Stevens: New Mexico Lobos' 2011 Season Preview
Aug. 30, 2011
RELATED LINKS TO LOBO FOOTBALL
NEW MEXICO LOBO FOOTBALL 2011 SEASON PREVIEW
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The depth is better and the talent has improved, but the expectations in 2011 as UNM approaches its season opener against Colorado State are exactly what they were in 2010 for Lobo Coach Mike Locksley and his University of New Mexico Lobos .
The expectations are to add a whole lot more numbers to the win side of the won-lost column and to push toward a bowl-eligible season of at least six wins.
Of course, it won't be easy and maybe it won't even be expected by anyone not wearing the Cherry & Silver uniform. New Mexico went 1-11 a year ago and 1-11 in 2009. The Lobos are expected to join the rest of the teams in the Mountain West Conference watching Boise State and TCU battle for the MWC crown. Boise State was picked in the Mountain West's preseason poll as the team to beat followed by 2010 champion TCU.
Sure, that Boise State/TCU race should become a reality, but that doesn't mean the Lobos don't have the drive or the talent to become one of several MWC teams heading off to postseason play. Finally, the Lobos have enough depth to hurdle some of the pitfalls - like injury - that took such a deep and nasty bite during the season of 2010.
"Our chances of making the postseason are as realistic has they've ever been," said Locksley, in his third season as a Lobo. "Last year a whole lot of things had to go perfectly in order for us to become bowl eligible.
"Instead, we had a season marked not only by injury, but by injuries to critical personnel. We were scrambling all season to find healthy bodies that could produce and we were limited too much by our lack of depth.
"This season we expect to see a turn. We expect to step around a corner and then see how far we can go."
To be fair to Locksley, he hasn't had the horses to produce the results he was hired to produce. There has been a shortage of talent and depth that can be linked back to the previous regime and NCAA sanctions inherited. Locksley won't talk much about that.
However, there are changes in his Lobos of 2011 - enough improvement in depth, speed and raw talent to make a dramatic change on the field in number of victories and the ability to compete better on the scoreboard.
The talent and depth factors will be obvious to all fans who join the Lobos in University Stadium for the six home games: Colorado State, Texas Tech, Sam Houston, New Mexico State, Air Force and UNLV. But there also is a change in the football culture in terms of chemistry and solidarity. This is a more complete team in spirit, too.
"I think there is a dramatic change in mindset," said Locksley. "We are in Year Three and A lot of factors that were holding us back have changed simply because we are in Year Three.
"The core of this team understands my way of doing things and we are in a better position to challenge for the postseason. We have worked hard to develop team chemistry. When you come in here as a first-year coach, you are like a stepfather to a lot of the players who have been here a while.
"I would say about 75 percent of the team are guys I have brought in and the rest are in their third year in this program. I think this season we are pulling together in the same direction more than we ever have before. That unity is critical in a game that relies so much on teamwork and solidarity of purpose."
If you had to name the biggest barriers to a breakout season in 2010, you would include injuries, lack of quality depth - and the schedule. The schedule was a mean, mother bear.
It's really not much easier in 2011 when you consider that TCU and Boise State are possible Top Ten teams and the Lobos must play those bullies on the road. UNM also has a Sept. 10 date in Little Rock, Ark., to play Arkansas. The Mountain West also looks for improvement in almost every football program this season. But the growth in the Lobo program makes the 2011 schedule less daunting.
"It's time to take a step up," said Locksley. "We talked about making the change last year, but too many things happened that we couldn't overcome. But 1-and-11 followed by 1-and-11 needs to change."
THE NEW MEXICO OFFENSE
The Lobos are looking at a new offensive coordinator in David Reaves, who might be more in tune with Locksley's philosophy of unleashing a multi-pronged attack out of the no-huddle scheme.
The Lobos aren't changing anything here. It's still a no-huddle, quick-strike philosophy emphasizing balance in both the run and pass. A key in 2011 is getting that Lobo offense into better (shorter) second and third down situations. A running game is helpful here.
Of course, if you can't run the ball, that multi-pronged attack loses one of its prongs. It's critical that UNM does a better job controlling the line of scrimmage and establishing a consistent ground game that will better open up the passing game. This brings up another huge key for the Lobo offense in 2011. Who will be throwing that football?
"In a perfect world," said Locksley, "you have one guy who separates himself and you can better construct your game plans around his strongest skills."
Locksley had a perfect world for a while in 2010. Sophomore B.R. Holbrook was UNM 's main man in the huddle, but he got bit by the injury bug. That turned the huddle over to freshman Tarean Austin, who also went down to injury. That pulled freshman Stump Godfrey out of redshirt status and another true D-I rookie was running the show for UNM .
