Thursday, August 1, 2013

What the Aggies face, and hope to tackle, entering 2013 fall practices

(After overseeing spring practices this past April, Doug Martin and the Aggies open fall training camp this weekend on the campus of NMSU/Photo by Gary Mook)

Upon his appointment this past February as New Mexico State University head football coach, Doug Martin made positive first impressions in Las Cruces.

Martin, the former head coach at Kent State who served as offensive coordinator at NMSU during the 2011 season, seemed immediately comfortable operating at a low-resource, historically unsuccessful Aggie football program. He related well to supporters and followers of the team, made a conscientious effort to rally public support, and worked hard to get the most out of his players on and off the field. In short, he put forth a bona fide effort in attempt to right the Aggies football ship.

Alas, Martin's team opens fall practice this Sunday at 3 p.m., in preparation for it's Aug. 31 season opener at the University of Texas.

Entering the 2013 football season as an independent, we made a list of what to watch for with NMSU's August practices on the horizon, then asked the Aggies first-year head coach his take on what his team faces, and is hoping to tackle, upon entering the new year:

Restoration of hope
In the long run, Aggie football fans would obviously like to see a successful team take the field, one that wins more games than it loses. In the short term, however, a few rays of hope would be nice for a program that hit rock bottom, once again, a season ago. NMSU will likely have a better offensive system in place this year, which alone should allow the team to surpass last year's one-win total. And while on the surface a three-to-four win season as an independent would be a step forward, such also seems like a fair goal to take into the year. Still perhaps the greater barometer for Aggie football entering 2013 will be how the team competes on a weekly basis, including during their losses. A competitive showing here could be a good building block as NMSU readies itself to enter the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member for the 2014 season.
Martin's take: "The main thing for us is to build an identity. What do we want this football team to look like? In my mind, I want to see a competitive, physical team. That's how I'd like us to play."

Positional battles
Martin's said throughout his arrival that all positions are up for grabs, and seems ready to continue standing by that mantra entering fall camp. The Aggies first order of business will be establishing a starting quarterback between either Travaughn Colwell and Andrew McDonald (Martin said Colwell held a slight edge following this past spring's practices, although the two will compete for the job in August). Yet, by and large, the remainder of the depth chart seems to at least have a framework in place: an offensive line that's anchored by three proven players (left tackle Davonte Wallace, center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke and guard Andy Cunningham); a wide-receiver unit featuring one of the team's top overall players in Austin Franklin, and some others the coaching staff believes has potential; a running-back position thin on depth (with last year's starter, Germi Morrison, returning); a defensive line with more talent and depth than a season ago (BCS-caliber players Matt Ramondo and Willie Mobley highlighted the group this past spring); two senior linebackers who started a season ago (Bryan Bonilla and Trashaun Nixon); and a defensive secondary that returns some talent (cornerbacks Cameron Fuller, Darien Johnson and Winston Rose. Safeties George Callender and Davis Cazares, assuming they remain healthy). One position that appears etched in stone is punter, where Cayle Chapman-Brown returns after being a quality addition to the team last year.
Martin's take: "One of the big keys for us could be placekicker. With Maxwell Johnson, when we get down there and we have to kick it, we have to come away with points. I think if we're going to be a competitive football team, we have to win some games on special teams."

Scheme changes
As mentioned earlier, the Aggie offense should be much improved, which should allow the team to outscore a handful of teams on the schedule in 2013. When Martin ran the offense in 2011, NMSU had a more diversified attack: they mixed in a short-to-intermediate passing game with downfield throwing as well, while incorporating the run-option with some misdirection to generate production when running the football. Expect much of the same under 2013 offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon, who came to the Aggies from the University of Wyoming this past offseason and implemented a similar approach during spring practices. The Aggies will move the quarterback out of the pocket, which can help some of their deficient areas along the offensive line. In turn, a mobile QB and spread-option offense should provide the team with a ground attack, something they didn't have a season ago. Defensively, the Aggies are also unveiling a new system, going to a 3-4 look along their front-seven which utilizes a one-gap, slanting-style pass rush, designed to get quick players up field and apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Such a philosophy can create the big play on defense - arrant throws, resulting in interceptions to defensive backs in zone coverage. But it can also leave such a defense vulnerable to the big play. We'll bring it into view by reflecting on 2013 spring practices, where NMSU's offense ran the ball very well. Of course, running backs Germi Morrison and Brandon Betancourt looked good doing so (and we did talk about an improved offensive system) but in turn, what did that say about the Aggie run defense? After all, NMSU averaged just 3.0 yards per carry all of last year. While it was a pattern virtually every spring scrimmage - Aggie backs ripping off runs to the second and third levels of the defense - it's certainly something to keep an eye on as we move into the 2013 schedule, and beyond.
Martin's take: "We're really comfortable with our basic schemes on both sides of the ball. But there's still some adjustments to be made, tweaking some things to fit our talent level. There's still work to be done."

Early-season expectations?
Last year, many fans were hopeful that a bowl berth would be in the offering, and NMSU coaches and administrators spoke openly about such a possibility becoming a reality. What ended up happening was an unmitigated disaster, with the Aggies going 1-11 while playing mostly unwatchable football throughout the year. The reason we bring up such history is to state a point: Fair and realistic expectations are important, for a team starting literally from the ground floor once again. With that, we'll take a look at the outset of the team's 2013 independent schedule: at Texas (Aug. 31), vs. Minnesota (Sept. 7), vs. UTEP (Sept. 14), at UCLA (Sept. 21), vs. San Diego State (Sept. 28) and at New Mexico (Oct. 5). A daunting beginning indeed, but what would be a fair and acceptable start? A win against a rival? An upset at home over a BCS-level opponent? One key factor will simply be the team's health. Depth has forever been an issue with Aggie football, and keeping key players out of harms way while playing a tough opening docket will be of critical importance early on.
Martin's take: "We're going to stop playing the victim around here. Those days are done. I don't care if it's Texas, UCLA or the Green Bay Packers that we're playing. We want to take the field and compete the same way every Saturday."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"...Martin's take: 'The main thing for us is to build an identity...'"

Maybe the main thing should be to get over the old identity.