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Blue Ribbon Preview New Mexico

COACH AND PROGRAM

Name the only Mountain West Conference program to be bowl eligible each of the last six seasons. TCU? No. Utah? No.New Mexico? Yes!

Surprised to find out the Lobos are the only MWC team to have won at least six games the last six seasons? Don’t be too hard on yourself. New Mexico has been to bowl games four times in its current run, but hasn’t enjoyed the type of breakout campaign necessary to catch the attention of anyone but hardened fans.

The Lobos have won as many as eight games only once in the last six seasons and actually finished with a losing record after last year’s loss in the New Mexico Bowl. Those numbers aren’t meant to diminish the team’s accomplishments, serving instead to point out that the Lobos have reached a point where they can reasonably expect to be a competitive team every season. What they would like to do next is begin competing for the conference title.

Before looking ahead, it’s important to recognize the success head coach Rocky Long, entering his 10th season, has enjoyed at his alma mater. At some schools, merely attaining bowl eligibility might be scoffed at, but what Long has built in Albuquerque is commendable.

To put his accomplishments in perspective, consider this: In the 35 years between 1965 and 1999, New Mexico had a cumulative winning percentage of .374 (146-244), a total of eight winning seasons and a single bowl appearance. Since 2000, the team’s winning percentage is .523 and it has four winning seasons and four bowl bids.

“Sometimes it seems like it has been 100 years [since he took over the program], sometimes it seems like it was yesterday,” Long said of his tenure. “The assistant coaches have done a good job evaluating and recruiting talent. I think we have recruited a lot more of the New Mexico kids, and they have turned out to be really good players.”

With an abundance of players coming back in 2007, Long’s 10th season at New Mexico could be a memorable one. The Lobos return 18 starters — eight on offense and 10 on defense — from a 6-7 team that was forced to start three different quarterbacks because of injury or ineffectiveness.

“Last year we were a very young football team,” Long said. “This year we have quite a few players that have played a lot of football and some real quality skill guys coming back. We think we have a chance to be OK.”

It also helps that Long’s teams are among the most resilient in the league. New Mexico was at least two games under .500 at some point in five of the last six seasons but always rebounded. The Lobos have typically been slow starters, but their experience and a favorable schedule give them an excellent chance to reverse that trend.

New Mexico is also tied for 15th in the nation in road winning percentage since 2003, piling up a record of 14-10 away from home.

One change for the Lobos in 2007 will be the team’s third offensive coordinator in as many years. Bob Toledo left after one season to take the top job at Tulane and Long brought in former Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin.

“I think you will see a very similar offense to what we used last year,” Long said. “Coach Baldwin likes to use multiple sets. He goes from four or five wide receivers to two tight ends and two backs. He uses the West Coast passing game and will throw it deep if you play a lot of man coverage. I like the way it was implemented in the spring, and I like the way the players caught on a lot quicker [than they did last year].”

QUARTERBACKS

There is excitement surrounding sophomore Donovan Porterie (6-4, 200), who will be the team’s starter. The reason for anticipation is simple: Porterie showed great promise as a freshman, starting five games and throwing for 967 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.

Inside the Mountain West

Kole McKamey started the 2006 season but suffered a season-ending knee injury in week two, and his backup Chris Nelson was ineffective. After scoring a total of 17 points in consecutive losses to Air Force and Wyoming, Long turned the offense over to Porterie and was rewarded.Porterie led the Lobos to three straight come-from-behind wins against UNLV, Utah and Colorado State. He was chosen MWC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns against Utah. Unfortunately, Porterie suffered a sprained ankle against TCU that forced him to miss the final two regular season games. He returned for the New Mexico Bowl but was rusty in the 20-12 loss to San Jose State, completing just 7-of-17 passes for 61 yards.

Porterie has prototypical size, a strong arm and showed the type of intangible qualities that are hard to find in leading the Lobos to the comeback victories, all of which have served to stoke the excitement in Albuquerque.

“He is an excellent athlete,” Long said “I thought he grew in every game he started and [grew] into what I thought was not a polished quarterback but a much more confident, ex-perienced quarterback in the spring.”

