Saturday, August 31, 2013

ANALYSIS: Setting expectations for the Aggies, heading into their season opener at Texas

Like any college football game, the New Mexico State Aggies and Texas Longhorns will both take the field Saturday with the intensions of winning.

There's no other way to approach it, from a coaching and/or playing standpoint.

But there's also no need for delusions. The Aggies are playing a great football team - the No. 15-ranked club in the preseason polls - and are 42-point underdogs. Texas head coach Mack Brown is entering his 16th year in charge of the Longhorns, and it's a big season for the program, which returns an abundance of starters on both sides of the ball.

In other words, this could be the toughest test for the Aggies throughout their 2013 independent schedule.

But that doesn't mean there aren't storylines to watch entering the game, and that the Aggies don't have a chance to play well.

For now, we'll take a look at what's in store for the team this weekend, as it gets ready to embark on the 2013 season:

Find their identity: Lets get it out of the way - we want to see the Aggies play hard and compete. First-year head coach Doug Martin spoke throughout fall training camp about how he wants his team to take the field in 2013. That is, an up-tempo approach - Martin said his team will rarely if ever huddle offensively - that plays fast and physical; and a defense that can force more turnovers. Other things that can be gauged in Week 1: How do the Aggies play as a team and stick together? What's their attitude and swagger to start a brand-new season? And how will they look as they unveil new offensive and defensive schemes to start the new year?

New offense, new defense: Last year the Aggie offense went nowhere fast, and simply seeing a more disciplined, balanced outfit that can muster a couple scores tonight would be a step in the right direction. As Martin said, expect the team to play an up-tempo style, with a varied offense that will utilize the quarterback-option run game. Andrew McDonald will start at quarterback, but expect true freshman King Davis III to get in early and cut his teeth against a top-ranked team. Defensively, the Aggies would like to create more turnovers this season. They'll run a 3-4 defense that will bring the blitz more frequently, while playing more zone coverages in the defensive secondary. One area of concern entering tonight's contest is rush defense, with Texas returning starters across it's offensive line as well as it's three top running backs from a season ago (sophomore Johnathan Gray, junior Malcolm Brown and junior Joe Bergeron). Look for Longhorns to try and establish the run game early and often.

Play within themselves: If Texas flat-out beats New Mexico State, then fine. What the Aggies can't do is beat themselves in the form of turnovers, untimely penalties, poor special teams play and an abundance of big plays surrendered on defense. Good execution and smart, common-sense football would be a good place to start in this one. After that, let the chips fall where they may on the scoreboard.

Get home healthy: Football players and coaching staffs would never take the field with this mentality, nor should they. But as followers of the program, the first six weeks for Aggie football will be critical while playing the independent schedule. Opponents during that time are two big-money games at Texas (Saturday) and UCLA (Sept. 21); home games against a BCS program Minnesota (Sept. 7) and a quality mid-major team San Diego State (Sept. 28); and annual rivalry games against UTEP (at home, Sept. 14) and New Mexico (in Albuquerque, Oct. 5). If the Aggies can remain relatively intact from health and mental standpoints, some winnable games dot the second-half of the schedule (Abilene Christian, Boston College, Florida Atlantic and Idaho, to name the majority). That's a big 'if' however. Such a journey starts tonight, and if NMSU can get home feeling healthy it could be considered a victory in itself.

Who: New Mexico State at Texas
What: College football season opener
Where: Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas
When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
Radio: KGRT-FM 104; Vista-FM 98.7 (Spanish)
Spread: Aggies +42

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Q&A: With fresh perspective and outlook, Martin embarks on first season with Aggies

(NMSU head football coach Doug Martin draws up a play from the Aggie coaches offices last week. Said Martin of his strengths as a football coach: "I'd like to think I know something about offensive football. And how to score points."/Photo by Robin Zielinski)

Doug Martin enters his first fall season as head football coach at New Mexico State University, and with that comes new territory.

When Martin came back to the school as offensive coordinator in late January - before being appointed to the head coaching position shortly thereafter - he became the first coach, at least in recent memory, to return to the Aggie football program after departing (Martin served as the team's offensive coordinator in 2011, before taking the same position at Boston College last year).
Upon his return to Las Cruces, the Aggies first-year head coach brought an air of positivity and a fresh start to the program.

