Sunday, October 13, 2013

ANALYSIS: After rough start, Aggie football looks to regroup for second half of 2013

(Wide receiver Adam Shapiro is part of a core group of native New Mexicans who've made positive contributions to the 2013 Aggie football team/Photo by Robin Zielinski)

There wasn't much positive to take from the first half of New Mexico State's 2013 college football season, except maybe the fact that it's over.

The Aggies sit at 0-6 on the year, and are coming off a 66-17 defeat at rival New Mexico last weekend. A bye this weekend at least gives the team a chance to rest, regroup and collect itself for the second half of the season.

The schedule does get more manageable from here on out, and perhaps consistent development and progress will come from the team over the final six games of 2013.

With that, here's some takeaways and observations one can make moving forward, as NMSU enters the second half of it's 2013 football schedule:

Development of a young quarterback
Head coach Doug Martin said the Aggies opened competition - and possible playing time - across the board during the team's recent bye week, including at the quarterback position.

With that being said, expect freshman King Davis III to continue seeing increased playing time in the second half of the season.

Davis hasn't taken live snaps since being knocked out of a Week 4 game at UCLA. He got his first career start against the Bruins, only to take some big hits throughout, and suffered a concussion after taking a big lick in the third quarter.
Martin said Davis was held out the past two weeks because of the concussion. The freshman also had his left middle finger bandaged prior to Aggie practice this past Thursday (the wrap was on Davis' non-throwing hand).

But Martin has maintained the freshman is fully recovered from injury, and will compete for playing time accordingly.

"That depends on him. How well he plays in practice and how well he plays in games," Martin said when asked about Davis' role moving forward. "And that's true for every position. It's all about competition."

The reality of NMSU's current position also suggests this: the Aggies have spoken throughout the first half of the 2013 season about finding high-end quarterback play - to this point, it hasn't appeared they believe they've gotten such performance from that position. Davis is a freshman with great athleticism and running ability, although he still needs to prove himself in other areas of the game - specifically, his passing.

"He can get out of trouble in the pocket. He's good on his feet. A good athlete," said offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon. "Now, can he complete enough passes? To me, right now, that remains to be seen."

While the second half of the Aggies schedule is more manageable, it can also provide the coaching staff a chance to see the freshman under center, allow him to develop, and give them a chance to evaluate the position.

"It's a big priority," Brandon said. "He's shown flashes of being a capable quarterback for us. It's unfortunate that he got dinged and he couldn't continue that development. But the bye week's been good for him, getting a lot of reps that way. We'll see where it goes."

Progress of local players
Perhaps the biggest bright spot for the Aggies this season has been the performance of New Mexico-based players on the roster.

Running back Brandon Betancourt has been consistent - the Mayfield High School alum is currently the team's leading rusher (74 carries, 303 yards and two touchdowns). Wide receiver Joshua Bowen (Manzano High School) leads the Aggies in key categories (26 catches, 253 yards and two touchdowns) while fellow receiver Adam Shapiro (Rio Rancho High School) has found a niche as well (15 catches, 205 yards and a touchdown).

Linebacker Clint Barnard (Melrose High School) has also started throughout the year, while defensive tackle Matt Ramondo (Mayfield) has seen his role increase. Kickoff man Brock Baca (Mayfield) has taken the field the past two weeks and has gotten the ball to the end zone.

"All the New Mexico kids we've got have played well," Martin said. "They're making great contributions."

Such players are also underclassmen and will return to the Aggies next season, meaning their continued development as part of the team's core can be monitored.

"I feel like we've all done pretty good," Shapiro said of the New Mexico contingent. "But at the end of the day, it's all about winning. And we still need to do more and step up more. ... We can all improve."

Special teams
This area has largely been a disappointment, particularly the team's coverage units.

In truth, NMSU's kicking game has improved. Punter Cayle Chapman-Brown has performed better of late and averaged over 50 yards on six punts last week at New Mexico (his play has picked up since a down performance at UCLA three weeks ago). Baca, for his part, has gotten the ball to the end zone on kickoffs since returning to the lineup.

