Monday, April 30, 2012

Realignment: The questions, the concerns, the possibilities

Just over two months ago, Karl Benson left the Western Athletic Conference as commissioner for the Sun Belt, and the Cruces Sports Blog addressed the questions and concerns that faced New Mexico State University following such a turn of events.

Now, similar questions arise — where will the Aggies go, and what conference will they find to call home?

Lets first get this out of the way: this is a football question. The Aggies olympic sports will find a league. But with NMSU football's history, could its future as an FBS program be in jeopardy?

For starters, the WAC is done as a football league, soon-to-be left with just NMSU and Idaho. Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio will hitch their horses to Conference USA, while Utah State and San Jose State appear set to join the Mountain West, and Texas State to the Sun Belt.

Never mind that the Aggies have put a competitive athletics program on the field of play this year. An improved football team, an NCAA tournament appearance in men's basketball and a top-25 program on the baseball field. They are currently ranked No. 3 in the WAC Commissioner's Cup standings, and finished third the previous two years, while some of the soon-to-be departed WAC programs can't get out of the basement.

No, in this particular instance, none of these factors seem to matter.

The realignment scramble has been predicated on television markets, football success, and simply overall financial investment into the sports programs.

In these areas, the Aggies could very well fall short. That, along with political pull, and having friends in high places. Yes, NMSU is painted into somewhat of a corner here, and it's getting tighter.

Still, there must be — better be — some places for the Aggies to turn. Some possible options going forward:

• Sun Belt Conference in some form or fashion: Benson could be the Aggies saving grace in this whole process, although the decision to include NMSU in this league that seemingly is planted in the southeast and east-Texas region of the United States is not up to the commissioner, rather its school presidents. And, yes, there are options in this region for further expansion, whether it be a Charlotte, or a Georgia Southern, a Lamar or a Sam Houston State. Does the conference want to come this far west? Perhaps for a football-only affiliation with the Aggies. This still could very well be the best option for NMSU — joining the SBC as a football member, even if it were for just a few years, and finding a home — perhaps a non-football playing, reinvented WAC — for its olympic sports.

• Mountain West or Conference USA: Conference USA seems like a longshot — aside from UTEP being a member, the league is also on the brink of expanding into Texas. The Miners seem to be balking at joining the Mountain West, and UTSA would now appear to be a nice travel partner for them. Perhaps the Mountain West could have a door open up. Still, both leagues, at least in the immediate future, seem like long-shot destinations for the Aggies at the moment.

• Independent football: Could this work for a SHORT period of time? Perhaps for a year or two. But scheduling would be a nightmare — the Aggies have a hard enough time filling a schedule with guaranteed conference games attached to it — and it also feels like the next step toward football extinction.

• FCS football: Southland Conference anyone? How about the Big Sky? Clearly not the first choice for Aggie administration.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Aggie prospects for 2012 NFL Draft

(Photo of Jonte Green courtesy of NMSU Athletics)

There are no Davon House's in this year's NFL Draft.

That is, no New Mexico State Aggies who are sure-fire selections, no fourth-round picks that come off the board.

But do Taveon Rogers and Jonte Green have a shot at being taken, perhaps in the later rounds on Saturday? Yes, they do.

Both have the body types, and the running ability, to be considered NFL prospects.

That, and Donyae Coleman and Kenny Turner — while appearing like long-shots to hear their names called this weekend — still have good chances at making NFL camps this summer.

We give a scouting report on what former Aggies to keep an eye on as the NFL Draft kicks off today, and heading into the coming months leading up to the season.

Jonte Green
Position: Cornerback
Scouting report: Green is similar to Rogers — from a physical standpoint they both pass the test, and both players can run. Green got better as last year went on — he showed some needed production to go with his body frame (5-11, 191 pounds). Some teams flew Green in for workouts this offseason and, similar to Rogers as well, he would be a project player on the next level.
Projected destination: Possible selection between rounds five and seven
Quote note: “At the end the year with those picks, it was a boost. Hopefully I can continue that going forward, making those plays.”
— Green on ending last season with two interceptions in the Aggies final two games