We sat down with Martin for a recent interview to get his thoughts on the upcoming year, and all things pertaining to Aggie football:

Sun-News: What's your perception of Aggie football today? You've been here since February. What do you think it'll take to get the program out of this funk?
Doug Martin: My perception of Aggie football is untapped resources. I think we have a lot of things here that need to be tweaked, things that need to be developed. But there's a lot of potential here. There's a lot of people here that want you to succeed. In the community, former players, alums. There's a lot. The administration here. And I see all that, maybe for the first time in a long time, being on the same page, and moving forward and having a direction. I think it's kind of been a rudderless ship, maybe, before, where there wasn't enough direction. I think that's my job, is to dictate what direction we want to go in, what we want the program to look like in all phases, and then get everybody else on board with it. And I really like where we are right now. Getting a lot of help from a lot of people.

SN: Why did you come back initially as offensive coordinator? You're probably the first coach in the history of Aggie football to actually return. What did you see here?
DM: The most important thing to me has always been the quality of life. It hasn't been the money, it hasn't been all those types of things....And we really enjoyed living here. The community was fantastic to me and my family. It was one of the most fun years I've had coaching. The kids I coached were just hungry, they wanted to be coached and we really went a long way offensively that year and had a lot of fun. It was fun watching those kids succeed. And while I was here that year I was able to really look at this program and see, 'man, why hasn't this place not won? And why has it not succeeded?' And I had ideas that one day, if I could ever get to come back here, boy there's things I'd like to do. And then when the opportunity came to come back as a coordinator, I was excited because it was a great place to live and I really enjoy the people here. And then the opportunity to be a head coach was a real blessing. Now I get to implement some ideas I had about moving this program forward and giving people what they really deserve here, which is a competitive football program.

SN: How much of a benefit is it that you were actually here before?
DM: It was huge. I got to know the people here. Administration, the players, fans. I got to see what was really going on here. So when I came back, it wasn't like there was a lot of surprises coming. I knew what I was walking into. I had a whole year to really think about this program. Just daydreaming what would I do with it if I had the opportunity. Luckily, it worked out. I think that part of things probably put us at least a year ahead of what a normal staff would have been.

SN: In your estimation, when talking bowl game, how long do you think it'll take to get the program to that point?
DM: I don't know, and I don't ever talk to the players about bowl games. And I don't talk to them about winning seasons. Really, and I believe this, and I know people are probably sick of hearing me say it but, UTEP and UNM: that is the measuring stick and that is the goal. You beat those two teams in the same season, that winning season and bowl game and all that other stuff is going to take care of itself. Just look at the history of this place. Every year, when New Mexico State has won those two games in the same season, it's been a great year, it's been a winning year, it's been a championship year. That's the goal right there. And then all the other stuff will take care of itself.

SN: What are barometers and measuring sticks this year? Obviously you're playing an independent schedule.
DM: I think there's a couple: obviously UTEP and UNM, to see how we fair in those two games. Are we there now, or do we still have more work to do to catch those two teams? We'll find out on those two Saturdays. I think the other big measuring stick for us is the (Louisiana) Lafayette game.....That's the only Sun Belt team we're playing, and it happens to be the one that's picked to win the championship. We'll get a great look of where we have to go athletically and program-wise from that game, to be the best team in the Sun Belt.

SN: What will Aggie football do differently that hasn't been done before, on and off the field?
DM: Really, we've already accomplished that off the field. With all the community service things we've done - I don't even know how many hours we've done, but it's a lot. We've had a lot of successful camps, we've kind of re-engaged the community. Our players have really enjoyed that. They've enjoyed getting out and meeting people in this community. I think the other thing is to get this campus to embrace us. The students. That's the next big goal for us that's probably a little bit different than what's been going on here before. And then I think the thing that has to be different is the way we play football here. The identity of what we want the football team to look like. I tell the players all the time, I have a vision in my head of what our football team is going to look like one day: it's going to come running down that tunnel, it's going to be a fast, physical football team, plays with a lot of passion and a lot of discipline. And it's just a very athletic team. And team in every sense of the word. We don't have a lot of great star power here. And that's OK. The best football teams I've ever been around were just that - they were teams. And I'm after guys that are willing to give themselves to each other and play for each other. I think that's the biggest task at hand for us right now. Get rid of the egos and play for each other.

