Can the New Mexico State Aggies be an improved football team in 2014? As a matter of fact, they can.
Some of it’s by design, and some will require the program to make some big additions (and improvements) in the coming weeks - the official announcement of a new defensive coordinator comes on Feb. 5 and will coincide with National Signing Day. Spring practices follow shortly thereafter in March.
For one, for where the program is today, it’s moving into a good home from a conference standpoint. Yes, the Sun Belt is on the upswing, and far from the same league the Aggies belonged to prior to joining the WAC in 2005. The SBC went a combined 8-1 this past year against opponents from the Mountain West Conference, Conference USA and Mid-American Conference. While the league had seven of its eight teams obtain bowl-eligible records (that would be a 6-6 mark or higher) Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State were each sent to the postseason and won their respective bowl games (Lafayette beat Tulane 24-21 in the New Orleans Bowl; Arkansas State topped Ball State, 23-20, in the GoDaddy Bowl).
With that being said, one would think the Aggies can be a better team in Year 2 under head coach Doug Martin, and could in fact be a middle-of-the-pack Sun Belt program next year. If, that is, they make necessary improvements this offseason.
The No. 1 area that will need to be upgraded is the defense. A monster recruiting effort was in front of the program on this side of the ball, as the team lost the majority of its starting lineup from the 2013 season. And, while the unit didn’t get results last year - at or near the bottom of the FBS in key statistical categories such as total yards surrendered (6,594), rushing yards (3,594) and points against (535) - there was some talent present: a veteran secondary, some decent pieces on the front-seven and two players in linebacker Trashaun Nixon and safety Davis Cazares that were very good at the program.
Martin made it clear what he’s after this offseason - players with speed, even if that means a young and undersized group at some areas of the field. Certainly the Aggies need some horses on defense, and a little bit of help everywhere - secondary, linebacker and defensive line.
NMSU will also announce the official hiring of its new defensive coordinator on Signing Day, and of course this will be a critical move. Martin’s indicated the Aggies will bring in a coach with great experience and a deep resume - possibly with college and NFL experience. And while such a track record wouldn’t necessarily come cheap, such a coach, in time, could help build the defensive unit to at least respectability.
Moving to the other side of the ball, the Aggies will need to find a big-time quarterback to take the field. Last year’s senior Andrew McDonald is gone, and while King Davis III returns as a sophomore, he didn’t play in the second half of 2013, and remains a largely unproven player. In other words, incoming recruits could very well compete for a starting spot at the position.
Martin has made it no secret he believes an outstanding QB can drive a mid-major team, meaning the Aggies need to bring in a quality one on National Signing Day. As of now, the position could be considered up for grabs.
Other areas/holes the Aggies will need to fill heading into the 2014 season:
• The team could use a power back that can pound the ball between the tackles - even if local products Brandon Betancourt and Xavier Hall proved to be serviceable players out of the backfield last season. Betancourt suffered a foot injury last year that sidelined him from late-October on.
• NMSU needs a left tackle to replace four-year starter Davonte Wallace. This is obviously a critical position along the line, one that requires a top athlete to protect against elite pass rushers.
• Punter Cayle Chapman-Brown was a very good player for the Aggies the past two seasons, and has since graduated. The Aggie special teams units - particularly their punt and kick coverage teams - struggled mightily last year. Martin said in December a candidate to replace Chapman-Brown could be Mayfield graduate Brock Baca, a player who handled kickoff duties last season.
• Replacing junior wide receiver Austin Franklin - who declared for the NFL Draft in December - will be a daunting task as well. Franklin gave the offense a playmaking jolt last season when he returned following academic ineligibility. Martin spoke this offseason of wide receiver Gregory Hogan - a redshirt freshman in 2013 - possibly filling such a void.
• Since being hired last February, Martin’s said throughout his tenure the need to recruit high school graduates primarily from Texas. How much of this year’s signing class fits that mold will be something to watch.
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