2008 Blue Ribbon Preview: New Mexico

Here we go again, bringing you all the MWC news on one site.

COACH AND PROGRAM

If nothing else, if he never wins another college football game, veteran New Mexico coach Rocky Long never again has to hear about the bowl streak. And for that, he’s both pleased and a bit annoyed it was an issue to begin with.

In the moments after New Mexico’s 23-0 defeat of Nevada in last season’s New Mexico Bowl, a win that snapped the program’s 46-year bowl win drought — that included five trips under Long — the usual jovial coach said, “It gets it off our back. We don’t have to listen to it anymore, but this program was good before we won this game. It’s you people who make it so important that we have to win to be justified. It’s you folks that write that stuff, not us.”

In classic Long form he added, “I’m glad you’re giving me a soap box, by the way.”

As for this season, the goal is somewhat changed from a year ago, that being to maintain momentum in what could be a transition season. Still, New Mexico should at least chal-lenge for yet another bowl invite. And if nothing else, it’s worth noting that the only Mountain West program to be bowl eligible in each of the last seven years is … yes, New Mexico.

“I think it’s nice that we got the bowl victory,” Long said. “I think that takes a little of the pressure off because we’ve had a pretty consistently good football program, but the knock was that we hadn’t won a bowl game even though we had been in five in the past six years,” Long said. “I thought last year’s team overachieved. I thought in the preseason, we weren’t expected to do as well as we did. I think a lot of that success had to do with the senior leadership.”

New Mexico had changed offensive coordinators three seasons running from 2005-07, making the sustained success all the more impressive. So if nothing else this season, despite only six returning starters on offense, coordinator Dave Baldwin is returning.

“That makes it easier that nothing is changing on offense,” Long said. “The guys who have been here understand the scheme, and so now they hopefully get better at techniques and become better football players because they don’t have to think as much. But we’ve also recruited junior college players that are going to have to compete for starting roles, and they still have to learn the offense.”

Overall, this is going to be a challenging season for Long, much like the back-to-back six-win seasons of 2005 and 2006.

“We’re awfully young. We’ve got some people that we had to develop into starters during spring practice,” Long said. “Four of our five [starting] offensive linemen are gone; our two big-time receivers are gone. Our kicker and our punter are gone. We have three seniors in the defensive line and four seniors at linebacker gone, so it’s going to be a fairly young team. “I think we have enough talent to be pretty good, it just depends on how fast they’ll mature into players since a lot of them didn’t play last year.”

QUARTERBACKS

Long and the program made a commitment two seasons ago to then freshman Donovan Porterie (6-3, 206), and while it wasn’t by choice — an injury and ineffectiveness by others led to the decision — it allowed the talented Port Arthur, Texas, native to gain the experience needed to guide the Lobos to nine victories in 2007.

And as he enters his junior campaign, Porterie is 12-4 in games that he started and finished. By the time his career in Albuquerque is complete, he may just overtake Stoney Case as the program’s all-time passing leader.

As a sophomore last season, Porterie was solid while showing flashes of potential greatness here and there. His final numbers included a 58.4 completion percentage, 3,006 yards, 15 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. He has also shown the ability to lead New Mexico in the clutch via a pair of game-winning final possession touchdown drives.

“It’s always great to have your starting quarterback coming back,” Long said. “I thought Donovan got better as the season went along and understands the offense a whole lot better now than he did a year ago.

“The leadership role is always pressed upon the quarterback. I thought he did a nice job last year, but obviously with another year under his belt and more confidence, it’s going to help his leadership. The more confident you are in your own ability and the more confident you are that you understand the whole offensive scheme, the better leader you’re going to become.”

Porterie’s 3,006 passing yards marked the most by a New Mexico quarterback since Case in 1994. Some of those yards came on broken plays in which Porterie created space to throw from outside the pocket. He was sacked just 24 times.

And with this season’s team, especially offensively, young and inexperienced, Long is hoping Porterie expands his leadership efforts.

