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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. 95: New Mexico State

New Mexico State University
P.O. Box 30001
Las Cruces, N.M., 88033-8001
(575) 646-0011

May 25, 2012

To Whom it May Concern:

We here at New Mexico State University commend you on your ability to not only create a conference but also maintain this conference’s existence. We’ve come to the conclusion during this latest round of expansion that constructing a league is one thing; ensuring its survival is quite another. As you may have heard, the Western Athletic Conference — our home since the start of the 2005-6 academic year — is on the verge of extinction. The league’s disintegration has come about as a result of an exodus of biblical proportions: six more institutions have announced their intention to leave the WAC, joining four former members who have left over the last 12 months, leaving only ourselves and Idaho without any future conference affiliation, should the WAC cease to exist as a football league. Due to the WAC’s unsteady future, we here at New Mexico State University are searching for another conference to call home. We aren’t picky; we’re merely looking for a space to store our stuff. Our only request — and please forgive our adamant stance on this topic — is that a new conference play football on the F.B.S. level. If you are interested in adding a university with state funding, a great basketball program, an underrated baseball program and a football program, please contact us at the above address or via the listed phone number. We check our email and voice mail every 30 seconds. We here at New Mexico State are anxiously awaiting your return correspondence.

Conference
WAC

Location
Las Cruces, N.M.

Nickname
Aggies

Returning starters
8 (5 offense, 3 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 118

2011 record
(4-9, 2-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 99

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    Sacramento St.
  • Sept. 8
    at Ohio
  • Sept. 15
    at UTEP
  • Sept. 22
    New Mexico
  • Sept. 29
    U.T.S.A.
  • Oct. 6
    at Idaho
  • Oct. 20
    at Utah St.
  • Oct. 27
    Louisiana Tech
  • Nov. 3
    at Auburn
  • Nov. 10
    San Jose St.
  • Nov. 24
    B.Y.U.
  • Dec. 1
    at Texas St.

Last year’s prediction

So what needs to happen in order for New Mexico State to break through its recent slide? The offensive line, as experienced as it has been in Las Cruces in years, must help produce a consistent running game. The defensive line needs to replace Finau and the secondary replace House, but I’m not confident that the defense can do either. I’m not altogether confident that this season will see the Aggies fare much better in the win column, in fact, though I don’t think that should necessarily place Walker’s job in jeopardy. Yes, it should put him on a warmer seat heading into 2012, but it’s not as if he had — or still has — a full deck to work with. Let’s give him another year.

2011 recap

In a nutshell New Mexico State won four games, a program-high since 2007, and scored 319 points, a high since 2006 – two facts that make last season the Aggies’ best in at least five years. That a 4-9 season is cause for celebration might seem strange to those unfamiliar with the program, but make no mistake: N.M.S.U. has been so bad for so long that any sign of progress, even when it comes in the form of four wins, is cause for jubilation. One thing that has been evident since the first game of DeWayne Walker’s tenure is that his teams play hard; this didn’t change last fall. But it did seem that two things had caught up with the Aggies’ effort level: overall talent and an overall grasp of Walker’s system. It didn’t hurt that N.M.S.U. made a great hire at offensive coordinator in Doug Martin, who helped the Aggies make a huge scoring turnaround. It didn’t help that the defense was again abysmal. Last year in one word: progress. N.M.S.U. is getting better and better.

High point Another win over New Mexico. A win over Idaho. A shootout win over Fresno State. A win over Minnesota – yes, that team in the Big Ten. Four wins. Beyond that, N.M.S.U. could take solace in the handful of close losses, as strange as that sounds.

Low point I see only one bad loss, if you look beyond merely the final score – if you only consider margin of defeat, the Aggies did lose to Georgia by 47 points and B.Y.U. by 35 points. But after hanging tight with every team in conference play through mid-November, the Aggies came out flat against Louisiana Tech and never recovered, suffering through a 44-0 loss.

Tidbit The Aggies have now won three straight over the rival Lobos. Last year’s 42-28 win provided N.M.S.U. with its widest margin of victory over New Mexico since 1968, when it won by 27 points in Albuquerque. This is only N.M.S.U.’s fifth three-game winning streak in the 102-game history of the rivalry, joining wins from 1911-13, 1922-24, 1935-37 and 1965-68.