SN: Looking at the schedule, there's going to be a lot of uphill battles. How do you prepare your team for being an underdog most weeks?
DM: The one thing here is, how are we going to win football games? We are not going to win many football games 30-0. It's not going to happen. That doesn't happen in college football, period, much anymore. But we can win football games late in the fourth quarter. We have to be a great, mentally-tough football team that is willing to go to the last play of the game to win games. If we can do that, if we can hang around with people through the fourth quarter, get late in the game, and we're good in the two-minute drill and we're good in the four-minute offense when we're trying to run the clock out and we have the lead, those types of things. That's how we win football games here.

SN: What do you think the potential strengths of this year's team are?
DM: I think just the team atmosphere, No. 1. I think these guys really do believe in playing for each other right now. I think we've come a long way as far as the physical part of things, with the strength program and all that. I think those are definitely advantages to us. I think we have pretty good team speed. We do run well. And that's an advantage. We've got to take that and use that, until we can recruit the type of athletes that we need here.

SN: What are the similarities between NMSU now and Kent State when you first took that program over?
DM: We are so much farther ahead than where the Kent State program was. Facility-wide, strength program - we didn't even have a strength coach. We had no strength program at all. We're a long way from there. The losing mentality part of it is very similar. We've got to change the attitudes and change the way we do things. We got that done at Kent, and in three years we were bowl-eligible in our third year. I don't know if we can do that that fast here, maybe we can do it faster. A lot of that depends on the players and how they embrace the struggle of a season and handle the adversities that are going to come. And how well they play.

SN: As you see it, what are the incremental steps in developing a quarterback?
DM: No. 1 is, you gotta have a guy who has confidence, or moxy, or whatever you want to call it. That 'it' factor. That guy, there's just something special about a real quarterback. They just have a different air about them. I think McDonald and King Davis both kind of have that. That was probably, maybe, one the qualities lacking a little bit in Tra. Just that confidence, being vocal, being a leader, and those types of things. I really like where we are right now with those two guys. The other thing is, I know this, a young quarterback like King, you can ruin a kid like that real early if you put him in a lot of bad situations....(It's) developing a quarterback. So I think it'll be a key for us to be able to use both of those guys, and help them help each other through this season.

SN: So despite King Davis now being No. 2 on the depth chart, he's still going to take the field?
DM: Oh, he's going to play. They'll both play. I think we've got two really good quarterbacks right there. Obviously Andrew's a senior this year, and we'd like for him to finish up with a good senior year. But I think King, and that's why we kept him at quarterback and moved Tra, when you look at the long run, King has the most potential to really become the quarterback you can build a program with.

SN: How many of your current players could play at Boston College?
DM: There's quite a few. I would say (Davonte) Wallace could play at BC, (Valerian) Ume(-Ezeoke) could play at BC, (Perris) Scoggins could certainly play. A lot of the receivers could play, that's what they had the hardest time getting at Boston College, was quality wide receivers. I think King (Davis III), obviously, could play there. Defensively, our secondary would be pretty effective there. They've got pretty good linebackers, but Tra Nixon's a guy who could certainly play there. So we've got some guys.

SN: What are your strengths as a coach?
DM: I think organization and having a vision, and then going after it. Having a plan that I won't deviate from. The players are beginning to learn that a lot of it's about discipline. The classroom especially. I'm really adamant that we are going to be great in the classroom. And, quite honestly, we're not good enough in the classroom right now to meet my standard. And I don't believe you'll ever be successful on the field until you're successful off the field. I will out-stubborn them on that issue. I think just building the infrastructure of the program, I think I feel really comfortable with where I'm going there. And I'd like to think I know something about offensive football. And how to score points and those type of things. I have a lot of enthusiasm for young men. My college coaches had a great impact on me, I enjoy doing that, and hope that comes across on the players that I really care about them. I think that's a strength. I'm stern, but I'm fair.

