Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorable moments, personalities from NMSU during past year

Men’s basketball run to the NCAA: The Aggies push to a WAC championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance was memorable because of all they had to overcome.
Marvin Menzies’ squad got off to a rocky start to the season, beginning the year 3-6 and losing a handful of times in blowout fashion. The team also was without key frontcourt players Wendell McKines and Troy Gillenwater, before both righted themselves in the classroom.
Still, Menzies held things together and the team closed the year strong, going 11-5 in conference to close out the regular season.
NMSU then went on to run through the WAC Tournament, beating host team Nevada on a Jahmar Young buzzer beater and then longtime nemesis Utah State in the tournament finals, advancing to the NCAAs.

Beating New Mexico in football: Granted, this was a game between two of the nation’s worst programs in 2009 under two first-year head coaches.
But for the Aggies, anytime you can beat New Mexico in football, up in Albuquerque no less, it needs to be considered a qualified success. When looking at how the team managed to nail down the victory, it was even more of a stunning, and memorable, outcome.
Down 17-13 late, Jeff Fleming came on in relief of starting quarterback Trevor Walls to drive NMSU 59 yards on 17 plays. It was running back Seth Smith who did most of the damage, rumbling downfield for 34 yards on eight carries. The game-winning play was a Fleming pass to wide receiver Marcus Anderson in the back of the endzone on fourth down, a play which eventually put NMSU up three with less than a minute remaining.
UNM answered with a desperation drive of its own, but a James Aho 47-yard field goal attempt at the gun went wide right.

DeWayne Walker: The first-year head coach took over at NMSU and led the team to a 3-9 record.
NMSU got off to a 3-3 start to the season and, despite the poor record, still exceeded many outside expectations during the 2009 campaign, lending fans to believe that, with adequate time and resources, Walker could eventually lead the program to a bowl game.
Those plans almost went up in smoke in early January, however, as multiple media outlets had Walker heading to the Pacific Northwest to join newly minted Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. Alas, Walker put a rest to the speculation, announcing on Jan. 14 that he would return to NMSU.

Men’s golf team winning WAC — again: It’s become normal circumstances at this point - the New Mexico State men’s golf team winning the Western Athletic Conference Tournament and advancing to regional play.
It’s been three straight years now the team has moved on to regionals, with each year the team falling just short of its ultimate goal - the NCAA Championships.
This year’s version saw the Aggies sputter for the better part of the spring season. NMSU hit its stride in the WAC Tournament, however, with a super-human performance by Tim Madigan — he fired a 14-under-par 202 during the three-day event — and a solid showing by his supporting cast led by freshmen Justin Shin and Justin Knauber.
The Aggies finished seventh at the San Diego Regional, missing the NCAA cut by two spots. Still, the program continues to build as the WAC’s best, and could make another push in 2011.

Women’s soccer holds its own: When a first-year program finishes with a .500 record in league play and advances to the conference tournament in its inaugural season on the field, it’s considered a success. That’s exactly what the Aggie women’s soccer team did in 2009.
Head coach Michael Needham deserves a lot of the credit for getting the program off the ground, as the team was anchored by a steady defense and solid goalkeeping from senior Katie Graul.
The Aggies won six-of-seven matches at one point and never seemed out of place on the Division-I stage.

Jahmar Young: One of the most confounding figures on the NMSU sports scene, Young embodied everything that was good and bad with the Aggie basketball team in recent years.
The team’s leading scorer and most talented offensive presence, Young showed a fearless mentality on the court and with the basketball in his hands. He hit game winning shots against Hawaii in the regular season and Nevada in the conference tournament while consistently displaying his ability as one of the WAC’s most dangerous — if not the conference’s most dangerous — offensive presence, with unlimited range and a swagger that every elite player must have.
He also found his fare share of trouble away from the court. Let it be known that Young did good as well — he was a presence with the community’s youth and worked relentlessly on his basketball game. He was never a problem in the classroom for the Aggies.
But two arrests in three years, along with other brush ups with the law are tough blemishes to touch up. His last, charged with battery of a peace police officer on April 11 at a Las Cruces Pic Quick, was the last straw before he officially hired an agent and went full-bore into the NBA Draft.
We wish Young the best as he pursues his professional dreams. His personality and performances — on and off the court — made him a unique personality in Las Cruces.

