobos could put together an experienced starting five, but there are severe depth issues.
As with Long at wide receiver, the Lobos lost their leading rusher shortly after last season. Like Long, Crusoe Gongbay was a would-be sophomore with significant potential: he rushed for 500 yards, coming on strong over the second half of his rookie season. Without Gongbay and James Wright, who exhausted his eligibility after last season, the Lobos will hope for a bounce-back season from junior Kasey Carrier, who lead the team in rushing in 2010 but missed last fall with ankle and knee ailments. If he’s healthy, Carrier will join junior DeMarcus Rodgers (242 yards last fall), sophomore Chase Clayton and redshirt freshman Jhurell Pressley in the U.N.M. backfield.
Here’s all you need to know about the other side of the ball: Davie said last week that as of today, the offense is ahead of the defense. That’s not a comforting fact for U.N.M. to consider, obviously. One thing the defense will share with the offense is growing pains, as one of the first tasks Davie and defensive coordinator Jeff Mills faced this spring was installing a new 3-4 base set. It typically takes at least one full season for a defense to switch to this system from a 4-3, and that’s if you’re lucky — and that’s if you have high-quality athletes and depth, of which the Lobos have neither.
One personnel move didn’t come as a surprise. After playing end last fall, senior Joseph Harris (55 tackles) will move up to outside linebacker; his 222-pound frame wouldn’t stand up at 3-4 end. But the biggest news at linebacker isn’t that addition, but rather the subtraction of Carmen Messina, whose career ended in the same way it began: with him leading the team in tackles. With Messina gone, the Lobos will need a big year from junior Dallas Bollema (68 tackles), who will move inside. He’ll be joined in the middle by senior Joe Stoner, while Mills hopes that sophomore Javarie Johnson recovers from last season’s knee injury in time to grab a starting role on the outside.
The defensive line is a work in progress. One player who could provide a huge boost is senior Rod Davis, a former JUCO transfer with the right size to play over the center. If Davis can fit that bill — he started strong last fall before injuries slowed his production — the Lobos might be able to move Reggie Ellis (16 tackles, 4.0 for loss) outside to end. At 285 pounds, Ellis has nice size and strength to play the end in Mills’ three-man front. Other options at end include Jake Carr, a two-game starter last fall, and junior Jacori Greer, who impressed coming off the bench a year ago.
If there’s a strong spot on this defense — and if you’re willing to be kind — it’s the secondary, where the Lobos return three of last season’s starters. That includes two potential starters at safety, Dante Caro and Freddy Young (38 tackles), who made seven starts apiece. That’s well and good, but both will need to adjust out of the old five-defensive back set and into a more traditional system.
Young and Caro are joined at safety by sophomore Zoey Williams, a heavily-recruited member of New Mexico’s 2011 class who played in the first six games of last season before being injured in a car accident in late October. While Williams and Young are competing for the same position, it’s easy to see both holding key roles in the secondary.
Williams played cornerback last fall, so it’s not inconceivable that he might move back to that position at same point during the season. For now, the Lobos bring back a returning starter in senior Destry Berry (47 tackles, team-best five pass breakups) and a part-time starter in Devonta Tabannah, who spelled Berry for three games last fall. They may get first crack at the two starting roles, but the Lobos will add more competition over the summer in five incoming freshmen. One thing we know: Mills also coaches the secondary, so he’ll be very hands-on with this group.
Position battle(s) to watch
Quarterback New Mexico hasn’t had this many options at quarterback in years. It would be even better if DeBesse could feel secure in any one of his four options, but regardless: the Lobos should feel good about the numbers at the position heading into the season, as well as feel confident about the potential three non-seniors bring to the table in the new system. What DeBesse’s arrival has done, in a sense, is even the playing field. The Lobos have an eight-game starter returning in senior B.R. Holbrook, though his numbers over the last two years leave much to be desired — 6 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, for starters. You’d think that despite his past struggles, Holbrook would earn the starting nod based on both his own experience and the lack of experience his three competitors bring to the table. That’s not the case. While Holbrook should be considered the leader in the clubhouse as the Lobos prepare for the summer, you can’t count out JUCO transfer David Vega, redshirt freshman Dustin Walton or true freshman Cole Gautsche.
Holbrook has my vote. I can give three reasons: he’s the most experienced option, he’s a senior and he deserves the opportunity to be New Mexico’s unquestioned starter. The last factor matters little to Davie and DeBesse, who will obviously look for the Lobos’ best option, not the feel-good story. But even if Vega, Walton or Gautsche has what it takes to lead the offense in 2012, the Lobos would be better served letting Holbrook play through what should be a rebuilding season. Let Gautsche, who was ranked the second-best quarterback in the region during the most recent recruiting cycle, redshirt this season. Let Vega back up Holbrook, perhaps giving the Lobos a more mobile play-maker in certain packages.
Game(s) to watch
The 13 games will come in handy for a team without much hope of reaching bowl play. But games against Texas, Texas Tech and Boise State before the end of September will be bad for this team’s confidence. Must-win games include Southern and New Mexico State; the Lobos have lost three straight against the Aggies, adding another embarrassing mark to Locksley’s disastrous tenure.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Even Davie’s expectations are in check. The standard of play he’s seen thus far from his new team is “not very high,” he said over the weekend, adding, “I’m not going to kid anybody.” This isn’t a lowball estimate — Davie covering his bases, saying the Lobos will be bad so no one is surprised — but rather pure, unadulterated honesty, and it’s refreshing. Even after a decade away, Davie sees the writing on the wall: New Mexico, with significantly less than a full compliment of players, no clear answer at quarterback, a dreadful lack of depth along the offensive line, a new system on each side of the ball… New Mexico, simply put, is not anywhere near competing for anything better than second-to-last place in the Mountain West. There’s still a tremendous, tremendous amount of work to be done before this team can make a move towards bowl eligibility. This year? The Lobos should take their lumps, keep the faith and envision a future — maybe even just two years down the road — when Davie and his staff will have the horses to run with the rest of the conference. Right now, the Lobos are nearly bereft of all the things a team needs to be a contender. The program should be able to take some solace in the fact that it will no longer be an embarrassment off the field.
Dream season The Lobos squeeze into bowl play by taking care of business against the weak slice of its 13-game schedule. Wins come over Southern, New Mexico State, Texas State, Hawaii, Fresno State, U.N.L.V. and Colorado State. This would be incredible.
Nightmare season This seems familiar: 1-12, 0-7 in conference play. The lone win comes over Southern — on a last-second field goal.
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 interested in following how the new staff fares on the recruiting trail. Further coverage can be found at the Web site of the Albuquerque Journal.
New Mexico’s all-name nominee DE KevinJo Atkins.
Through three teams 9,574.
Who is No. 121? The county in which the next program is located is named after the great-uncle of the author of a 1973 book on needlepoint design.
Tags: B.R. Holbrook, Bob Davie, Bob DeBesse, Cole Gaustche, Dallas Bollema, Dante Caro, David Vega, Freddy Young, Jeff Mills, Joseph Harris, Kasey Carrier, Kevin Cosgrove, Lucas Reed, Mike Locksley, Mountain West, New Mexico, Rod Davis, Taylor Stubblefield, Ty Kirk, Zoey Williams
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