SN: Anyone on the roster that's been a pleasant surprise?
DM: Getting here as late as I did, there's a lot of the guys that I didn't know that well. But, Thomas Warren, freshman-wise as a DB/corner has really stood out and I really like what I see there. Jay-Fish, Jay Fisher-James, the D-lineman, has been really effective. He's really got a chance to be an impact player for us. Those are the two that really step out right now, in my mind.

SN: We've talked about the wide receivers and replacing Austin Franklin's game-breaking ability. But how's their blocking? You're running some option offense.
DM: I've never seen a great receiver yet that wasn't willing to block. If they're not tough enough to block, they're not tough enough to make a big catch either, with contact coming. We really sold that to our receivers. I think we still got a lot of work to do in that area, but they've made a tremendous amount of progress from the spring to where we are now.

SN: In terms of balance between run and pass, where do you think this team will be?
DM: Every team is different. Sometimes you find out the identity of your team as you're playing during the season. The faster you can figure it out, the more effective you're going to be. I don't know that we know the answer to that. Probably, we'd be a little bit heavier pass right now, than run. But you have to have some balance. There comes a point in every game where you have to be able to run the football. If you don't, you can't win.

SN: Will you run any two-gap technique on the defensive line?
DM: Not very much. That's hard. You really have got to be a special player to do those type of things. What we have to do is really move. We have to be moving our front, moving our coverages. Disguise. We've got to start causing some confusion for the offense. Instead of them being able to just pick up what we're doing.

SN: When you looked at game film last year, what were your thoughts?
DM: The negatives that I saw, particularly defensively, was the lack of turnovers. We caused nine turnovers for the season. Nobody's going to have a successful defensive team if you're only causing nine turnovers. And I felt like we were very predictable on defense. You were going to play man coverage, and you were going to get a 4-3, and that was it. I think with our talent and what we have, we need to be really diverse and really multiple, and be able to put our guys in a lot of different situations to be able to succeed. I don't think that we're good enough just to line up against people and be a target. We need to be moving, and cause some confusion. And then offensively, kind of the same things I thought when I was here before. I thought the skill players really had a lot of potential. Germi Morrison, I thought was a really good back, and obviously the receivers I really like. Scoggins, I thought, would be a really good player. My feeling was that the offensive line was better than it was when I was here before. And I think that's turned out to be true, watching them up to this point.

SN: What's your assessment of regional football talent, particularly in Las Cruces and El Paso? Do you think you could sign two to three players from the area that can help the football team win?
DM: That depends on the talent level in those areas. I think there's certainly going to be one or two players, obviously, in those areas that we would offer and recruit. And we've done that this year. Now whether or not they want to come is a different issue. And I will say this: I want kids that want to be here. I don't want somebody that I have to talk them into coming here, or they come here because they didn't get the offer that they wanted from some big school. I don't want that kid. I want the kid that wants to play for New Mexico State. Because that guy will want to be coached, he'll play here with passion. I don't want somebody that I'm going to have to talk them into playing with passion, and all that stuff. Those guys can go somewhere else. We'll win with the guys that want to be here.

SN: If you were recruiting for this year's team, is there any area you would emphasize now?
DM: I probably would have recruited more defensive players. When I look at our board for the future, we're going to lose a lot of defensive players for this year. And probably did not replace them, already in that last recruiting class, like I would have done had I been here the whole time. And, obviously I've said this before, we've relied too heavily (on) junior colleges and transfer players. Those guys are only here for a year or two and they're gone. It knocks a hole just in the foundation of your program. We've got to get back to just recruiting as many high school players as we possibly can. I just believe that's the way to go, so you can develop those guys.

SN: And in terms of getting fans in the seats? How do you accomplish that for the duration of a season?
DM: Well, winning is never going to change, and winning is everything. So that's always the first deal. But I do think if you put a competitive football team out there, that's entertaining to watch, people want to come and see you play. And I think they want to come and see players play when they feel like they know them, they feel like they're part of it. And that's why we're trying to do as many things as we can in the community here, to reach back and get people to know our players, know our coaches and us. Have Las Cruces be the foundation of this football program. People have been great about understanding that and embracing that so far. I think that can make a big difference. Things like having Zack Bravo as our honorary captain, as a little kid in Las Cruces that's overcome cancer and just has been a great motivator for our football team. He comes and hangs out here. Things like that, I think, mean a lot to a community. I think we have a program here that this community can be proud of.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Friday, August 23, 2013

Prognosticating on New Mexico State's 2013 independent schedule

The Aggies will be "playing up" throughout the 2013 college football season, an independent schedule on tap for an FBS program trying to find it's footing.