Tidbit (close losses edition) N.M.S.U. might have lost nine games last fall for the fifth straight season and the sixth time in seven years, but five of those losses came by 11 points or less. In comparison, N.M.S.U. had only five such losses over the last three seasons combined – out of a possible 29 defeats: to Utah State in 2010, San Jose State in 2009 and to Louisiana Tech, Idaho and New Mexico in 2008.

Tidbit (unprecedented edition) So N.M.S.U.’s win over New Mexico wasn’t that shocking – though the Lobos still hold a commanding edge in the all-time series. Nor was a win over Idaho particularly shocking: the Aggies have had trouble with the Vandals, but have still won 5 of 15 games against Idaho since 1996. On the other hand, it’s safe to call N.M.S.U.’s wins over Fresno State and Minnesota nearly unprecedented in the history of the program. Fresno was 17-0 against the Aggies prior to last season, winning those 17 games – all played since 1972 – by the average final score of 35.6-12.2. The victory over Minnesota was N.M.S.U.’s first against a B.C.S. conference opponent since 1999 and its first ever against a team from the Big Ten.

Tidbit (seating edition) The WAC passed a rule prior to the 2006 season that prevented stadiums from placing the visiting team’s bench in front of the university’s student section, which in turn forced New Mexico State to move its own bench from the west to the east sideline at Aggie Memorial Stadium. N.M.S.U. petitioned the WAC for a reversal of that ruling earlier this month; the conference listened, rescinding the rule, which allowed N.S.M.U. to move its own bench back to the west sideline. From another perspective, visiting teams like New Mexico, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State will be housed right beneath the Aggies’ student section — so get loud, guys.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 CB Jonte Green (Detroit), CB Davon House (Green Bay), LS Kyle Nelson (San Francisco), WR Taveon Rogers (Cincinnati).

Arbitrary top five list

Baseball players born in New Mexico
1. OF Ralph Kiner.
2. 3B Vern Stephens.
3. RP Duane Ward.
4. OF Cody Ross.
5. SP Wade Blasingame.

Coaching

DeWayne Walker (Regents College ’92), 9-29 after three seasons at New Mexico State. No, the record isn’t pretty. Yet it’s clear that this program has made significant progress over Walker’s three years with the program, both in areas as clear as the win column and as intangible as overall depth and athleticism. And severe growing pains were to be expected, as anyone familiar with N.M.S.U.’s recent history can attest; in fact, one could make the case that the Aggies are still finding their way as they prepare for this coming season. Walker came to Las Cruces from U.C.L.A., where he served as the Bruins’ 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-12, particularly against the run. Perhaps his crowning moment as the U.C.L.A. defensive coordinator came in the 2006 regular-season finale, when the Bruins defeated then-No. 2 ranked U.S.C., 13-9, in the year’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). Say one thing about Walker’s teams: they play hard. And the Aggies are undoubtedly getting better — deeper, more experienced, quicker, more athletic, better. Walker has had a plan from the start. With the program’s future in doubt, now would be a good time for those plans to come to fruition.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Walker made changes to his staff just days after the end of the regular season, dismissing defensive coordinator Dale Lindsay and defensive line coach Jesse Williams, two original members of his staff in Las Cruces. N.M.S.U. would make another pair of moves, but unlike Lindsay and Williams, offensive line coach Jason Lenzmeier and offensive coordinator Doug Martin left on their own terms: Lenzmeier swapped area codes to join Bob Davie at New Mexico, while Martin upgraded by taking the coordinator job at Boston College.

The new defensive coordinator is David Elson, who was the head coach at Western Kentucky when that program made the move from the F.C.S. to the F.B.S. in 2009. Last fall, Elson was the defensive coordinator at Franklin-Simpson High School in Franklin, Ky. New defensive line coach Romeo Bandison was out of coaching last year, but his resume stands out: Bandison was at Boise State from 2001-5 before following Dan Hawkins to Colorado, coaching in Boulder from 2006-10. Brad Bedell, Lenzmeier’s replacement, spent last season at U.C. Davis – he’ll know a thing or two about running the football. New offensive coordinator Jerry McManus has been around the block over his 33-year career, but this will be his first coordinator position.