Aggie baseball: Lets just get it out of the way — the ending of the 2010 season was tough for the New Mexico State Aggie baseball team.
NMSU managed to lose 10 of its final 11 games, a run that came to a crashing halt in the WAC Tournament, as the No. 2-seeded Aggies dropped their first two games of the competition to be effectively eliminated from postseason play.
The freefall began with a four-game sweep at the hands of Fresno State at home. The series opened with the Aggies in first place and looking to clinch the No. 1 seed in the WAC. It ended with the club in second and scrambling to pick up the pieces.
The rest was history, as NMSU eventually dropped its first two games of the WAC Tournament, despite being the No. 2 seed.
The sad part is that much of 2010 was good for the NMSU baseball team. The team did lose key players during the season in catcher Ben Harty and infielder Mike Sodders. It held first place for much of the regular season and got a nice mix of performances from veterans and younger players alike. But it’s not about how you start, it’s often about how you finish. And the ending was bad.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Trevor Walls to tight end?

Quarterback Trevor Walls will most likely play tight end during the 2010 football season.

From what I hear, Walls actually approached the coaching staff about a change of positions. It seemed unlikely that Walls would see snaps at QB this year after getting limited action there during spring practices.

Can Walls play at tight end? He's a big body, listed at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds on the NMSU Web site. Also, quarterbacks have been known to make a move to receiver and pull it off, as they already have an innate knowledge of the passing game.

We'll see if it comes to fruition.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Talk with Walk

Spoke with head coach DeWayne Walker today about news and notes this spring and into the summer surrounding his New Mexico State Aggie football team.

The first topic we discussed was the quarterback situation, where Walker said the team is still actively recruiting. NMSU has a number of players at the position — Jeff Fleming and Matt Christian competed for the starting job this spring along with Tanner Rust. True freshman Andrew Manley will step in during he fall and it will be interesting to see what he can do as a 3-star recruit.

“When I spoke to (Boise State coach) Chris Peterson before our game (last December), he said that's one spot where you got to have guys,” Walker said. “It will be an ongoing competition until we find the right guy.”

The spring game last month saw Christian throw the ball effectively downfield while Fleming was able to use his legs to his advantage. Walker reiterated that while the coaching staff would like to see one guy take the reigns as the starting signal caller, if the Aggies have to enter the season with two QBs sharing snaps, they will.

“Matt Christian, he brings something that we lacked last year and that is leadership and confidence,” Walker said. “It's something we'll pay close attention to going into training camp.

“Fleming can run and we'll pay close attention to that too. We're not an option team and you gotta be able to function throwing the football.”

The head coach seems excited about incoming players that will make an appearance for the Aggies at fall camp. Kenny Turner should provide a spark in a backfield that already seems fairly stable while wide receiver Taveon Burke can hopefully bring speed and big-play ability on the outside. Aundre McGaskey will also be a big body at offensive tackle that can possibly take the field contribute immediately.

Defensively, the Aggies will add tackles Tommy Stuart and David Mahoney who should sure up the interior of the line.

Also, expect NMSU to bring in a body or two at wide receiver and safety in an attempt to provide depth and competition to the positions as the 2010 season nears.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thoughts following the Aggies' spring

College football spring practice can be tough to evaluate.

In my opinion, it’s over hyped. Teams don’t go to bowl games in the spring. They try to install concepts on both sides of the ball, get players acclimated into football shape all while trying to avoid the injury bug.
This spring’s practice sessions at NMSU was noteworthy for a few reasons:

• The team had a brand new offensive coaching staff in place, with Mike Dunbar taking over as coordinator, R. Todd Littlejohn moving over to coach the wide receivers, Keith Murphy shifting over to tight ends and Shaun Johnson taking over at running backs.

Will the offense be better in 2010 as opposed to 2009, where it was one of the nation’s worst in many major statistical categories? Right now, it’s impossible to tell. The real proof will come on Sept. 11, when the team opens the season against San Diego State, and moving forward throughout the course of the year.

The spring session simply gave the staff a chance to lay the ground work and give it an idea on its personnel before August training camp hits.

Still, there was some noteworthy observations made during April.

At quarterback, Jeff Fleming looked better this spring and junior college transfer Matt Christian had a strong performance in the team’s Crimson and White game last Saturday. While Fleming threw the ball more aggressively downfield, Christian showed a strong arm and a quick release. The quarterbacks also developed a chemistry with some of their receivers - Marcus Allen got better as spring practices unfolded and Kyle Nelson looked like a solid target at tight end.

The offense needs to throw more 15-to-20 yard pass patterns into the mix this season. Last year, it just didn’t happen. The team completed just four passes of 20 yards or more in 2009, with the long going to Allen for 34 yards, followed by a 30-yard grab from Todd Lee. An offense needs to be able to stretch the field some and, last year, it didn’t happen. Was it scheme, personnel or both? That question is tough to answer at the moment, but this spring the team seemed more willing to let the quarterbacks drop back and chuck it, and the QBs looked adequate doing so. It needs to carry over into the season, but it was encouraging to see this past month.