The tasks: beginning the year on the road at the University of Texas, followed by a home game against Minnesota of the Big Ten; the team's two rivals (UTEP and New Mexico), as well as Pac 12 power UCLA and a solid San Diego State team on the schedule - and that all comes before the Aggies' bye week in early October.

From there, the schedule does get a bit more manageable, and hopefully some wins will be in the cards when the dust settles.

For now, all we can do is prognosticate. With that, we take a look at the Aggies 2013 competition:

Week 1
Date: Aug. 31
Game: at Texas
Scouting report: What a way to start. The Longhorns are going to have top-level talent across the board and, as if that's not enough, head coach Mack Brown is on the hot seat entering the new year. A Top-25 team in the preseason polls, don't expect Texas to go easy on the opposition in this one. Rather, they'll look to take things right to the Aggies.

Week 2
Date: Sept. 7
Game: vs. Minnesota
Scouting report: This is going to be an important contest for Aggie football - home opener, good crowd and a new coach (Doug Martin) running an NMSU team with a new vision. Certainly it would be nice if the Aggies were to be competitive, and give the locals something to feel good about. But it won't be an easy task. Minnesota is still a Big Ten team, and for those pointing out the Aggies beat the Golden Gophers in 2011, understand these are two different clubs from that point in time. For one, Minnesota finished 6-6 last year, and went to a minor bowl game in the process (Meineke Car Care Bowl). Also, the team returns virtually their entire starting lineup from last season, and some of those returnees just might remember NMSU's 28-21 upset win in Minneapolis two years ago.

Week 3
Date: Sept. 14
Game: vs. UTEP
Scouting report: Another key game for the Aggies, because it's one they can certainly shoot for. The Miners find themselves with a first-year coach of their own - former UTEP player Sean Kugler took over the reigns from Mike Price this offseason. They're breaking in a new quarterback (such a factor could dictate the entire season for the Miners) and new starters across the board on defense. The team could look to run the ball more in 2013 - Kugler is a former offensive lineman, and has coached the position in the college and NFL ranks. Aggie head coach Doug Martin has been pointing to the program's rivalry games since the day he got the job, and will get his first chance at one here.

Week 4
Date: Sept. 21
Game: at UCLA
Scouting report: This is similar to Texas - power team from a power conference in a heralded away venue. The Bruins were improved last year under first-year head coach Jim Mora Jr. This big-money game will be another chief challenge for the Aggies on the 2013 schedule.

Week 5
Date: Sept. 28
Game: vs. San Diego State
Scouting report: Another challenging contest for the Aggies, as San Diego State is a quality team under former University of New Mexico head coach Rocky Long. For those familiar with Long, they'll know the Aztecs will bring in a solid defense and should be prepared. A veteran roster will also be in tow. If the Aggies could get this one, it would be a huge win for their football program.

Week 6
Date: Oct. 5
Game: at New Mexico
Scouting report: Can the Aggies beat UNM? Why not? After all, they've done it three of the last four years. But the Lobos were improved in 2012 under head coach Bob Davie (one of their four wins was against the Aggies, 28-14, in Las Cruces) and this year's contest will be in northern New Mexico. This in-state rivalry affair also comes after a gauntlet of games for the Aggies. A winnable contest? Sure. But far from an easy one.

Week 7
Date: Oct. 19
Game: vs. Rice
Scouting report: Rice was a bowl team last year, finishing with a 7-6 overall record (4-4 in Conference USA), and return a solid core. Expect the Owls to be hunting for bowl eligibility again in 2013. Again, a tough one at home for the Aggies.

Week 8
Date: Oct. 26
Game: vs. Abilene
Scouting report: NMSU has to win this football game over an FCS program that recently played Division II football. Abilene Christian does have some history behind it's program, and has put some players in the NFL over the years. While on paper it looks like a game the Aggies should win, the Wildcats might not be pushovers once they come to town.