Porterie will need to improve his accuracy and stay healthy. He completed just 53.4 percent of his passes, but it might be important to note that he was a 63 percent passer in his first four starts. Porterie’s two most wayward performances came in the bowl game after nearly six weeks of inactivity and in an off-the-bench performance against Wyoming — both 7-of-17 efforts — otherwise he was acceptably accurate.

Depth behind Porterie is a concern. Senior Bryan Clampitt (6-4, 225) would be first in line to replace him. Clampitt was 11-of-17 for 129 yards and a touchdown in 2005 but oth-erwise has very little experience. Incoming freshman Blair Peterson (6-4, 210) is third on the depth chart.

The Lobos have reason to be excited about the coming season but they must keep Porterie healthy.

RUNNING BACKS

It’s not easy to lose the MWC’s all-time leading rusher and the conference’s player of the year and not see some sort of regression, but New Mexico did it. Junior Rodney Ferguson (6-0, 226) had the seemingly impossible task of replacing DonTrell Moore, who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark all four years en route to gaining a school-record 4,973 career yards, but he did and the New Mexico ground game never wavered.Ferguson, a punishing runner, didn’t lock up the starting job until just before the opening game, but he was outstanding in his first year as a starter. He rushed for 1,234 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He surpassed the 100-yard mark the last three games of the season, including a 210-yard effort against San Diego State.

Ferguson led the MWC in rushing and earned first-team all-conference honors.

“We didn’t know what we had coming in, but Rodney developed as the season went along,” Long said. “He has good vision, so he finds the hole. He’s a strong powerful runner, so he is hard to tackle.”

Ferguson also proved to be a an asset as a receiver coming out of the backfield, catching 28 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns.

New Mexico will be lethal as long as Ferguson is healthy, but Long would like to develop greater depth behind him in an effort to make sure he stays fresh. Last season Ferguson carried the ball 252 times and no one else had more than 33 carries.

Junior Paul Baker (5-8, 187) and redshirt freshman Mike Love (5-10, 205) hope to prove they are worthy of a handful of attempts each game. They would provide a con-trast to the bruising Ferguson, especially the diminutive Baker, who is at his most dangerous in the open field. Baker carried the ball 30 times for 123 yards in 2006.

Love was the Gatorade Player of the Year in New Mexico as a senior in high school, rushing for 1,954 yards and 25 touchdowns.

“Paul Baker can make big plays and is hard to tackle in the open field,” Long said. “Mike Love really did well in the spring. There is a chance those guys will take some of the load off Rodney, but he will be the primary [back].”

Junior Matt Quillen (6-0, 261) returns to make life miserable for opposing linebackers. Quillen is a blue-collar fullback and one of the unsung reasons Ferguson had such a productive season. His primary responsibility is blocking but he occasionally gets carries in short-yardage situations. Last season he rushed 14 times for 32 yards and a touch-down. He also caught eight passes for 53.

Redshirt freshmen Jered Metzger (5-11, 215) and Josh Fussell (6-4, 220) will back up Quillen.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

The MWC is chock-full of quality wide receivers, and the senior tandem of Travis Brown (6-3, 189) and Marcus Smith (6-2, 212) can play with any of them. They are just the second pair of wide receivers in UNM history to have 50 catches in the same season, and with a healthy Porterie, their production should only improve.Brown, a first team all-conference selection in 2006, was arguably the league’s best receiver. He caught 64 passes for 867 yards and four touchdowns. Brown, who has caught a pass in 25 consecutive games, went over the century mark twice last season, including a nine-reception, 140-yard domination of Utah. He had a reception of at least 30 yards in seven-of-13 games.

Smith, a former tailback, was voted by his teammates as the team’s most improved player in 2006. He caught just nine passes and had a total of 37 carries his first two years, but exploded in his role as a wide receiver. Smith caught 53 passes for 859 yards and nine touchdowns, emerging as the team’s biggest deep ball threat.

He surpassed 100 yards twice, including a five-catch, 179-yard, three-touchdown effort against New Mexico State.

The primary backups at wide receiver are expected to be sophomore Daryl Jones (6-4, 200) and junior Jason Caprioli (6-0, 174), neither of whom has any significant experience. Junior Jonathan Brooks (6-1, 178) will compete for reps, too.