“I think Donovan becomes the leader because he’s the quarterback,” Long said. “I think our offense is going to be so young that maybe that role needs to be stepped up. Last year he had a lot of seniors out there with him. So even though he was the quarterback and probably exerted some leadership, I would guess that his leadership wasn’t as necessary as it is this year.”

The staff saw significant strides in Porterie this spring, especially his grasp of the offense. “Basically, just polish off things that we didn’t do so well last spring,” Porterie said of his goals this spring. “Last spring we were coming into a new offense, and it took us a lot of time to get the concepts down.

“This year we have the concepts down, and now it’s more of an execution factor for the offense. Last year, we had a real positive season, but offensively there are still some points that we want to get down pat.”

If Porterie goes down, there is absolutely no experience behind him, not so much as a single collegiate pass attempt. The backup is redshirt freshman Brad Gruner (6-2, 225) and barring an injury, the Lobos won’t carry another scholarship signal caller on the roster this season.

RUNNING BACKS

One would think that despite the presence of Porterie, New Mexico would run the ball even more this season than last. For one, this would take advantage of a strong running back corps and offensive line while also not putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the young wideouts. And, perhaps most importantly, the Lobos aren’t going to blow many teams out this season, so ball control is always a huge advantage in close games.

As for who is No. 1 on the depth chart at tailback, it’s anyone’s guess, and that may sound strange considering senior Robert Ferguson (6-0, 229) returns as a two-time first team All-MWC selection. He rushed for 1,234 yards in 2006 before 1,177 yards and 14 total touchdowns a season ago. However, he missed the bowl game after being declared academically ineligible, and sure enough, senior Paul Baker (5-7, 195) stepped in and earned New Mexico Bowl MVP honors behind 167 rushing yards and more than 200 yards from scrimmage.

Also in the mix are redshirt freshman James Wright (5-11, 210), the projected starter next season, and sophomore Mike Love (6-0, 221).

“We’ve got experienced running backs,” Long said. “We’ve got an all-conference tailback coming back, but we also know that there’s some depth there with Paul Baker playing so well in the bowl game.

“We’ve got a couple of young tailbacks and we’ve got a couple of what we consider really good fullbacks. We know what Rodney can do. We’ve seen what Paul can do in one game [as the featured back], but Mike Love and James Wright, those guys need a chance to prove that they can play, too.”

More than likely, as much as Long talks about a potential running back-by-committee approach, it’s hard to fathom Ferguson not seeing 20 carries a game. He may not quite be the workhorse he was last year with a school-record 292 attempts, but this guy is as tough as they come when it matters, as evidenced by his eight-of-nine conversations on fourth-down carries.

At fullback is senior Matt Quillen (6-0, 250), an exceptional lead blocker, and sophomore Josh Fussell (6-2, 235).

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Marcus Smith and his 91 catches for 1,125 yards and four scores and Travis Brown and his 76 grabs for 1,031 yards and six touchdowns are gone; what remain is little experience, some promise and a ton of question marks.

“We have to develop some wide receivers, because the majority of the catches last year were by two seniors,” Long said. “We think we have talented athletes, but most of them haven’t played very much. “So some of them are going to have to step up and take up for that slack in production so that we don’t drop off there.

“I think the best thing about the receivers is that there’s enough of them that there will be great competition, and competition always makes everybody better.”

Long believes that having a three-year starter at quarterback should make for a smother transition with the inexperienced wide receiving corps.

“That definitely helps,” he said. “There’s going to be fewer times that there’s bad balls thrown or receivers not getting a chance to catch the ball. Now receivers need to be in the right place too. They have to learn to read coverages as well as the quarterbacks. Having a veteran quarterback that can tell them when they make mistakes obviously will help a lot.”

Entering fall camp, the likely starters are junior Roland Bruno (5-10, 166), who started six games last season and had five receptions for a career-high 86 yards in the New Mexico Bowl, senior Jermaine McQueen (6-2, 180), the team’s fastest wideout, and sophomore Chris Hernandez (6-3, 185).