Week 9
Date: Nov. 2
Game: at Louisiana-Lafayette
Scouting report: This is a high-quality team folks. After finishing 9-4 and winning the New Orleans Bowl last year, the Ragin' Cajuns were picked to win the Sun Belt Conference entering the 2013 campaign. Aggie head coach Doug Martin said this would be a key measuring-stick game for his program - the Aggies will be in the Sun Belt in 2014, and will compete in the same Western Division as Louisiana-Lafayette. But make no mistake: the Ragin' Cajuns look to be a bowl team once again.

Week 10
Date: Nov. 9
Game: vs. Boston College
Scouting report: Can the Aggies pocket a win here? It's not out of the question. Boston College was not a good team last season, finishing with a 2-10 record. While the Eagles were competitive in some of those contests, they also had a loss to Army on their resume. Martin was offensive coordinator at BC in 2012, and should be familiar with the opposition. And while the Eagles will make the trip to Las Cruces, they'll also do so between two ACC home games on their schedule - vs. Virginia Tech and vs. NC State. Yes, they're still a BCS team. But they're also a beatable one.

Week 11
Date: Nov. 23
Game: at Florida Atlantic
Scouting report: Again, perhaps a winnable game for the Aggies, as Florida Atlantic went 3-9 last season. The only issues: it's an away game, and who knows where the Aggies will be from a health standpoint at this point of the season. With that being said, certainly one NMSU can shoot for.

Week 12
Date: Nov. 30
Game: vs. Idaho
Scouting report: Similar to Abilene Christian, this seems like a game the Aggies have to win. They get the Vandals at home, and Idaho's in a similar position in 2013: a program that should be scratching for wins while playing an independent schedule. Who knows where these two clubs will be when they meet in Las Cruces for the last week of the season. The underlying factor here could be which team holds the better health.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

NMSU football: 5 keys to upcoming season

(Aggie head football coach Doug Martin addresses his team prior to fall practice/Photo by Shari V. Hill)

With New Mexico State’s college football season less than two weeks away, we take a look at five keys entering the new year:

• Survive and advance: Lets just say it - the Aggies are over-scheduled for the 2013 season. With that, keeping the team’s health and confidence intact through the year will be a top priority for the coaching staff and players. There’s some winnable games on the independent docket - Abilene Christian, Idaho, UTEP and Florida Atlantic, to name a few. But the team will need to be ready for such competition once it rolls around, and needs to capitalize if it wants to avoid another one- or two-win season. Not getting beat down physically and mentally by elite competition will be a chief challenge, and key, throughout the 2013 campaign.

• Aggie defense: Spring and fall practices saw the Aggie offense have considerable success running the ball on the NMSU defense. While it does signal an improved attack in 2013, it’s also worth asking: if the Aggies are having trouble containing the run during practice, how will it stop the University of Texas in Week 1? In the secondary, while an experienced group does return, the unit will not be coached by DeWayne Walker and Mike Rutenberg anymore, who now both tutor defensive backs for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. The entire Aggie defense will be tested throughout the season, and it at least needs to be a respectable unit that can keep the team in games.

• Aggie offense: NMSU is implementing a new offensive scheme as well, albeit one that appears to be improved from recent years. The quarterback-option run game is a focal point, and with that the rushing attack and offensive line has looked better during spring and August practices. Such a performance will need to transfer over into the season, however. If the quarterbacks fit the scheme well, and the Aggies can generate a more balanced offense with a productive ground game, the team might be able to win some time-of-possession battles, which would provide a nice boost. That and, of course, NMSU can’t afford to turn to football over to the opposition.

• Special teams: The Aggies at least seem adequate in the kicking game. Punter Cayle Chapman-Brown was a good player for NMSU in 2012, and the team plans on having Maxwell Johnson as place kicker and Brock Boca handling kickoff duties. Who’ll handle punt returns? That’s an entirely different question, although the Aggies need to find someone to fill the role. Last year the team averaged just 1.2 yards per return, which ranked No. 119 our of 120 FBS teams. As said numerous times, the Aggies need to be better in the special team’s department if they want to field a better team. One thing to watch: head coach Doug Martin will be coordinating such units in 2013, so hopefully an uptick in production will follow.