Taveon Rogers
Position: Wide receiver
Scouting report: The kid can fly and is a multi-dimensional threat as a wide receiver and a kick returner. Rogers is not polished as a wideout, although with top-flight professional coaching, has the tools to work with — the right body-type (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) with blazing speed. Rogers is in the mold of a track athlete, with more straight-line speed to his repertoire.
Projected destination: Possible selection between rounds five and seven
Quote to note: “It puts me in a good place. I can do both for a team….It gives me versatility, and definitely brings more value to a team.”
— Rogers on being a wide receiver and kick returner

Donyae Coleman
Position: Safety
Scouting report: Will Coleman get drafted? It's not likely. But you've gotta like his makeup. Coleman had a good pro day at NMSU in early April, and was a good player for the Aggies the past two years. Coleman was physical and always found himself around the ball, production that should garner recognition. Coleman should find a pro camp to land in as an undrafted free agent, and the Canadian Football League looks like a good possible landing spot as well.
Projected destination: Undrafted free agent
Quote to note: “I've worked my tail off and the coaches put me in a position to have a good year….I feel like I'll play next year. I'm not sure I'll get drafted. But I feel like I'll be one of the better free agent safeties out there.”
— Donyae Coleman

Kenny Turner
Position: Running back
Scouting report: The 26-year-old Turner had a big year for the Aggies in 2011 and left school a year early for the NFL Draft. He suffered a groin injury during Aggie pro day — this hurt his chances in terms of working out for scouts. Turner's age and past history could play a factor for NFL teams come draft time. Similar to Coleman, however, Turner could very well find an NFL camp leading up to the season, and the CFL would seem like a good fit as well.
Projected destination: Undrafted free agent
Quote to note: “Late round, free agent pickup. That's what I'm expecting at this point. But I'll be ready to go no matter what. I've been waiting for this.”
— Kenny Turner

Mike Grady
Position: Center
Scouting report: Grady was recently contacted by an NFL team and here's why — he has the size and intelligence for a club possibly in the market for a backup center. For that reason, he can't be counted out. Still, Grady has battled to stay healthy in past years — he consistently played as a wounded warrior the last two seasons — and could struggle to hold up physically.
Projected destination: Possible undrafted free agent
Quote to note: “I always told myself if the opportunity arose, it would be something I would pursue. We'll just see where the process goes.”
— Mike Grady

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Stepping away for a few days

I will be taking some vacation time for the first half of this week.

Feel free to post, the blog will still be monitored and updated.

Aggie football notes: Junior college transfers look to make impact this upcoming season

It looks like some junior college transfers could be impact players for the Aggies this fall on the football field.

Lets go through some that have caught the eye this spring:

• Andrew McDonald, QB: A transfer from Santa Ana College, McDonald and the offense looked good on Saturday — he got rid of the ball, showed some smarts, and has a pedigree. While Andrew Manley is penciled in as the Aggie starter at quarterback, there is a competition for the No. 2 man behind the incumbent.

“If we’ve got to go with McDonald, I don’t think we’ll have a problem with him,” NMSU head coach DeWayne Walker said.

• Akeelie Mustafa, RB: Mustafa’s trademark has been his quickness — the Aggies need a big-play back to replace Kenny Turner in that role. Thus far, he’s looked pretty good during spring practices. Like McDonald, Mustafa played at Santa Ana College in 2010 and did not play last year.

• Perris Scoggins, TE: He’s a big player (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) and could have been overlooked coming out of San Jacinto College. Regardless, he looks to be a contributor this fall.

• Trashaun Nixon, LB: Coming from Ventura College, Nixon (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) has been taking snaps at weakside linebacker and looks like a possible starter there.

• Dele Junaid, S: This defensive back displays good size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) at strong safety. Junaid spent a year at Ole Miss before playing at Eastern Arizona College.

• Some others: Contra Costa College cornerback Cameron Fuller has gotten some playing time, and there are a handful of new defensive linemen such as Ventura College transfer Kalvin Cruz.


Andrew Kersten, who started at guard last year, has been taking snaps at right tackle.


Defensive nose tackle Mark Brown looked good on Saturday.

Standing at 6-foot, 290 pounds, Brown was a walk-on last year who was granted a scholarship this past offseason.

“IQ player,” Walker said. “You’ll see this little pudgy guy out there, but he’s smart....He’s making consistent improvement.”


B.J. Adolpho and Alexander LaVoy look to be splitting snaps at middle linebacker. LaVoy proved to be good in pass coverage last year, not as effective vs. the run, while Adolpho has been with the program for, what seems like, forever.