Players to watch

Off the radar – not just under it – and behind the scenes, Martin did a superb job with last year’s offense. It wasn’t just about the huge increase in production; Martin also handled a few potentially crippling early-season injuries with aplomb, subtly tweaking the Aggies’ attack to match the new personnel. As a result, it’s natural to wonder whether N.M.S.U. can continue to move the ball as effectively with McManus directing the offense, let alone build upon last season’s tremendous progress. Wisely, McManus and Walker won’t change much about last year’s system, if anything: N.M.S.U. will stress continuity, which is a start.

With several must-win games over the first half of the season, it’s vital that N.M.S.U. start strong offensively. Perhaps that’s one reason why Walker has already handed the starting quarterback role over to junior Andrew Manley rather than extend any competition between Manley, sophomore Travaugh Colwell and former JUCO transfer Andrew McDonald into the fall. Not that the decision was difficult, however: Manley was the starter heading into 2011 but lasted only three starts before suffering a season-ending knee injury against UTEP. Nevertheless, Walker astutely ended any idea that this job wasn’t Manley’s to lose. Manley is the building block – N.M.S.U. will now look to build around its quarterback.

And Manley is good enough to put this offense on his back. A very solid recruit coming out of Hawaii, Manley was on his way for a huge 2011 season before going down against the Miners. He threw for 362 yards in the season-opening loss to Ohio, 288 yards in the win over Minnesota and another 242 yards in the shortened appearance against UTEP. Better yet, Manley did a nice job cutting down on his interceptions after throwing at least two in each of his three starts as a freshman. Part of me wishes that Manley could have spent one more season under Martin’s direction. As is, he’s a very strong WAC quarterback. If the offense continues to click, Manley could throw for 3,000 yards.

But he’ll need to identify another few targets in the passing game. N.M.S.U. must replace Taveon Rogers, who was perhaps the nation’s most underrated skill player as a senior, as well as Todd Lee, a steady second option at receiver. N.M.S.U. hopes that sophomore Austin Franklin (34 receptions for 524 yards) can fill Rogers’ shoes both out wide – though he’ll play in Lee’s old spot – and in the return game. Franklin’s a promising young talent, but it’s hard to picture him taking a leap into Rogers’ territory as a sophomore. Instead, the Aggies should look to capture that lost production with a by-committee approach.

Franklin, senior Kemonte’ Bateman (28 for 414), former Oregon State transfer Kevan Walker and senior Marcus Williams – among a few others – will lead the way at receiver, with heavy focus on Franklin and Bateman. But keep an eye on Walker, a solidly-built senior with some shiftiness, and Williams, a former JUCO transfer who played in 2010 but took a redshirt last fall. N.M.S.U. also has a pair of receiving options at tight end in senior Trevor Walls (11 for 144) and JUCO transfer Perris Scoggins, who enrolled early.

Kenny Turner parlayed a huge junior season into an early departure for the N.F.L., though he went undrafted. Perhaps a receiver like Franklin can post a Rogers-like season; when it comes to the backfield, I doubt that N.M.S.U. returns a running back capable of replicating Turner’s impact – more than 1,000 yards rushing with another 46 grabs for 514 yards as a receiver. Someone needs to step up, especially with Manley a far less mobile quarterback than his predecessor, Matt Christian. Again, N.M.S.U. will go with a committee. Senior Robert Clay (133 yards) run hard but has little game-breaking ability. The best course of action would be to combine Clay with new arrivals like Lavoris Powell and Akeelie Mustafa, two newly-minted JUCO transfers with speed to burn.

It’s been 10 years since N.M.S.U. last played defense at anything resembling a competent level. It’s also been 10 years since the Aggies reached bowl play – no coincidence. One of the troubling aspects of Walker’s tenure, which has otherwise been fine, is how little impact he’s had on this side of the ball. As a nationally-recognized coordinator in his previous incarnation, it was thought that Walker would have a marked impact on N.M.S.U.’s defense before turning his sights to the offensive side of the ball. Instead, the offense has stepped forward while the defense continues to regress.

The continued decline cost Lindsay his job. His replacement, Elson, will run the same system, but here’s guessing that he’ll be more aggressive and attacking than his predecessor. If N.M.S.U. does improve its pass rush – something it’ll need to do without several key figures up front – it could do wonders for a new-look secondary. With four new starters in the defensive backfield, the front seven needs to take a mammoth step forward if the Aggies are going to reach six wins.