• The 2014 season: In many respects, this upcoming campaign is as much about the future as it is the present. After playing an independent schedule in 2013, the Aggies will move into the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member in 2014, a more suitable fit for the program to begin with. The hope is that in the Sun Belt, NMSU will have a shot at a .500 season (even if that particular conference is considerably improved from years past as well). That means this year could be used as much as a spring board than anything else. If the Aggies can pocket a handful of wins and be competitive in some other contests (tall orders nonetheless), it would provide considerable momentum heading into their new league. That, and perhaps the upcoming year will give the program a chance to get young players on the field against quality competition (the coaching staff has already talked about getting true freshman quarterback King Davis III some playing time, and such a sentiment could increase as the 2013 season moves along). In short, as much as the Aggies are playing for today, they’re also playing for tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Monday, August 19, 2013

Aggie position preview: Wide receivers

(Aggie tight end Perris Scoggins could play a bigger role in the team's passing offense this season/Photo by Shari V. Hill)

Leading up to the start of the college football season, we look at the New Mexico State Aggies in respective position-by-position breakdowns. Thus far, quarterbacks and running backs have been previewed. Today, we continue with the wide receiver position:

This is an Aggie unit that's developed some very good players in recent years - Taveon Rogers, Todd Lee, Kemonte Bateman and Austin Franklin were all talented pieces to play the position for NMSU the past two seasons.

This year there doesn't appear to be one single player that encompasses such skills - Franklin, of course, would have been that player, but the team was dealt a big blow when he was ruled academically ineligible earlier this month.

With that, a collective group takes shape, with players such as Joseph Matthews (junior), Jerrel Brown (junior), Adam Shapiro (junior), and Jordan Bergstrom (transfer from Santa Rosa Junior College) having to step up to fill the void. And even while players such as Matthews and Brown have shown potential as nice pieces, none of the aforementioned Aggies seem to have the gamebreaking ability that Franklin possesses (he was one of the team's few big-play threats to begin with, entering the year). Perhaps, as the season progresses, someone will take on the role of No. 1 target in the passing offense. And even if the Aggies don't find a true gamebreaker on the outside, a short-to-intermediate passing attack can work, as long as the top three or four receivers are reliable and catch the ball consistently.

One intriguing player to keep an eye on is Travaughn Colwell, a quarterback-turned-wide receiver who has the physical tools to play the position - listed at 6-foot-3 and just over 200 pounds, Colwell has good hands, speed and is one of the team's top athletes. Of course, he'll have to get accustom to the physical nature of the position, not the least of which will be blocking in the quarterback-option offense.

Head coach Doug Martin has spoken highly of tight end Perris Scoggins, and frankly the junior-college transfer from a year ago has always looked the part (listed at 6-foot-3, 242 pounds). Perhaps in a new offense with quarterback Andrew McDonald under center, Scoggins will see his production increase in the passing game.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Aggie position preview: Running backs

(To this point, Germi Morrison is the lone proven Division-I running back on the Aggie roster/Photo by Steve MacIntyre)

Leading up to the start of the college football season, we look at the New Mexico State Aggies in respective position-by-position breakdowns. We continue with the running backs:

Although the team is lacking depth in this area, there does appear to be a decent one-two punch in place to start the season.

Last year’s starter Germi Morrison is a proven player, a pounder and tough runner between the tackles. He’ll be flanked by Brandon Betancourt, a Mayfield High School graduate and NMSU junior who’s displayed a burst, and could provide some big-play pop at the position.

The key here is the two aforementioned players staying healthy for the duration of an independent schedule, a feat that could be challenging.

The Aggies brought in freshman Marquette Washington this offseason, a player who put up good numbers at Kaiser High School in Fontana, Calif. The team also added Jermichael Selders (a transfer from City College of San Francisco) before training camp, who has the look of a power back. True freshman and Las Cruces High graduate Xavier Hall has also gotten some work during August practices.