While Bruno caught 21 balls for 186 yards last season, the other two combined for 10 catches for 66 yards.

Others auditioning for playing time come fall camp include senior Jonathan Brooks (6-1, 189), red-shirt freshman Michael Scarlett (6-2, 170), junior Daryl Jones (6-3, 207), who has four career catches, and transfer Bryant Williams (5-11, 180) of Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College. The Lobos are solid at tight end with returning starter Chris Mark (6-5, 257), a senior who hauled in 12 catches for 147 yards and three scores last season, and junior Mitch Straub (6-3, 249), a strong blocker that appeared in 12 games last year.

“I like our tight ends a lot, that’s a strong position for us,” Long said.

OFFENSIVE LINE

It’s not often, if ever, that an offensive line loses four of five starters from a nine-win team and no one is really worried about a drop off. In fact, many around the New Mexico program said this spring that the line actually had more depth than a season ago, which considering the Lobos allowed just 25 sacks and cranked out 2,000-plus rushing yards, is saying something.

“I think the most important thing is that our offensive line has to come together. Nothing else works unless the offensive line plays fairly well,” Long said. “The difference between the competition at wide receiver and offensive line is that in the fall you might use a lot of receivers.

“You might catch just as many passes, but it might be spread out over four or five guys. In the offensive line though, for the continuity of the offense, you’d like to stick with five guys. The competition in the offensive line is going to be amazing. Once you establish yourself as the starter in the offensive line, you usually get to play most of the game, which is different from those other positions.”

The lone returning starter is junior center Erik Cook (6-6, 312), who actually played left tackle last season. After that, it’s a free for all in terms of starting roles between incumbents and JUCO transfers. Speaking of which, behind Cook at center is junior Ben Contreras (6-2, 300), who was a JUCO All-American last year at City College of San Francisco.

Entering the spring, the tackles were junior Ivan Hernandez (6-6, 295) and redshirt freshman Byron Bell (6-5, 296). They were pushed this spring by senior Sylvester Hatten (6-3, 308) and Karlin Givens (6-3, 295) of Holmes (Miss.) Community College.

At guard, four players are in the mix, including sophomores Mike Cannon (6-3, 302) and Derek Tallent (6-4, 309), senior Matt Streid (6-3, 321) and Joshua Taufalele (6-2, 320) of Foothill (Calif.) College.

KICKERS

There were five kickers — yes, five — battling for the starting job at spring practice. One would think that was more than enough options, but no, expect more competition in fall camp.

“That’s a position where you don’t really need spring practice to be the best,” Long said. “The guys in the spring who prove that they’re the best will have a leg up when we start in the fall, but there’s still a chance that there’s a guy that’s not on campus yet that could be the starter at any one of those positions.”

One thing is for sure, it’s going to be nearly impossible for the winner to replace the production of John Sullivan last season. In becoming the third consensus All-American in program history, Sullivan converted 29-of-35 field goals, including a 53-yarder. His 29 makes not only led the nation, but were an MWC single-season record. His efforts were all the more impressive considering he kicked all season with a torn ACL in his plant (left) leg.

The ever so slight favorite coming out of the spring was sophomore James Aho (5-9, 175). Also in the mix are senior Yousuf Shakir (5-7, 159) and redshirt freshman Drew Zamora (6-1, 180).

DEFENSIVE LINE

New Mexico ranked 13th nationally in total defense last season at 319.9 yards per game. The Lobos were also 14th in scoring defense at 19.0. And perhaps no individual defensive effort the entire season was more impressive than New Mexico’s shutout of Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl. Consider that Nevada not only entered the game averaging 489 yards and 36.2 points per game, but that the Wolf Pack had the nation’s longest run of games without being shut out dating back to 1980. The 329-game run marked the second longest in college football history.

However, just six starters are back from that unit, the majority of which come in the secondary.