“We’re just letting them compete right now,” Walker said. “LaVoy obviously has a presence with his size and all that. But we just think Adolpho, he’s more maybe of an IQ player. We think he can handle more, and has a little bit more football savvy. We’ll keep that competition going throughout camp.”


Another defensive player who stands out? Donte Savage.

He’s a senior at defensive end, and is used as a “rush” end — Savage goes to the side of the offensive line opposite where the tight end lines up, one on one with the offensive tackle.

He’s big and fast, and could also look the part of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. As written in this space before, he has All-WAC potential.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Marvin Menzies: weighing a better contract

Certainly, a boosted contract for New Mexico State men’s head basketball coach Marvin Menzies could be considered warranted.

Most would have a hard time arguing with NCAA Tournament appearances two of the past three years, or the 20-win seasons that have come.

The results are there — the Aggies have been a top-two, top-three WAC team during Menzies’ five-year tenure at the school.

When considering that, it’s reasonable to expect Menzies to be paid as such. Can NMSU pay him over $450,000 or $500,00 annually — around the amount Utah State head coach Stew Morrill reportedly makes? I don’t think NMSU can afford that.

What about some other WAC coaches from the past year? Nevada head coach David Carter reportedly made about $300,000, while Hawaii’s Gib Arnold ($344,000) and Fresno State’s Rodney Terry ($350,000) reportedly made more. Bear in mind, however, that those were recent hires, made by schools that were on the verge of leaving the WAC for the Mountain West Conference.

How about some current WAC coaches, or ones that will be joining the WAC this upcoming year? Utah State, and Morrill, remain members of the league, at least for this upcoming season. Don Verlin at Idaho  reportedly made over $140,000 last year, and will make over $148,000 next season — again, base salary here, and a good bargain. While Scott Cross at Texas Arlington — a contender in the Southland Conference — made around $115,000 in 2011 (the final year of his five-year contract), Brooks Thompson of Texas-San Antonio (around $125,000 in 2011) and Doug Davalos of Texas State (around $120,000 in 2011) each made comparable to each other. With that being said, University of Denver head coach Joe Scott reportedly made a base salary of about $300,000 in 2010, while his associate head coach Mike McKee was paid $120,000.

While Menzies salary could be raised, do the Aggies have to make a move here? Well, no, they don’t.

Just because Menzies interviewed at Colorado State for the Rams head coaching position does not mean NMSU is obligated to react to such a situation — he isn’t the only head coach to gain leverage by entertaining another job opportunity.

And I’m not a big fan of doing business by looking over your neighbor’s fence — the argument could be made, when considering their resources, the Aggies need to think more outside the box in terms of allocating such resources. I, for one, think if Menzies did leave it wouldn’t have necessarily been a good thing for the hoops program — the head coach has established an identity, some winning, and the players are comfortable with the system in place. Yes, I think he’s generally happy here, and is firmly planted in his job — I think there’s some security here for him, and continued room for growth.

The bottom line for NMSU head coaches such as Menzies and football coach DeWayne Walker? Their big payday, their big raise, will come when they move onto a bigger job, and won’t necessarily come at their current one.

In Menzies’ case, if a raise does in fact happen at NMSU — and it appears it will — most of that money will be coming from the private sector. That, and bear in mind it never hurts to get added funds for your program in general — to help with recruiting, scheduling, etc. — if the coach is in fact seeking that as well.

At the end of the day, I would expect a slight boost in his base salary — between $300,000 and $350,000 annually — perhaps some added bonuses and incentives, and some increased years put onto his current deal.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Thursday, April 19, 2012

DeWayne Walker: ‘Manley's our starter’

It's not a surprise.

The fact that quarterback Andrew Manley will be the Aggies starter in 2012 barring full health.

He's proven he can play and get the ball downfield when given the time.

“Manley's our starter,” NMSU head coach DeWayne Walker said following Thursday's spring football practice.

The question remains, who will be Manley's backup?

It could stand to reason that the team would like to redshirt sophomore Travaughn Colwell, considering he has a longer shelf life than junior college transfer Andrew McDonald.

That, and Colwell could use a year to learn the nuances of the position.


The more I think about it, the more I believe a player or two will emerge at the wide receiver position.

Austin Franklin looked good as a freshman last year and Kemonte Bateman has some big-play potential.

There are other possible players as well — Marcus Williams, Kevan Walker, Joseph Mathews and Adam Shapiro.