New Mexico will have to replace graduated tight end John Mulchrone, who caught 20 passes for 282 yards. Junior Chris Mark (6-5, 256) is expected to be the starter. Mark played in 12 games, including one start, but caught only one pass for 20 yards. Mark is a good receiver and has nice size but must improve his blocking.

Sophomore Luke Walters (6-3, 227), who played in nine games and caught one pass for nine yards, is the backup.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Just how good the New Mexico offense is will be determined by the quality of its line. A season ago, the line was good enough to clear the way for Ferguson to lead the league in rushing, but porous enough to surrender a MWC-worst 43 sacks.The Lobos lost their starting guards from a season ago, including two-time, all-conference performer Robert Turner, but they return three senior starters.

Leading the returnees are seniors Devin Clark (6-4, 320) and Anthony Kilby (6-4, 331), both of whom took the junior college route to UNM and have excelled. Kilby, a two-year starter at tackle, is making the move inside to right guard, leaving him to fill Johnson’s shoes. Kilby, the team’s biggest player, surged at the end of 2006, raising hopes that he’s poised for an all-conference caliber season.

Clark didn’t earn his eligibility until mid-August last season, but he took over the starting right tackle position in week two and was one of the team’s best linemen, leading the squad with 52 “big effort plays.” Clark has pro potential and should team with Kilby to give the Lobos a dominant right side for Ferguson to run behind.

Senior Vince Natali (6-2, 301) returns at center. Natali is a standout performer in the weight room and a winner of the team’s “Beefmaster Award.” There are four of those given annually to the team’s four strongest pound-for-pound players. Natali parlayed his strength and a 78-inch wingspan into a solid first season.

Natali sat out the spring after shoulder surgery but should be fully recovered in the fall.

The left side of the line is where the team’s questions are. Senior Bart Miller (6-4, 296) secured the left guard position with a strong spring effort. A four-year player, Miller didn’t make his first on-field appearance until last season because of injuries. The seemingly snake-bitten Miller suffered a knee injury in 2004 and broke his left fibula late in spring prac-tice in 2005.

Miller played in 11 games in 2006, mostly on special teams. His coaches hope his body will be able to withstand the rigors of extensive play in the trenches and he can end a some-times-difficult career on a high note.

The biggest concern entering the fall is the still unfilled left tackle position. Long has “no idea” who is going to protect Porterie’s blindside. The most likely candidates are sophomore Josh Waller (6-5, 275), a mid-year transfer from Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College, and Matt Streid (6-3, 304), who red-shirted in 2006 after transferring from Moor-park (Calif.) College.

Waller originally signed with Louisville in 2004 but didn’t qualify academically. He didn’t attend college during the 2004-05 academic year, red-shirted in 2005 and practiced but didn’t play last season. No matter Waller’s talent, he last played under game conditions as a high school senior in the fall of 2003, so even under the best of scenarios he will have a lot to learn.

Streid, who had 60 pancake blocks as a sophomore at Moorpark, has more experience and familiarity with the Lobos system.

Junior Sylvester Hatten (6-3, 331), another mid-year transfer, is expected to play guard, but Long will look at everyone until he gets the left tackle spot filled. Hatten was a second-team all-American at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College last season.

Yet another juco lineman, Tyler Boyett (6-5, 285) will get a long look as well. Boyett, a junior from Mississippi Delta Community College, didn’t get the benefit of going through spring practice. Boyett has a red-shirt year to use but could see the field in the fall.

Sophomore Erik Cook (6-5, 307) and redshirt freshmen Mike Cannon (6-5, 290), Derek Tallent (6-4, 320) and Zayn Bin-Bilal (6-5, 290) will compete for reps as well.

Cook, the younger brother of former Lobo great and current Minnesota Viking Ryan Cook, will be the backup center and could see action at guard as well.

KICKERS

After having the luxury of one of the nation’s best kickers, Kenny Byrd, the last two seasons, New Mexico will enter the fall with great uncertainty. Byrd, who signed with the Detroit Lions, made 19-of-23 field goals last season, including a perfect 10-of-10 inside of 40 yards.The Lobos quest for a kicker was further complicated when junior John Sullivan (5-8, 139) suffered a torn left ACL in the spring. Sullivan will attempt to recover from the injury to his plant foot without undergoing surgery, casting his ability to compete this fall into doubt.