The bad news was UNM lacked consistency and continuity in the huddle and too often had to rearrange game plans to suit the talents of the healthy QB of the week. The good news was that the returning Austin got a lot of playing time that probably wouldn't have come his way with a healthy Holbrook on the field.
Austin essentially gives UNM another running back in the backfield and if the Lobo pocket experiences any breakdowns vs. CSU -- or any other UNM opponents -- Austin is the superior scrambler. UNM also has freshman Dustin Walton of Raton on the sidelines and Detchauz Wray also has been moved to the QB spot to add some depth.
Holbrook completed 63-of-119 passes in seven games last season. Austin was 57-of-97. Locksley has made it clear that all positions on his roster are open to competition and that Holbrook has not been eliminated as a potential starter down the road.
"The guy who gives us the best chance to win will be in the huddle," said Locksley. "Everything is based on production. We need to sustain drives by establishing the run and making big plays.
"The key to that position was to find out as quickly as we can which guy is going to give us the best chance to win through execution and getting us down the field."
THE RUNNING BACKS
As it is with most Lobo positions, there is talent and depth here. As it is with most Lobo positions, it's time to push the production to a higher level.
The two standout returnees are junior Kasey Carrier (out with minor knee injury) and senior James Wright . Carrier is more the burst of speed while Wright is stomp and muscle. In 2010, Carrier ran for 373 yards on 104 carries for a 3.6 average. Wright churned for 304 yards on 89 carries for a 3.4 average.
Freshman Crusoe Gongbay, 6-foot, 196 pounds, was a standout in preseason drills and made the two-deep chart heading into the CSU game. He should see quality time vs. CSU with Carrier on the sidelines.
"Kasey and James have been in our system for three years and they know what is expected," said Locksley. "I think there is a sense of urgency on James' part. He is a senior, who has the ability to be a big-time player and he wants his senior year to be special. I expect to see his drive at an all-time high."
"We still need to improve production on the ground," said Locksley "Running the ball opens up our throwing game. If we expect to have success throwing the ball, we have to have success running the ball.
"I'm a big believer in balance and that means being able to do both efficiently. We need to lessen the number of times we are in second-and-long or third-and-long situations. We need to produce a percentage of situations that favor the offense converting the first down. You do that by running the football."
THE WIDE RECEIVERS / TIGHT ENDS
The "hands" department on the Lobo football team is a paradox, of sorts. The Lobos appear to be loaded here, but several of the "hands" expected to have big seasons in 2011 are unproven as Lobos. Their talent is indisputable, but they also have yet to produce at the D-I level as Lobos.
The Lobos return some good hands people in junior Ty Kirk (38 for 477 yards) and junior tight end Lucas Reed (33 for 459). These are go-to receivers. Sophomore Andrew Aho also is improving at the tight end spot behind Reed.
The Lobos are expecting big things from a few first-year Lobos: Donnie Duncan , Lamaar Thomas and Deon Long. UNM also has talent coming back in Michael Scarlett , Emmanuel McPherson and Quintell Solomon. The big loss is Chris Hernandez (35 passes for 246).
The starting wide outs for CSU are Long, Kirk and Thomas, which gives UNM tremendous potential on the edge.
"People who have loaded the box on us have to be more concerned with what we have on the edge," said Locksley. "We have a lot of speed, athleticism and playmaking ability among our receivers. We have an outstanding tight end in (Lucas Reed)."
THE OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
The biggest change in this department might be the coach yelling at the 2011 crop of "Hitmen." If there was a weakness on the UNM O-line in 2010, it was physicality, intensity and confidence. O-line coach Ron Hudson should improve those areas. However, he still is working with a bunch of Lobo pups, as eight of the 11 Lobos on his two-deep are either freshmen or sophomores.
The obvious big loss from 2010 is 6-5, 325-pound Byron Bell . The Lobo Hitmen also are minus Karlin Givens , Mike Cannon and Maurice Mears . That's why one of Locksley's keys this past spring was to develop depth on the O-line.
There is some talent and size here. Sophomore Dillon Farrell has the size (6-5, 290) and the smarts to be one of the top lineman in the Mountain West. He was moved from the center spot to the left tackle spot thanks to the improved play at the center position by redshirt freshman LaMar Bratton.
Sophomore Calvin McDowney (6-3, 340) has shown the drive and the work ethic to lock down a starting guard spot. Transfer Korian Chambers (6-6, 322) is a good addition at a tackle spot and is expected to start vs. CSU.
The Lobos return senior Mike Muniz (6-4, 284), sophomore Darryl Johnson (6-4, 305,), Bratton (6-2, 275), sophomore J.V. Mason (6-4, 299) and freshman Earl Johnson (6-4, 250 redshirt). UNM also will look for depth from senior Jon Washington (6-5, 303).