Senior Donte Savage holds the key. N.M.S.U.’s best rush end in 2009 and 2010, he missed last season with academic issues. Now back on the field, Savage will need to play at an all-WAC level – something he is undoubtedly capable of doing – to help Elson replace ends David Niumatalolo and Pierre Fils. How good can Savage be? While he’s yet to reach his potential, Savage is disruptive enough to change the entire tenor of this defense: instead of being reactive, N.M.S.U. can attack, attack, attack.

Savage and senior tackle Walton Taumoepeau (25 tackles, 4.5 for loss) are N.M.S.U.’s two most experienced down linemen. Sophomore Mark Brown will factor into the rotation inside, mostly at nose tackle, behind Taumoepeau, but the Aggies will rely heavily on JUCO transfers Kalvin Cruz and Kevin Laudermill. For now, that pair is jostling for the starting role alongside Taumoepeau. With Savage serving as the Aggies’ rush end, look for sophomore Stephen Meredith (21 tackles) to replace Niumatalolo on the opposite side. Yet another JUCO transfer, Nicholas Oliva, rounds out the top group at end,

The Aggies are in very good shape at linebacker. Two starters return: junior Bryan Bonilla (71 tackles) and senior Alexander Lavoy (36 tackles). Lavoy, who missed four games due to injury last year, will play permanently at middle linebacker after spending some time on the both the weak and strong side in 2011. Bonilla will move from the weak side to the strong side, where N.M.S.U. hopes his burst can help overcome his lack of prototypical size. Don’t be surprised if JUCO transfer Trashaun Nixon starts from day one on the weak side, though he’ll need to fend off junior Dylan Davis to move into a starting role. Depth comes from Davis, senior B.J. Adolpho (41 tackles), junior Anthony Joyner and a handful of freshmen and sophomores. It’s a solid group.

There are massive changes underfoot in the secondary, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing: N.M.S.U. ranked 82nd nationally in pass defense last fall, allowing 243.4 yards per game and 26 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. N.M.S.U. hopes that the new group outplays the old group – and they might, but not from the start, and not to an extreme degree. As always, whether the Aggies make a drastic leap against the pass depends in large part on whether the front seven can get consistent pressure on the quarterback. Again, Savage’s play will be key.

Look for two JUCO transfers to see the field from the start. One, Cameron Fuller, will battle senior Jeremy Harris (27 tackles) and junior Darien Johnson for playing time at cornerback. They’ll be hard to unseat from the starting lineup: Harris was fine last fall, his first off the JUCO ranks, and Johnson made five starts when N.M.S.U. went with a fifth defensive back. At the least, Fuller could serve as N.M.S.U.’s third cornerback. A second transfer, Dele Junaid, who spent his freshman season at Mississippi, will battle George Callender for the starting role at strong safety. Here’s guessing that Junaid starts the season opener. A one-game starter at strong safety last fall, junior Justin Smith (28 tackles) is a solid option at free safety.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line It’s not all bad, I promise. Yes, N.M.S.U. must replace three senior starters off of an offensive line that was scrambling for depth – for example, Mike Grady, one of the losses, started at center while serving as the backup at both left and right tackle. But consider this: N.M.S.U. needs to fill a few starting spots, but the line as a whole should be the deepest of Walker’s four-year tenure. The Aggies will take on another influx of talent over the summer with five newly-signed recruits, two off the JUCO ranks. If Walker and Bedell can find capable replacements at center and tackle, this line won’t be a disaster. Not that it’ll be that easy.

Stay optimistic. Junior left tackle Davonte Wallace is a future all-conference pick – and ignore the irony in that statement. Sophomore Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, Grady’s replacement at center, started six games at guard as a rookie. Senior Andrew Kersten, last year’s starter at right guard, can either remain inside or move out to right tackle to replace Aundre McGaskey. Where Kersten ends up will greatly impact the direction N.M.S.U. goes inside: if he plays tackle, the Aggies can go with redshirt freshman Andy Cunningham at left guard and potentially move senior Maveu Heimuli to right guard. If Kersten remains along the interior, Cunningham will start at left guard with Heimuli serving as a valuable reserve at both guard spots.