Fifth year senior Eric Garrison (6-1, 192), a walk-on, is the leading candidate for the job. Long is open to the idea of walk-on freshmen competing for the spot as well.

“We will have competition in fall and the best kicker will get first chance,” Long said. “If he kicks well, he will stay the kicker. If he doesn’t, we will give someone else a chance.”

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Lobos routinely play between 22 and 24 players per game on defense, and many of them rotate through the three defensive line positions. UNM makes up for a lack of size on the defensive line by coming at opponents in waves.”We were small up front last year,” Long said. “We still aren’t big, but they are bigger and the experience factor should help. We rotate a lot of people on defense. If you don’t have a bunch of 300 pounders up there, it’s more important to rotate and keep them fresh.”

With seven returning lettermen up front, being fresh won’t be an issue. The line will be led by senior defensive end Tyler Donaldson (6-4, 237), a second-team all-league selection. Donaldson, who has good speed off the edge, had 49 tackles in 2006 and led the team with nine tackles for loss and five sacks. He also broke up three passes, forced a fumble and recovered another.

Senior Michael Tuohy (6-2, 249) returns as the starting end opposite Donaldson, and junior Wesley Beck (6-0, 264) is the incumbent nose tackle. Tuohy is the team’s best pure pass rusher — he had 4.5 sacks and a team high 14 quarterback hurries last season — and a high motor player. The UNM coaches would like to see him play a more disciplined game, but Tuohy gets after the quarterback.

Beck, a walk-on, was an improbable success story in 2006. He entered preseason practice a long shot to make the travel squad and ended up starting 10-of-12 games in the middle. Beck, who had 39 tackles, including a season-high six against Wyoming, is small to play nose tackle, but there is no doubting his effort.

Sophomore Phillip Harrison (6-4, 280), played in five games last season and will see action in the middle.

Senior Stephen Hutchison (6-3, 245) will provide depth and production at defensive end. He had five tackles for loss and four sacks among his 23 tackles last season, proving that he is more than just a placeholder when he is in the game. Sophomore Kendall Briscoe (6-2, 275) and junior Jeremiah Lovato (6-2, 251) are a significant part of the defensive line rotation as well.

Last season, Briscoe became the first true freshman to play defensive line for New Mexico since LeJonta McGowan in 1998. Briscoe finished with 19 tackles and has the look of a future standout. He is as good a candidate as any to have a breakout season.

Lovato, another walk-on, had 10 tackles in 10 games in 2006. Junior Kevin Balogun (6-4, 260) will push for a spot in the rotation as well.

LINEBACKERS

This is the deepest and most talented unit on the New Mexico defense. The Lobos return three starters, led by senior Cody Kase (6-2, 212), who will be moving to inside linebacker. A second-team academic All-American last season, Kase was slowed by a hamstring injury but is one of the unit’s primary playmakers.He missed only one game because of the injury but played a total of 31 snaps between weeks two and five. Kase, who has a 3.92 GPA and received his first B last fall, had 43 tackles, 5.5 for loss, three sacks and two interceptions last season. His 2006 production wasn’t insignificant, but the Lobos would like Kase to replicate the 11.5 TFL and five sacks he had as a sophomore.

Junior Jacob Bane (6-1, 230), a mid-year enrollee from Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, and redshirt freshman T.J. Radzilowski (6-0, 288) will be the primary reserves.

Senior Major Mosley (6-3, 220) could be poised for a big senior season at left-side linebacker. Mosley, whose wife gave birth to their first child five days before the New Mexico Bowl, spent his first three years on offense as a wide receiver and tight end.

Buoyed by the good health that has at times eluded him — he broke his left ankle in 2004 and had a torn right ACL in 2003 — Mosley was productive in 2006. He finished with 39 tackles, but more importantly got better as the season went along, and he got more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball.

Mosley, who set a UNM record for linebackers with a 384-pound power clean, could be significantly better this season.Playing behind Mosley will be junior Herbert Felder (6-1, 230) and senior Brett Madsen (6-2, 226). Both players were productive off the bench last season. Madsen finished with 35 tackles and Felder had 17.