Wide receiver is another position that needs to improve in tandem with the quarterbacks. Again, Allen looked better as the spring went on. Last Saturday he flashed his ability, making three impressive plays — a short catch which he turned into a big gain, a tough grab along the sideline where he got his feet inbounds before being pushed to the ground and a juggling touchdown reception that saw him tumble into the endzone. Allen has certifiable talent, it was just underutilized in last year’s offense. NMSU needs a bona fide No. 1, and he could take over that title with a good senior year.

Two weeks ago, it was Nelson who stood out during the team’s scrimmage, catching a number of balls, two going for touchdowns. Last year, Nelson was good in the spring too and vanished during the season, as he struggled catching the football. As Dunbar said following last Saturday’s practice, a reliable tight end can change the dynamics of a passing attack and develop the confidence of a quarterback, opening up the middle of the field and supplying a weapon inside the 10-yard line.

While suffering a hamstring injury during spring practices, last year’s leading receiver Todd Lee will be back in the fall. Fellow wide receiver Darrius Preston has flashed talent, while the team will also bring in junior college transfer Taveon Burke for fall ball, and possibly another player as well. Similar to the quarterbacks, for the wide receivers, looking good in the spring is one thing. Carrying it over into the season is a whole other challenge.

• On defense, the Aggies have to replace three starting linebackers from last year in Ross Conner, Jason Scott and Jamar Cotton. The team’s primary backup, Sam King, also left during the offseason.

The 2009 linebacking corps wasn’t flashy, but they were respectable and brought a veteran’s touch to the defense. Scott and Conner both made over 100 tackles while playing, what seemed like, every down.

This offseason the team brought in junior college transfer Frank Padilla, with the idea that he would take over in the middle. Things have changed since, however, with Padilla now penciled in as the starting strongside linebacker, Boyblue Aoelua - a special teams player last year - at middle linebacker and B.J. Adolpho, a redshirt sophomore, along the weakside.

This spring showed a few things from a physical standpoint: Padilla has the size - 6-foot-2, 248 pounds - and toughness to compete in the WAC and Adolpho looks like a fearless player who’s going to hit. Both players were flying around during spring practices and made some big plays last Saturday during the scrimmage.

The middle linebacker position carries the most responsibility on the Aggie defense - asked to call the plays, adjust the alignment up front and know the ins and outs of the opposing offense. The staff said they were impressed with Aoelua’s development this spring. He’ll need to continue that into the fall and sustain it during the rugged regular season of Division-I football.

• The Aggie first stringers will need to stay healthy in 2010.

Sure, you can say that about any program in the country, but it’s paramount at NMSU, where depth is often an issue.
We’ll start on offense, where the line will need to stay intact. Tackle Dwayne Barton, center Mike Grady and guard Sioeli Fakalata started all of 2009 and held their own - they’re proven Division I football players. Once he arrives for fall camp, junior college recruit Aundre McGaskey will need to step in and produce at tackle. The belief is that he will.

Outside of that, there are unproven commodities along this unit. Backup center Dejuan Yates is making the transition from the offensive side of the ball and Jake Swenson and Ruben Escarsega both redshirted last year. Dylan Lusk might make an impact, but he’ll be a true freshman in 2010.

The running back position will also need another full season from its first stringer, Seth Smith, along with his backups, Kenny Turner and Robert Clay. This group looked to be one of the deepest on the team, but greyshirt freshman Marquese Dunn departed the program recently for personal reasons back home in Pfugerville, Texas. There’s still numbers here, but Smith played hurt for a good portion of last season with a separated right shoulder, and banged up his left one during spring drills. He’s tough and runs hard - which can be a blessing and a curse. If healthy, the Aggies have a 1,000-yard rusher in their stable, with some talented reserves in waiting.

Defensive ends Donte Savage and Pierre Fils had solid seasons in 2009, combining for 13 sacks and over 100 tackles. Both played seemingly every down and are undersized - Savage at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Fils at 6-foot-3, 234. Kawika Shook, who was a solid swingman on the line last year, will be their primary backup. But, injuries to either Savage or Fils will take away an impact player on the NMSU defense and thin out the line.

Safety is also a question mark as spring wraps up. Alphonso Powell was a starter throughout last season, making 72 tackles, while recording a sack, an interception and breaking up seven balls. He’ll be asked to do it again in his senior year.
Starting next to him this spring was Ben Bradley, a junior who seldom saw the field his first two years with the program. He took the place of Stephon Hatchett, a junior who made over 100 tackles last year, but is currently trying to straighten things out in the classroom. There’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to go in 2010.

Recruit Shamar Gaines, who was expected to get time this season, won’t be coming to NMSU this fall after all, troubled by academics and off-field issues.

Walker said last week that the Aggies could be in the market for a safety this summer. Either way, the current players on the roster need to stay healthy and be productive.