That still leaves right tackle. One option is redshirt freshman Faison McKinnie, who has prototypical tackle size – McKinnie is listed at 6’7, 300 pounds. But the opportunity is there for JUCO transfer Alfred Sharp to step right in and grab a starting role; you bring in players off the JUCO ranks to make an immediate impact, and Sharp will be given every chance to start at strong side tackle. A second JUCO transfer, Dada Richards, could likewise push Cunningham for snaps at left guard. Richards could even step in at right guard, which would move Kersten outside.

Game(s) to watch

Any chance N.M.S.U. has at reaching bowl play depends entirely on wins in the following four games: Sacramento State, New Mexico, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State, with only the latter coming away from home. N.M.S.U. could then get to six wins by beating UTEP and Idaho on the road. Obviously, he Aggies can make things drastically easier on themselves by sweeping this quartet. The big question: Where’s a sixth win coming from if N.M.S.U. goes 5-1 in the games listed above? What about a fifth and six win if the Aggies go 4-2?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I’m going to lead with my head. In the old WAC – the WAC of Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii, let alone Boise State – N.M.S.U. isn’t making a push towards bowl eligibility. The offense must replace two very underrated skill players, Rogers and Turner, while breaking in three new starters along the offensive line. The offense as a whole must adapt to a new coordinator, even if McManus will use liberal doses of Martin’s blueprint. The defense is relying heavily on the play of the front seven, and the front four in particular; if this group fails to play up to standard, it’s likely that the Aggies will again house one of the worst defenses in the country. The schedule will allow N.M.S.U. to win at least five games, but these won’t be legendary victories: I’m talking about U.T.S.A., Texas State, New Mexico and Sacramento State. Could this team win six games? I think so, but I don’t think the Aggies have the ability to beat the noteworthy opponents on this schedule, like B.Y.U., Louisiana Tech, Ohio and Utah State. A five- or six-win team with no strong wins would still rank among the bottom 30 teams in football. Now, can I talk from the heart? I hope N.M.S.U. goes 12-0. I hope the Aggies win every game, take no prisoners, break through the ceiling and enter uncharted waters on the highest note in program history. It’s time, as the university said during the spring. I don’t have any dogs in any fights. I root for no team. But I’ll be pulling for N.M.S.U. every Saturday. This long-suffering program deserves one shining moment before college football takes its ball away and goes home.

Dream season New Mexico State reaches bowl play for the first time since 1960 and wins a conference title for the first time since 1978. The best part comes in December: N.M.S.U. lands a Sun Belt invite. This is a dream scenario.

Nightmare season The Aggies lose games to UTEP, U.N.M. and Idaho before mid-October, dealing a crippling blow to this team’s postseason hopes. With no bowl game left to play for, N.M.S.U. drops five of six over the second half to finish 3-9.

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 some readers believe to be the best all-around site for N.M.S.U. sports news, and Teddy Feinberg’s Cruces Sports, which is a really great spot for discussing all N.M.S.U. sports.

New Mexico State’s all-name nominee S Love Dominique.

Word Count

Through 30 teams 102,559.

Up Next

Who is No. 94? Tomorrow’s program is on the right track, but to get its career winning percentage to .500, it would need to need to post nine straight 13-0 seasons and start the 10th year 5-0.

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Comments

  1. DotBone89 says:

    Temple!

  2. Adam says:

    With all due respect Paul, you lost me at “underrated football program.” Granted,the Aggies would add something to, say, the MWC in basketball, but you said it yourself at the end of the preview. No bowl since 1960? Whatever upward signs we saw over the last 2-3 years can’t make up for that, especially if the “new” WAC of this year is going to end up essentially being the old WAC if all the teams move to the MWC. Then, NMSU is right back at square one.

  3. GonzoAggie says:

    Adam – read again – “an underrated baseball program”.

    And square one would be better than the current no square at all.

    Over the last three years, the Aggies do have 2 wins a year against the 2013 MWC lineup, so they’re not the worst.

    Being an Aggie fan has always been a philosophical proposition – no more now than usual, I suppose.

  4. yo noob says:

    Most NMSU fans congregate on the Scout.com site, not the rivals page.

    newmexicostate.scout.com

    REPRESENT NUKKA

  5. Adam says:

    Gonzo,

    Good call. Well worded Paul. Just like an Aggie trying to frame the athletics of NMSU in the best possible light, I lumped “underrated baseball” with “a football.”

    I agree square one is better than no current square. As an alum of the WAC’s other previously horrible Aggie program, I know how just a few breaks can make all the difference.