That, and I have faith in position coach R. Todd Littlejohn to make it work with the unit.


Back to the running back position very quickly.

Robert Clay is a proven tough runner, and the team likes what it's getting from incoming player Lavoris Powell.

One thing the Aggies could use out of the backfield is a big-play threat outside the tackles.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Aggie offense faces 3 questions this spring

(Courtesy photo of Aggie offensive coordinator Jerry McManus)

Today, we take a look at the three key questions facing the Aggie football team's offense as spring practices move along.

• Who will replace Turner and Rogers?: Finding adequate production in place of running back Kenny Turner and wide receiver Taveon Rogers — and also to an extent quarterback Matt Christian, wide receiver Todd Lee and 3/5s of the team's starting offensive line — will be of critical importance for NMSU football.

The reality is that Turner and Rogers were the offense's top game breakers last year and accounted for much of the Aggies' offensive production in 2011. Is there a players or two that can pick up that slack going into the new year?

• Can the Aggie offensive line block in a downhill rushing attack?: Last year, the team couldn't early in the season.

And the Aggies want to run the football more this year although, minus Christian, likely won't run the option as much — it's not a knock on quarterback Andrew Manley, but it's also just not part of his game.

NMSU could very well try and run the football more this year, although the offensive line's ability to block in a straight-ahead rushing attack will be key in this department.

• Can Jerry McManus fill Doug Martin's shoes?: It wouldn't seem likely that McManus will do exactly what Martin did last year as NMSU's offensive coordinator.

Martin was experienced, coached to his players strengths, and was resourceful.

Just think back to the beginning of the year, when Manley went down, Martin inserted Christian and Turner into the Aggies offensive backfield, and NMSU's attack instantly opened up from there.

How will McManus be as an offensive coordinator? We know from a continuity standpoint, the system should remain much the same.

But the truth is that we won't fully know how he does with the job until the bullets start flying this fall.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Monday, April 16, 2012

MVCS to hire Mike Draper as head coach

The Mesilla Valley Christian SonBlazers will hire Mike Draper as the head coach of their football program.

The school will hold a press conference on Tuesday at 8:30 a.m.

Draper coached at Mayfield from 1983-94 and reached the state championship game in 1987 — it wasn’t a particularly impressive tenure, as he proceeded Jim Bradley at the school

He does have plenty of experience — stops at La Cueva, Highland High School, Estancia High School, and Moriarity High School.

After winning the Class A state championship last year, the SonBlazers will compete in Class 2A in 2012.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Aggie offense a work in progress

With spring football practices about three weeks old, the New Mexico State Aggies aren’t playing with a full deck on the offensive side of the ball.

On my most recent Aggie football blog post, there was a question pertaining to the running back position, and the truth is that NMSU is still looking for a starter in the backfield.

Junior college transfer Akeelie Mustafa has shown quickness, but must work on hitting the hole faster.

Robert Clay has trimmed down a bit this offseason and looks quicker as well, but he’s sidelined at the moment with an ankle injury.

Brandon Betancourt has looked good with the ball in his hands, but still has to work on his blocking in pass protection.

The team is also expecting two new players to come in during fall camp — junior college transfer Lavoris Powell is one of them, and Germi Morrison, who missed last year with a foot injury, is expected to return for 2012 fall camp.

At quarterback, Andrew Manley is limited right now as he recovers from a torn ACL, and the team continues to search for a backup behind him, whether that be Travaughn Colwell or Andrew McDonald.

And along the offensive line, NMSU is bringing in five new players before the start of fall camp.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Aggie baseball must take care of business in four-game series at Sacramento State

(Photo of Aggie shortstop Zach Voight by Niki Rhynes)

What will the New Mexico State Aggies need to do in order to capture a Western Athletic Conference baseball regular-season championship?

Win every series they play in league competition by taking two of three games, and sweep a couple other three-game sets along the way.

This weekend could be a good opportunity to do the latter against Sacramento State — the two teams will play three WAC games from Friday to Sunday, and then compete in an out-of-conference, head-to-head matchup on Monday.

Yes, taking all three WAC games of this series appears optimal, and sweeping all four contests would certainly help NMSU’s cause of at least maintaining their No. 19 status in the RPI, and as an at-large candidate going into the NCAA Tournament.