“We lost a couple of big time playmakers at defensive end, but a lot of the returnees have experience, and there’s a lot of depth there, so we can continue to rotate those guys like we did in the past,” Long said. “There’s some guys that are going to have to make up for the tackles for loss and sacks we lost, but they will also get to play a lot more than last year, which gives them an opportunity to make those plays.”

The lone starter returning up front is two-year starting nose tackle Wesley Beck (6-1, 279). The former walk on had 32 tackles, including 5.5 for loss in 2007. Behind Beck is senior Jeremiah Lovato (6-2, 260), another former walk on who had 42 tackles in 23 games the last two seasons. The starting ends in New Mexico’s unique 3-3-5 — or on occasion 4-2-5 — formation are likely senior Kevin Balogun (6-4, 281), who played in 13 games last year and finished with 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks, and junior Phillip Harrison (6-3, 291), who had 17 stops at nose tackle in 2007.

Also vying for playing time at end are juniors DeAndre Davis (6-2, 245), a converted tight end, and Kendall Briscoe (6-1, 271), who has 28 career tackles.

“The depth there is good, and we’ll be a little bigger than we have been in the past,” Long said. “We might not be quite as quick up front, but we’ll be bigger and stronger, which allows us to do some different things with the linebackers and secondary that we didn’t do in the past because we were trying to shore up against the running game.”

LINEBACKERS

Long admits that this is the most glaring question mark on the roster outside of kicker. However, the situation isn’t completely bleak despite losing each of three starters from a season ago. A pair of seniors, Zach Arnett (5-10, 205) and Herbert Felder (6-1, 230) have extensive experience, albeit just six combined starts between them.

Arnett was fourth on the team in tackles last season with 64, including 7.5 for loss and two sacks. As for Felder, he tallied 31 tackles, 13 quarterback hurries and two huge fourth-quarter forced fumbles in wins against San Diego State and Air Force.

“The only real concern on defense is at linebacker,” Long said. “We only have two guys with any real experience in Zach Arnett and Herbert Felder. So there are a lot of guys that have to get a lot of work in and develop so that they can play at a high enough level for us to continue to play well on defense.

“Arnett and Felder played well last year, and they’ve both played a lot of football. There’s absolutely no depth there right now with anybody that has played defense in an actual college football game. We’d like to alternate like we did last year at all positions. It looks like we can right now at every position but linebacker.”

While Arnett will start in the middle with Felder on his left side, the right side starting job is up for grabs. The candidates include sophomore Terel Anyaibe (6-2, 217), and redshirt freshman Jonathan Rainey (6-2, 210) is also in the mix. Behind Arnett and Felder, respectively, are sophomore Seth Johannemann (6-3, 224) and redshirt freshman Carmen Messina (6-2, 210). JUCO transfer Tray Hardaway (6-0, 215) of Copiah-Lincoln Community College could also crack the two-deep.

Despite the lack of experience at linebacker, Long said no changes to the alignment are planned.

“No, it shouldn’t change the alignment, but sometimes it changes what you do, how you blitz, how you stunt and those kinds of things,” Long said. “You want to put the pressure on the experienced guys rather than the inexperienced guys.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS

It’s hard to imagine a more experienced and more accomplished secondary in the Mountain West this season. Five starters are back, including a trio of safeties in senior Blake Ligon (6-1, 187) and juniors Clint McPeek (6-2, 210) and Ian Clark (6-2, 210).

“I think our secondary will be really good, but we were missing a couple guys who were starters during spring practice with Blake Ligon and Ian Clark out after shoulder surgery so we had an opportunity to develop younger players especially at safety,” Long said.

Speaking of Clark — the team’s leading tackler last season with 79 stops — Long said there were no plans for he or McPeek to change positions after the duo shared starts and playing at the “Lobo” safety last season.

“Probably not because we have Frankie Solomon and Ligon at the wolf safeties and we have some other safeties we think can play,” Long said. “If both of them are healthy they would split time at the Lobo position.