In the return game, the Aggies haven't shown much explosiveness, yet have to avoid beating themselves first and foremost (such as fumbling the opening kickoff against UTEP during Week 3 of the season).

Kick coverage could be the main area where improvement is key, however. Whether it be surrendering a punt-return touchdown against Minnesota, a kickoff-return touchdown against New Mexico or a near kickoff-return touchdown against UCLA, there's been breakdowns.

"We've got to be creative with how we kick, because we've got a lack of team speed right now covering," Martin said. "We've got to be creative with how we're kicking the ball and giving us the best chance to succeed. And we've got to go recruit."
When asked what kicking adjustments can be made, Martin said, "You can squib kick on kickoffs, you can sky kick it. Punting, you can directional punt. There's a lot of different things you can do to help."

Consistency, playmakers
The Aggies have played well in spurts during almost every game this season (minus last week's contest at UNM). And while the team has won its share of plays this year, it hasn't made enough big plays overall.

Whether it be playing good first quarters or first halves, the Aggies need to find a way to translate that to an entire game.
Martin has said the team needs its playmakers to step up and for the offense to put more points on the board (the team's averaging 15.8-points-per game).

The Aggies did bring back junior wide receiver Austin Franklin after the standout missed the first four games of 2013 because of academic ineligibility. That, and Martin said the team would try to move Travaughn Colwell, a quarterback who was switched to wide receiver prior to the season, to running back during the bye week.

Colwell, a fine athlete in his own right, has played sparingly if at all this season, in part because of an injured shoulder suffered during August practices.

"We're trying to find a place to play the kid. He has good running skills. He's one we've got to find a spot for," Brandon said. "The last few days he's been playing running back. And we'll see where it goes."

While the team has pointed at its offensive production as a hinderance, defense could be the bigger issue. NMSU ranks dead-last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rush defense (340-yards-per game) and scoring defense (surrendering 48.8-points-per game). Last week they were exposed against the Lobos, who rushed for 540 yards on their way to 66 points.

"Everyone had a specific assignment that they had to execute. If not, the running back could slip through a crack. And it was tough to cover," linebacker Bryan Bonilla said following the contest. "We're not going to face every offense with the same scheme UNM had. At the end of the day, we have to execute what we're supposed to do. And take care of our assignments."

A glimmer of hope
How will the Aggies finish off the 2013 season? It would be nice if they hold things together, stay motivated and make some improvements down the stretch.

While the team sits at 0-6, the tough part of the 2013 independent schedule is over - the Aggies opened play against three BCS-level opponents - and perhaps some wins will be in the offing (frankly, a couple victories seem essential). Beating the likes of Abilene Christian (an FCS opponent) and Idaho (an FBS foe who's in a similar spot as the Aggies) would at least mean the team survived the year. Anything more than that could be considered a big step forward.

"I think that's big for our football players. They've worked hard and they've paid the price and they're sacrificing," Martin said. "If they're willing to keep working and they're willing to keep playing hard and keep giving it everything they've got, than they can make that happen. That's big for them. You know, we're going to build a good program here in the future because we're going to go recruit well and do all the things we've got to do to get that done. But it would be nice for these guys to experience some winning."

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg


Anonymous said...

Abilene Christian is a school that is moving from division 2 up to the FCS level. Currently, teams that are D-2 they've played consider them a D-1 FCS school, teams that are D-1 both levels consider them a D-2 school. My point is ...Not too much room to improve from here on out in the W/L column but we at least need to beat them AND Idaho. If we stumble to another one win season it would be even more pathetic than last years one win season(Assuming we just beat Abilene). Sac State is at least a true FCS opponent ...

Anonymous said...

I love that the NM talent is getting Kudos!! These guys have always been seen as the "obligatory in-state schollies", but I always thought this was a talented group! Cool pic of Shapiro!