Sacramento State, with its 16-6 record and an RPI ranking of No. 173, may not be the doormat of the WAC this year — they opened league play by taking two of three games at Louisiana Tech last weekend — but the 25-9 Aggies look to be the better club, and have historically beaten the Hornets.

After this road trip, NMSU will then host Louisiana Tech for a three-game set before their schedule really begins to ramp up.

A two-game series at Baylor follows — the Bears are ranked No. 8 in the RPI — before the Aggies return home to take on Texas Tech of the Big 12 — a team NMSU has already beaten once this year in Lubbock.

Then it’s off to Hawaii for a three-game set, followed by another WAC home series, this one coming against Fresno State.

In other words, the make-or-break portion of the Aggies schedule is right around the corner.

Last weekend saw NMSU take two of three games from Nevada, although didn’t play its best ball — in a long baseball season, even the top clubs aren’t going to perform at a peak level every time out.

The good news is, NMSU still took the series from the Wolf Pack.

They do need to get it together, however, and continue taking advantage of the early portion of their WAC docket.

This weekend’s series against Sacramento State is yet another opportunity to take care of such business.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Aggie football notes: the offensive front, a new-look defense, and a call for leadership

We've written previously about the offensive line being a key position on this year's Aggie football team and we're going to stick with that theme.

Assuming Andrew Manley is going to be the quarterback in 2012, can the Aggie offensive front block in a down-hill rushing attack? Last year, they couldn't.

Two weeks into spring practices, three spots appear to be OK on the offensive front.

• Left tackle Davonte Wallace can be a beast.

• Center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke remains a tad undersized, but also showed promise last year.

• Right guard Andrew Kersten is a returning starter with experience.

The two other spots — left guard and right tackle — appear up for grabs.

Andy Cunningham — a possible surprise player on the offensive line this year — left practice on Saturday with an injury, although is expected to be all right.

The Aggies will have five new offensive linemen coming in before the start of fall camp, so we'll see how things shakes out.

The Aggie defense is going to have a different look in 2012.

For one, new coordinator David Elson looks like a good addition at this point — enthusiastic, intense, engaged.

One interesting change is that the strength of the Aggies' defense could very well shift this year — from the defensive backfield to the front seven.

The Aggies will replace their entire starting secondary this year, while having more bodies up front.

The linebacking unit returns Alexander LaVoy, B.J. Adolpho and Bryan Bonilla, while also adding Trashaun Nixon as a junior college transfer.

On the defensive line, Donte Savage has All-WAC potential, while Walton Taumoepeau — who was pretty solid last year — returns at tackle.

That, and there's some newcomers on the front line that could help as well — Nick Oliva and Kalvin Kruz to name a couple.

Getting back to the secondary, though….it's one unit that had some star quality in past years when you consider players such as Davon House, Donyae Coleman and Jonte Green. This year, it could play more as a unit, and by committee.

One key note concerning the defense: Sophomore defensive end Stephen Meredith will miss the season with a knee injury.

On our last blog post on Aggie football, we touched on filling the offensive void left by departed running back Kenny Turner and wide receiver Taveon Rogers.

Well, the Aggies have also lost a good deal of leadership from last year in general.

When you consider the two players listed above, quarterback Matt Christian, wide receiver Todd Lee and three-fifths of the team's offensive line.

And defensively, players such as Donyae Coleman and Ben Bradley in the secondary, Boyblue Aoelua at linebacker, and defensive linemen such as Pierre Fils and David Mahoney.

The point is, last year's team was actually a veteran group, and replacing such leadership would figure to be a major key going into this season.

Here's a quote from head coach DeWayne Walker about developing such leadership going forward.

“Pete Carroll told me a long time ago, when coaches talk about who's your leaders? You've to to develop leaders. He always felt like it was always the coaches responsibility and I kind of agree with him. Obviously, we want to see what guys emerge as leaders and all that. At the end of the day, I think it's the responsibility of the coaches to lead these guys and get these guys to a level we want to get them too. I'm not really into creating leaders, but I'm more into building and seeing what guys emerge as leaders.”

“Last year, I thought Kenny was really the guy where, when he snapped his fingers, everybody adjusted. I think that Manley will take the responsibility once he comes back. He's not here practicing all the time (right now), so it's hard for him. I think Bryan Bonilla, LaVoy, those are the guys I see being really vocal in terms of just getting these guys going when they need a nice kick in the butt.”

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The question: Will Menzies land CSU job?