“That position is critical, especially to stopping the run because we expect them to walk up there and play at linebacker depth a lot. So it’s good to have two quality players in that spot.”

Ligon, who like Clark is expected back at 100 percent for fall camp, has 22 career starts and finished last season with 57 tackles and eight pass breakups, while McPeek is a former walk on that had 50 tackles in nine games in 2007.

The third starting safety is likely junior Frankie Solomon (5-10, 173) who tallied 45 tackles and two interceptions last season.

The cornerbacks are equally talented, if not more so than the safeties, with four-year starter DeAndre Wright (5-11, 193) earning first team All-MWC honors last season behind nine pass breakups and three interceptions lining up opposite three-year starter Glover Quin (6-0, 203). The senior from Summit, Miss. was an honorable mention All-MWC selec-tion in 2007 while contributing 40 tackles, eight pass breakups and two picks.

“We’ve been lucky around here,” Long said. “We’ve had several years where we’ve had a combination of two really good corners at the same time, which allows us to do a lot of things on defense that you can’t do unless you have good corners. I think the combination of the two is as good as what we’ve had here in the past. We’ve had a lot of corners get a chance to play pro football, and I think [Wright and Quin are] comparable to those guys.”

PUNTERS

After two solid campaigns from Jordan Scott, New Mexico entered this spring minus a starting punter, and while a favorite emerged, the position by no means settled entering fall camp. And while most situations like this means there really isn’t a viable option, and that the Lobos are actually trying to find the lesser of two below-average punters, that isn’t actually the case, at least in terms of their performance in the spring game.

The candidates in question are senior Matt Barnard (6-2, 227), a second team All-American at Mesa Community College in 2005, and junior Adam Miller (6-2, 224). In the spring game, Barnard averaged 45.6 yards on six punts, including a 57-yarder and three inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, while Miller was also impressive at 41.7 yards per kick, with a long of 53.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Lobos lost a solid kick returner in Smith and their long snapper, but the coverage teams should be solid as always behind several walk ons. As for the return game, defensive backs Wright, Clark and Solomon will handle the duties. Solomon averaged 4.5 yards on 19 punt returns last season, while Clark showed great potential at 14.4 yards per return over seven efforts. Wright checked in at 22.3 yards per kick return in 2007. Backup quarterback Gruner will hold, while redshirt freshman Kris Kemper (6-2, 240) is the favorite at long snapper.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

At first glance, it’s easy to think that New Mexico should challenge for another bowl bid, more than likely the New Mexico Bowl. It’s always nice to return talent at the skill positions, especially behind center, where Porterie should really take the leap after an offseason of learning the system and a spring camp of reps.

Grading the Lobos
Unit Grade
Offense B
Special teams C
Defense C+
Intangibles B

And the offensive line is strong. The secondary, too, and the Mountain West should be as balanced as ever, so why not, right?

Take a peek at the schedule. The first month is brutal — home against TCU, Texas A&M and Arizona, at Tulsa and at New Mexico State.

Now, it certainly helps having those first three at home, but TCU, A&M and Arizona each have a legitimate shot at being ranked come the end of the September; we’re not talking Stephen F. Austin or Utah State here. And Tulsa was 9-4 last season, 5-1 at home. And New Mexico State has given the Lobos all they can handle and then some the last two years before falling just short in the fourth quarter.

“It’s obviously the most challenging [schedule] in my time here, and it might be the most challenging in the history of the program,” Long said.

Simply put, a 3-2 start and Long should be dancing in the streets. It’s not beyond the realm that New Mexico loses all five. And in the last seven seasons, perhaps no team in the nation has been more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in first- and second-half performance than New Mexico, which is 16-25 to start the last seven campaigns before finishing 32-9.

The Lobos also play six of their last nine games on the road, including three-of-four after Oct. 18. From this view, the schedule is just too much to overcome, and New Mexico finishes the regular season with fewer than six wins for the first time since 2000.

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