The right side starting linebacker is senior George Carter (6-3, 228), a three-time academic All-MWC honoree. Carter had only two tackles his first two seasons and saw limited duty in the 2006 season opener, but he forced his way into the starting lineup and finished with 33 stops, including five for loss.

Junior Zach Arnett (5-11, 220) and Madsen will provide depth behind Carter. Arnett was the team’s most productive backup linebacker last season, finishing with 36 tackles.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This is the unit that must get better if New Mexico is to significantly improve. The Lobos were last in the league in pass defense in ’06, allowing 237 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks completed 60 percent of their passes and threw for 28 touchdowns. Ugly numbers, all of them.Long hopes the return of all four starters will make for a more experienced and stronger unit. Leading the returnees is junior cornerback DeAndre Wright (6-0, 183), a bright spot for the struggling secondary. Wright earned second-team All-MWC honors after finishing with 47 tackles, 10 passes broken up and four interceptions.

Playing behind Wright at right cornerback will be sophomore Aaron Lenard (5-11, 175), who enrolled in January after transferring from Cisco (Texas) Junior College.

Junior Glover Quin (5-11, 194) will start across from Wright. Quin finished with 63 tackles, an exceedingly high total for a defensive back, and broke up 12 passes but didn’t have an interception.

“We played a lot more zone coverage last year because we had inexperienced corners and we tried to protect them,” Long said of possible changes in the team’s coverage schemes. “I anticipate playing more man coverage because our corners have experience.”

The safety spots will be filled by returning senior starters Tyson Ditmore (6-1, 201) and OJ Swift (5-9, 183). Swift is the team’s top returning tackler with 74 and had a pair of interceptions last season, his first as a full-time starter. Ditmore, who has been part of the secondary rotation since playing as a true freshman in 2004, had 48 tackles and recovered two fumbles. Junior Blake Ligon (6-1, 179) and sophomore Frankie Baca (5-11, 187) will be the reserve safeties.

The pass defense will also get a boost from a change in the team’s Lobo position. The Lobo spot, which changes depending on personnel and need, was played by the imposing Quincy Black, the team’s leading tackler (114), last season. Black, a third-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played like a deep middle linebacker.

In 2007, sophomore Ian Clark (6-0, 198) is the likely starter at Lobo and he will function like a free safety. Clark, who had 22 tackles as a reserve cornerback last season, will be responsible for adjusting formations and picking up man coverage when Wright and Quin blitz.

Sophomore Clint McPeek (6-1, 193) will compete for time at Lobo as well.

PUNTERS

Senior Jordan Scott (6-0, 183) returns for a second season as the team’s punter. Scott was solid, if unspectacular as a junior, averaging 40.2 yards per kick. He was very adept at pinning teams deep in their own territory. Scott had 19 kicks inside the 20-yard line, including 12 that forced opponents to start inside their 10-yard line. He kicked the ball into the end zone only four times.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Lobos’ special teams were uneven last season. They were the best in the league in kickoff coverage but allowed opponents 11.7 yards per return on punts. UNM got only 6.4 yards per return when receiving punts, but it hopes Clark will improve that number significantly.Wright and Smith will be the team’s top two kick returners. Wright was very effective last season, averaging 25.9 yards per return, tops in the Mountain West.

The returning talent and depth, across the board, should assure the Lobos of improved special teams.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Given Long’s track record and a total of 18 offensive and defensive starters returning, bowl eligibility in 2007 would seem a near certainty. But six wins isn’t the goal for this team. New Mexico would like to threaten the MWC’s ruling elite — BYU, TCU and Utah.

Grading the Lobos

Porterie is inexperienced, but he appears to have a star quality to him. Ferguson is the league’s best running back, and its not out of the question he could push 1,500 yards. UNM also returns two 50-plus reception receivers. If the line can cut down on the 43 sacks it allowed in 2006, the Lobos’ offense should be potent, despite its third coordinator in as many years.For New Mexico to push the eight-win mark, a plateau it has reached only once in Long’s tenure, it will have to improve its pass defense dramatically. Was inexperience responsible for the 28 touchdown passes allowed last season, or was it talent? The answer will go a long in determining the team’s success.

Pay close attention to how the new kicker fares. Three of New Mexico’s six wins last seasons were by three points or less, so it’s not a stretch to say Byrd was as valuable as anyone on the team last season.

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