One would expect a school or two to show some interest in Marvin Menzies.

The head coach of the Aggie men’s basketball team has gone to the NCAA Tournament two of the last three years, and has a 102-68 overall record at the school during his five-year tenure.

For those reasons alone, it shouldn’t be considered a surprise that he’s a candidate for the head coaching vacancy at Colorado State.

Would it be a surprise if he got the job?

It obviously depends on the other coaches involved — Southern Mississippi's Larry Eustachy could be a front-line candidate for the position. Names such as St. John's assistant coach Mike Dunlap, Weber State head coach Randy Rahe, and University of New Mexico assistant coach Craig Neal have also popped up.

Would the Colorado State position be an upgrade over NMSU?

According to a USA database, last year’s head coach at CSU Tim Miles — who accepted the same position at the University of Nebraska — made $585,000, compared to Menzies’ $340,000 earnings. Yes, from a financial standpoint, it would be.

That, and the Mountain West has to be considered a better basketball league than the WAC, at least at this point — last year, the MWC had a national RPI ranking of five, while the WAC came in at 12. There were also four Mountain West schools that made the NCAA Tournament last year — New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State and CSU — while the WAC sent just NMSU to the Big Dance.

So, a conference upgrade it would be as well.

If you're Menzies, listening and interviewing for the position could be considered a must — in a sense, he has to do it.

With that being said, I do not think Menzies necessarily has a bad situation here at New Mexico State.

Him, along with his staff, have further established some winning basketball on the court, and an identity.

The program has brought in some players, and has carved out a recruiting pipeline in Canada, which has treated it pretty well.

It's been a job that's afforded Menzies a chance to grow into such a role, and there is still room for growth for the head coach as well.

There's no guarantees that it would be the same script at a school like CSU, which doesn't necessarily have a fledging basketball tradition of its own.

Does Menzies have a shot? Absolutely. He interviewed for the position on Friday night and, again, two NCAA Tournament appearances in three years should generate such interest.

But my gut tells me he's still a year or two away of more successful basketball — and continued growth on the job — from landing such a position.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Aggies open league play this week vs. Nevada

(Photo of Aggie third baseman Robert LeCount by Niki Rhynes)

It's been a strong start to the season for the New Mexico State Aggie baseball team.

A 23-8 record entering Western Athletic Conference play — with some wins coming against very good competition — have given the Aggies the look of a legitimate squad.

Now, we take a look at what the Aggies did well leading up to the WAC schedule, and what they'll have to do going forward in order to sustain such success.

Pitching, pitching pitching:
Always an offensive-heavy team, the Aggies have a better pitching staff in 2012. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time the Aggies had a deep-enough rotation to win mid-week games consistently? Well, it happened this past week in a 7-5 win over the University of New Mexico, two weeks ago in a two-game sweep over Arizona, and the week before against UNM once again. While last season saw No. 1 starter Ryan Beck featured as a one-man gang on the hill, this year the rotation consists of Beck, Michael Ormseth, Adam Mott and Casey Collins. And a bolstered bullpen has provided needed relief, anchored by valuable closer Scott Coffman. That, and a tip of the cap to new pitching coach Mike Evans is warranted. An improved staff of hurlers means a better Aggie team this time around.

History: We've seen this movie before. The Aggies storm through the early season, only to fall apart in conference play. But here's why this 23-8 team feels differently than before. For starters, they're beating better competition — the Aggies scheduled up this year, and have topped the No. 5 team in the country twice (Arizona), took three of four from an ACC program (Wake Forest), defeated a Big 10 club (Minnesota), and also won a game over Big 12 competition (Texas Tech). That and a they're 3-0 over in-state rival New Mexico this year, and also found a way to beat Kent State, an NCAA Tournament team in 2011. In other words, the Aggies have scheduled well this year — a good balance of competition — and have made their big wins count.

A fast start: At the outset of league play, the Aggies would serve themselves well by being the aggressors. It's a shorter conference season in 2012 — the WAC reduced its league series' from four games to three, and the schedule features just an 18-game conference docket. NMSU opens tonight against Nevada for a three-game set at Presley Askew Field and then hits the road next weekend at Sacramento State, which is statistically one of the worst clubs in the WAC. Time for the Aggies to jump on the competition early, and set the tone out of the gate.