Still, none of the backups have received carries on the Division-I level before, making Morrison and Betancourt maintaining quality health a critical component entering the season.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Aggie football position preview: Quarterbacks

(Andrew McDonald will start under center Week 1 of the season at the University of Texas/Photo by Shari V. Hill)

Leading up to the start of the college football season, we look at the New Mexico State Aggie football team in respective position-by-position breakdowns. We begin with the quarterbacks:

A week into fall camp, the team moved Travaughn Colwell, who was thought to have a slight edge initially for the starting quarterback job, to wide receiver.

In turn, NMSU appointed senior Andrew McDonald to No. 1 QB and elevated true freshman King Davis III as No. 2 on the depth chart.

McDonald’s a steady player who’s adequate to solid in all facets, a savvy veteran who can manage an offense and a football game. He - along with the quarterback position in general - was mismanaged a season ago, as McDonald took just a handful of snaps in a blowout loss at Ohio (not only did he not see the field the rest of the way, but his junior year of eligibility was burned in the process). Expect him to be supply similar attributes to what Matt Christian brought to the Aggie offense two years ago - a good knowledge of the system, a good decision maker and an underrated runner with the football.

With that, the move of Colwell was made as much so for Davis' progress. The coaching staff is high on him, and would like to groom a quarterback of the future within the program. Therefore, he’ll be the primary backup, and is all but assured to see game action this season, both under center and as a versatile athlete in an attempt to get the ball in his hands.

Colwell will remain No. 3 on the depth chart, and now the Aggies could have a unique offensive package in place: three quarterbacks on the field simultaneously.

Martin said the team’s option-offense package would expand with multiple-quarterback sets, an example of an offensive-minded coaching staff - Martin and coordinator Gregg Brandon - that will look to open up the playbook in 2013.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Despite key losses from state championship team, Bulldawgs still have plenty of bite

With fall football practices opening earlier this week, the annual question of which local program will compete for a state championship will be asked, continuously, well into the fall semester.

Las Cruces High's coming off a state title performance last season, and Mayfield should bring back talent, starting at quarterback, where Kavika Johnson returns after opening eyes during his sophomore campaign.

Perhaps OƱate can show improvement, and Gadsden can continue it's progression under second-year head coach Roy Gerela.

With that being said, this district always seems to come down to the Bulldawgs and Trojans. And while there's been plenty of pre-season chatter regarding Mayfield's returning talent, lets not overlook the Bulldawgs successful program, winning ways, or championship pedigree.

This is a team coming off yet another state title in 2013 - the fifth for head coach Jim Miller, who holds a 5-0 record in such championship affairs.

The Bulldawgs do have to replace some key pieces off last season's squad: namely, an offensive line that dominated New Mexico High School competition, and an All-State quarterback in Jonathan Joy. Those two areas were primary contributing factors for Las Cruces High's offense being virtually unstoppable a year ago, a fact that was no more apparent than late in the season, when LCHS rolled the state playoff competition in it's path.

With that being said, this team does bring back some very good football players to it's roster.

Running back J.J. Granados was a touchdown machine last year, and he'll be asked to carry a heavy load once again. He'll be flanked by some other talented pieces in the backfield: Austin Salas and do-it-all threat J.R. Hernandez to summarize some of the supporting cast.

Sam Denmark is also primed for a monster season, after being a front-line performer at tight end and linebacker a season ago.

Perhaps the Bulldawgs 2013 season could rest on two entities, however: for one, the ability of Miller's sophomore son, Kameron, to replace Joy at quarterback. No doubt the younger Miller has talent, and if he ends up being close to what his father was (a former state-championship quarterback at Roswell High and later a star for the New Mexico State Aggies), he'll be a heckuva player. With that being said, Miller did in fact look like a freshman player last year, and will have to grow up quickly entering his sophomore campaign for LCHS to compete at a similarly high level.

The other will be the Bulldawgs' ability to make up for their losses along the offensive line although, while the unit shouldn't be as dominant as a season ago, perhaps it can pick up adequately enough to protect Miller and company.

Will the 2013 campaign bring back-to-back state championships to the Bulldawgs football program? That could be a tall order. But don't count them out either, as one of the state's top teams. Or as the team to beat in district, for that matter.

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VIDEOS: Aggie defensive backs talk about 2013 season, new-look defense

Cornerback Darien Johnson and safety Davis Cazares share their thoughts during New Mexico State media day:

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."

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg