2014 bleedCrimson.net New Mexico State Football Season Preview

bleedCrimson.net 2014 New Mexico State Football Preview

After a rough stint as an FBS Independent in 2013, the New Mexico State football team will begin their second stint in the Sun Belt Conference in 2014. The Aggies won just two games last season under new head coach Doug Martin as the Aggies started the season off 0-7 against a tough slate but finished off the year with a 2-4 record that included a pair of competitive losses to Sun Belt Conference co-champion Louisiana Lafayette (49-35) and the ACC’s Boston College (48-34). New Mexico State wrapped up the 2013 season with a 24-16 victory over fellow one-year independent Idaho and the Vandals, like the Aggies, will also join the Sun Belt Conference for the second time.

New Mexico State will feature a lot of new faces as the coaching staff has gone young in hopes of building the program from the ground up using high school talent versus the junior college-heavy roster the team has seen in years past. The 2014 signing class saw 23 high school recruits and just two junior college transfers although, the Aggies will be relying heavily on one of those transfers, quarterback Tyler Rogers.

Rogers has been named as the Aggies’ starter after transferring from Arizona Western College where he threw for 1,832 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013. Rogers is also fleet of foot as he ran for 364 yards and a team-high ten touchdowns. He has been practicing with the team from the spring camp and throughout the fall earning extra snaps with the offense which in turn gave him a leg up in the quarterback competition. “Tyler Rogers has had a great camp,” said head coach Doug Martin. “We feel really good about him. He can extend plays and make things happen.” The Aggies will look to get the ball down the field more often than they did in 2013. “Tyler is really, really accurate and he has a strong arm too,” said Martin. “He throws really well on the run and he’s really mobile. He makes the offensive line better and our run game better because of his mobility.”

Though Martin named Rogers as the starting quarterback, it will be imperative that the Aggies find a couple of solid backup quarterbacks to go behind Rogers. It has been a rare occurrence that an Aggie quarterback has made it through an entire season unscathed and given the proliferation of the spread option offense that sees the quarterback out of the pocket more often, it stands to reason that whoever is under center will likely take a few extra hits. Backup up Rogers will be a pair of freshmen in Andrew Allen (Miramar, Fla.) and Nick Jeanty (Texas City, Texas).

An improvement in the Aggie ground game will be a must if the Aggie offense is to reach its potential. Last season no Aggie running back averaged more than 52 yards per game and the Aggies as a team averaged just 141.8 yards per game which ranked 88th in the country. The Aggie backfield features four players who head coach Doug Martin believes will have a big impact in 2014. The Aggies return a pair of local players in Brandon Betancourt and Xavier Hall, both sophomores. Betancourt rushed for 433 yards and a pair of touchdowns before suffering a season ending injury late in the year. Xavier Hall emerged late in the season rushing for 95 yards on 14 carries against Boston College and 74 yards on 12 carries against Florida Atlantic, a 6.5 yard per carry average. If Hall can come close to replicating those numbers in 2014, the Aggies will be in good shape. The Aggies have also added a pair of running backs to complement Betancourt and Harll. Incoming freshman Larry Rose III gives the Aggies a potential home run threat in the backfield that they have not had since Doug Martin’s year as the Aggies’ offensive coordinator when Kenny Turner was coming out of the backfield. “He [Rose] has an incredible ability to make people miss and he’s the fastest running back we have. We’re really excited about him,” said Martin. Something else the Aggie ground game has been missing has been a big back to use in short yardage and goal line situations. The Aggies believe the redshirt freshman Marquette Washington can fill that need. Listed at 5-10 and weighing 215 pounds, he’s bigger than the other three running backs who figure to see significant action. “He [Washington] gives us a bigger presence for pass protection and maybe goal line running,” said Coach Martin. All four backs figure to see playing time and Martin feels that Betancourt, Hall and Rose all fit well into the spread style of offense that offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon uses. “The three, Hall, Betancourt and Rose all fit really well into the system because they’ve all got really good speed and they all catch the ball really well,” said Martin.

While the running backs will figure to catch a few passes from the Aggie quarterbacks, it will be the wide receiver position that should produce plenty of excitement for Aggie fans. Despite the loss of the Aggies’ leading receiver in 2013, Austin Franklin, head coach Doug Martin believes that the position will be better than it was a year ago. “We were good at the wide receiver position last year because of Austin Franklin, he kind of made it,” said Coach Martin. “Now we’ve got depth and we’ve got several guys like that who can make plays.”

Two of those playmakers will be a pair of redshirts in Greg Hogan and Teldrick Morgan. At 6-1 and 6-0 respectively, Hogan and Morgan are slightly bigger than Franklin. “These guys are dynamic, they have tremendous speed, explosiveness and great size,” said Martin. Joining the pair of redshirts will be plenty of experienced receivers from last season in the form of Adam Shapiro, Joseph Matthews, Joshua Bowen, Jordan Bergstrom and Jerrel Brown. The group of five wideouts combined to catch 160 passes for 1,758 yards and six touchdowns and figure to give quarterback Tyler Rogers plenty of reliable targets to throw to. “All of those guys have played a lot of football for us. That’s a really deep position for us and a very talented position,” said Coach Martin. Also figuring into the passing game will be the tight ends including senior Andy Dean. “I could see him having a good senior year and doing some things for us,” said Martin.

Of course, if the Aggie running backs don’t have holes to run through or the quarterbacks don’t have time to deliver their passes, none of those weapons matter and that job falls on the Aggie offensive line. The group in the trenches figures to be the Aggies’ deepest and most experienced position group despite the loss of four-year starter Davonte Wallace at left tackle. We’re probably eight or nine guys deep,” said Coach Martin. The Aggies return several players from last year’s line including center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, who was named to the Rimington Award Watch List. “He’s a four year starter, the leader of our football team and it all starts with him,” said Coach Martin. “He is definitely a player who may have an NFL chance down the road and has played really good football for us.” Joining Ume-Ezeoke along the line will be redshirt freshman Thomas McGwire at right tackle, juniors Andy Cunningham and sophomore Abe Holland at right guard, junior Isaiah Folasa-Lutui left guard and filling the vacated left tackle position will be junior Houston Clemente. Freshmen Dezmand Candelaria and Jamin Smith are both players Coach Martin has been pleased with during camp.

The Aggies also have a new offensive line coach this year. Hired in the spring, Walt Wells brings plenty of experience with him. “The experience, Walt has a wealth of experience in a variety of different offenses,” said Coach Martin. “He’s developed a lot of players and I just think the fundamentals that he teaches and the teaching ability that he has has been a real positive.” Coach Martin likes what he’s seen from Wells saying, “I like the enthusiasm that Walt coaches with and he has a calming effect on those guys when it is stressful but he knows how to get after them and motivate them at the same time. I think the techniques that he teaches have been a real help, especially to Ume, who has been a four year starter and has learned a lot of new tricks.”

When the Aggie offense doesn’t have the ball, it’ll be up to the Aggie defense to get stops and get them back the ball. In order to do that, the Aggies will have to find a way to improve upon what was the nation’s worst defense in 2013.  The Aggies’ defense gave up 6,594 total yards which ranked 123rd out of 123 FBS teams and was also the most ever given up in the program’s history. While improving on the something that was historically bad may seem trivial, the task will not be an easy one as the team will be very young and inexperienced while also breaking in a new (yet experienced) defensive coordinator. The Aggies jettisoned defensive coordinator David Elson at the end of the 2013 season and veteran coordinator Larry Coyer was brought in to try to right the defensive ship.

Head coach Doug Martin believes that the move has already begun paying dividends for the team stating, “We’re just so much better fundamentally. Just the fundamentals of running to the football, tackling.” He added, “Obviously scheme-wise Larry Coyer knows what he’s doing but just instilling a toughness and a standard and being demanding and I think he has made our coaches better coaches.”

Coyer’s wealth of knowledge and experience will be tested in 2014 as the defense will feature only  five upperclassmen (three seniors and two juniors) who saw significant playing time in 2013. The remainder of the defense is dominated by underclassmen.

The young Aggie defense will undoubtedly take its lumps early on in the season but the focus for that side of the ball is stopping the run. “What we’ve got to start with is the ability to stop the run. We have to sell out and make people throw the football,” said Coach Martin. “If they’re good enough to beat us throwing the football then they just are but we can’t let people run the ball.” He added, “We’re going to be a work in progress for a while just because of being so young.”

Along the defensive line the Aggies will be young but do have a few returning players. Senior Jay Eakins and sophomore Drew James will both see time at defensive end. Also seeing time at the defensive end position will be a pair of underclassmen in freshman Brandon Agomuo and redshirt sophomore Noah Brown. Also figuring to see time at defensive end is freshman Kourtland Busby. “ortland Busby is another freshman that has really stepped it up,” said Martin.

On the interior of the line will be freshman Stody Bradley and junior Alex Trujillo who has made the move over from the offensive line. “Stody Bradley is who we think is the best defensive lineman we signed [in 2014]. He’s playing nose and starting for us,” said Coach Martin. Also on the defensive interior are sophomore Kalei Auelua and junior college transfer Josh Gibbs. “Kalei Auelua is playing really well for us and Josh Gibbs has really stepped up,” said Coach Martin.

Despite the youth on the defensive line, Coach Martin believes the unit will be improved and he likes the depth the young players have given the team. “All those freshmen have the size and strength to play for us now which has really helped our depth at that position,” said Martin.

The linebacking crew for the Aggies is similarly young and inexperienced but the Aggies do have sophomore middle linebacker Rodney Butler returning. Butler played in all 12 games last season as a true freshman and recorded 39 tackles which is the second most of any returning defensive player behind only senior middle linebacker Clint Barnard who finished with 67 tackles. “He [Butler] had a great year for us last year and he’s emerging as the leader of our defense,” said Martin. “He’s playing really well.” Joining Butler and Barnard will be freshmen Derek Ibekwe and JB Copeland. “He’s [Ibekwe] played really well for us all through camp and Copeland is another freshman we like a lot,” said Martin. Rounding out the linebackers will be another true freshman in Dalton Herrington. “Dalton has played tremendous as a true freshman,” said Martin. “We think he’ll make a lot of plays for us. He’s going to be a lot of fun for people to watch.” Also figuring to see time will be senior Dior Moore who saw action in 10 games last season recording 18 tackles.

The secondary unit will be tested in 2014 as the Aggies make a point of selling out to stop the run. That means the Aggie secondary will be on its own to try to keep teams from passing the ball. The anchors of the secondary will be senior cornerback Winston Rose who played in just two games before suffering a season-ending injury and junior Lewis Hill who played in all 12 games last season and started the final six games at left corner. “Those two guys have the ability to be two of the better corners in our conference,” said Martin. “They’ve both got speed and size and they’ve got experience.” Martin added, “The way we’re going to play defense, they’re going to be tested. They’re going to be in man coverage. They’re going to be out there on an island a little bit. They’re going to have to hold up.”

At free safety the Aggies will be relying on sophomore Kawe Johnson and quarterback turned safety Tra Colwell. Johnson played in all 12 games as a freshman and recorded two interceptions to go along with 35 tackles. Colwell has played on the offensive side of the ball for his entire Aggie career but made the switch to the defensive side of the ball in the offseason. “I think Tra has handled it really well and he’s handled it well because he’s a great team player,” said Martin. “He’s worried more about our football team than he is about his own stats or his own productivity and he’s been a real blessing back there.” Rounding out the free safety position is true freshman Jacob Nwanga.

The strong safety position will be extremely inexperienced with freshman Jaden Wright and King Davis III manning the position. Davis, also a former quarterback like Colwell, is making the transition to the defensive side of the ball but head coach Doug Martin believes the transition has been smooth. “King has made that transition real well, he’s playing really well for us right now on defense.”

Rounding out the Aggie squad is the special teams unit, a group which quite frankly was anything but special in 2013. However, head coach Doug Martin believes that the team will be much improved in that area with the influx of new talent. “I think our lack of team speed last year really hurt us in converge teams and we just didn’t make much happen,” said Martin. “That’s something we’ve got to put a lot more emphasis on this year.” The Aggies should also receive a big boost in the kick and punt return game as Coach Martin plans to send Greg Hogan and Teldrick Morgan back to return kicks and punts. Additionally, both Larry Rose and Winston Rose could see time back there as well. “I think where we’re going to be most improved is at the returners because of Greg Hogan, Teldrick Morgan, Larry Rose and Winston Rose who can also go back there and return kicks. That’s more talent than we’ve had back there since I’ve been back here,” said Martin.

Senior Max Johnson, a Lou Groza Award Watch List nominee, will anchor the place kicking duties once again this season. Johnson converted 10-of-12 field goal attempts, including a 49 field goal attempt against Rice.

The Aggie punting duties will be handled by Steven Witkowski with fellow walk-on Kelly Kingseed battle for time at the position. “He’s [Witkowski] got a lot of ability and we really like what we’re seeing from him right now,” said Coach Martin.

While the Aggies’ offense should be improved this season, it will be the Aggie defense that is the key to winning multiple football games. The schedule in 2014 is much more manageable than it was last season with the Aggies heading into the Sun Belt Conference. The Aggies play just one money game in 2014, a game at LSU and have several winnable games on the schedule. The team starts out with Cal Poly, an FCS foe then faces its first conference game, a road trip to Atlanta to face Georgia State. “I think this one [against Georgia State] is probably a good measuring stick for us and I think it comes at a good time. I like that we’re opening [against Cal Poly] on a Thursday so it gives us a couple more days to get ready for that game [at Georgia State].“ The Aggies then head down the road to face I-10 rival UTEP before hosting in-state rival UNM. “We certainly have an opportunity to be competitive and win all of those football games,” said Coach Martin.

If the young defense can mature quickly, then the Aggies have a chance to win three, four, maybe even five games with the likes of Cal Poly, Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Idaho on the slate as well as the two aforementioned rivalry games. “We’re going to be in a lot of close football games this year, I can tell you that just looking at the talent level of where we are and who we play. I think the measure of how good we’re going to be is how we handle that pressure.”