Postseason chances: Well, there aren't any guarantees in this regard, although the Aggies have put themselves in a good position entering conference play. Again, the quality of scheduling and wins have been documented and the Aggies are currently ranked No. 16 in the RPI. The team is riding a 14-game winning streak entering tonight's game, and have been doing the job with or without head coach Rocky Ward and assistant Gary Ward, who have missed some bench time over the past month to tend to a family matter. The most simple mathematical equation for the Aggies to earn an NCAA Tournament berth? To keep playing the way they have been. Certainly a good showing in the WAC is required — perhaps a first or second place finish in the regular season — and the team has some critical out-of-conference games still approaching — a two-game road set against Baylor and a single home game against Texas Tech will be important. Still, to this point, the Aggies have given themselves a legitimate shot at postseason consideration.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Observations: Week 1 of Aggie spring practice

(Photo of head coach DeWayne Walker, right, and cornerback Darien Johnson by Shari V. Hill)

One thing that stood out on Saturday was that the Aggies are going to rely more on two tight-end sets in 2012.

Junior college tight end Perris Scoggins is big (6-foot-3, 250 pounds), but can he catch? If so, he could be a factor.

Trevor Walls is always overlooked, but the senior quarterback-turned-tight end is big target (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) with a nice pair of hands.

The Aggies still have David Quiroga on the roster and recruited another tight end this offseason in Zach Jones.

One player who is not with the team is Jackson Kaka, a freshman last year who is now on a Mormon mission.

Still, the Aggies addressed this area in the offseason and are doing so in spring practices as well. Think of the New England Patriots, who were ahead of the curve a handful of years ago — leave it to Bill Belichick — when they drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. What it shows now is that having two good tight ends on the field can cause matchup problems for opposing defenses.

“When you have two tight ends that can run, that can block, that can catch, that puts you, as an offensive coordinator, in an opportunity to expand your packages,” said NMSU offensive coordinator Jerry McManus.

Staying on offense, one lineman to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman Andy Cunningham.

Cunningham was out last year with an ACL injury, although from what I gather, he's a player with a mean streak, hailing from Frisco, Texas.

NMSU has him playing right tackle this spring — along with Faison McKines — and, at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, he also has the size to play guard as well.

Wrote a story the other day on the offensive and defensive lines — longtime achilles heals for the Aggies and a MAJOR key going into the new year.

Also added in the story that defensive lineman Augafa Vaaulu, who showed potential his freshman campaign, is not back with the team after battling academics the past two years. That's a shame, because Vaaulu could have been a good player here.

Defensively, the Aggies have a new look.

David Elson looks to be an intense fellow — not that his predecessor Dale Lindsey wasn't.

One interesting development is the role of head coach DeWayne Walker, who is more hands on with the defensive backs this year. In general, it looks like Walker has more input on that side of the ball.

“I told myself that I was going to be involved more this year,” Walker said. “I think coach Elson's done a great job, we see everything the same. We're going back, doing some of the things that we did when I ran the defense my first year. Implementing some of his thoughts and some of his 3-4. I feel good about our new coaches — coach (Romeo) Bandison's done a great job with the D-line, coach (Will) Martin's done a great job with the linebackers. I think we have a nice mix.”

Playing a 3-4 defense at NMSU makes some sense, considering that Aggie defensive lines have been thin in the past, although Walker said that's not the case here.

“It's more scheme,” he said. “I think we're going to have probably more D-lineman than we've had since I've been here, so I think we'll be OK, numbers-wise, to play some 4-3. But I think schematically, having the offense think a little bit, will help us.”

After watching two spring practices — yes, a whole two spring practices — one question that immediately comes to mind is, how are the Aggies going to replace running back Kenny Turner and wide receiver Taveon Rogers?

Both were the offense's true gamebreakers last year and accounted for much of the team's offensive production in 2011.

“I think we're going to have more running backs,” Walker said. “I think at the end of the day, with (Akeelie) Mustafa — he's a little dinged up right now — but you have Mustafa, you have (Robert) Clay, Germi Morrison…The other big running back coming in, Tiger. We feel we have four quality backs. We may not have the super deep threat, but I still think (Kemonte) Bateman and (Austin) Franklin can make plays for us. So I think offensively, we're going to probably have more of a system than rely on big plays….We'll probably run the ball a little more. And then obviously playing better defense, I think you're going to have more of a solid team.”

Online today, a look at the team's quarterback position.

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