"It's no secret that in football everything starts with how good you are in the trenches," said Locksley. "We need to be more physical up front, tougher.
"I think we have eight to ten offensive linemen who can go out there and help us. We had to play some young guys maybe before they were ready last year, but they have gained a lot of experience that will help us in Year Three."
THE NEW MEXICO DEFENSE
There is much talk about the Lobos abandoning the 4-3 front they used on defense in 2009 and 2010. But the yardage yielded by UNM in those seasons strongly suggested a need for change. So, UNM is going to a 4-2-5 scheme.
The change in alignment and shape isn't that big a deal. UNM often used the 4-2 front in 2010, so the learning curve here is a small one. The biggest change is in philosophy.
In Locksley's first two seasons at UNM, the Lobo defense was more a read-and-react front. That's a good philosophy if you are the biggest, baddest, strongest and meanest up front. If not, you often are reading and reacting while you are getting pushed backward.
"We are going to be as aggressive as we can be, get the linemen and backers up the field," said George Barlow, UNM 's new defensive coordinator. "We want to get them vertical and get them playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
"We don't have real big kids, who can anchor down and read and hold gaps. We have to play more to what we have. We have lighter kids, who have to get moving toward the ball."
THE DEFENSIVE LINE
It's what's up front that counts. And if you don't have what it takes up front, the opposing fans might be counting all the points their team is putting on the scoreboard.
The Lobo defensive front is heading into the 2011 season with a "make up for last year" - MUFLY - attitude. The Lobos were loaded with talented up front in 2010, but did not play up to their potential. They are loaded again in 2011 and heavy with junior talent. It's time to walk the walk.
It's possible the change in philosophy (attack rather than sit and read) will reap huge dividends for this group in 2011. This unit isn't huge, but it is quick and talented.
"We decided we needed to be more aggressive," said Locksley. "We will attack more and put more pressure on the offense and have less gap control.
"I think defensively we underachieved in a lot of areas last year. This year we are turning our guys loose. Our line will be given the chance to use its quickness and get up the field (attack)."
The Lobos return a solid crop of talent up front on defense: senior Jaymar Latchison, junior Ugo Uzodinma, senior Brett Kennedy, junior Reggie Ellis, junior Jake Carr, sophomore Jacori Greer and junior Joseph Harris (moved from LB). The major loss is the tough Peter Gardner (DT) and Johnathan Rainey (DE), gone with a career-ending neck injury. UNM has solid transfers in Fatu Ulale and Rod Davis.
There are lots of talented bodies here, but Locksley is demanding that a few of these linemen have breakout seasons and become impact players up front. That means get to quarterbacks and get to running backs. The UNM D-line returns only one player, who made UNM's Top Ten tackling chart in 2010: Latchison, with 44 tackles.
"This is a big year for Jaymar," said Locksley. "He needs to step out of the shadows and make this a statement season for him. Ugo and Reggie came here as transfers after redshirting a year. They hadn't played football in two years and at times it showed. They need to make an impact for us up front, too."
There was some depth created here instantly simply by a change in numbers. Do the math! UNM went from a 4-3 front to a 4-2 front. The competition for playing time intensifies because of the loss of one linebacker spot. It also intensifies because of redshirt freshman Javarie Johnson and the emergence this fall of Dallas Bollema and Spencer Merritt.
Johnson was good enough to make an impact in 2010, but had to sit out a season as a transfer from Maryland. The 6-3, 210 pounder is impressive and won't be kept off the field in 2011. He had talent around him in senior Carmen Messina (6-2, 240) and junior Joe Stoner (5-10, 224).
Messina battled injuries most of 2010, but still ended up as UNM 's No. 1 tackler with 115. Stoner had a breakout season with 67 tackles and seems to have the gift of making big plays on defense. That duo alone gives UNM front-line talent, but this group of linebackers is more and more looking like the strongest unit on the UNM team.
Merritt, a 6-2, 220-pound junior and Bollema, a 6-2, 225-pound sophomore, had solid years in 2010 with 63 and 39 tackles, respectively. Their performance in preseason camp has Bollema listed as a starter along with Messina. Merritt is listed as Messina's backup. Zach Daugherty (6-foot, 205), a redshirt freshman also adds to the talent and depth.
THE DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD
In recruiting for the 2011 season, Locksley made a commitment to improve the athleticism of his defensive secondary. Mission accomplished. Now that athleticism needs to produce on the field and establish depth in the secondary.
Locksley isn't concerned.
"It was an emphasis in recruiting to improve the skill set back there," said Locksley. "We have a number of guys who haven't played at this level, but we recruited them because we believe they can make an immediate impact at this level. The athleticism has really improved and there is much more depth."
There is some good experience returning in junior DeShawn Mills, junior A.J. Butler, senior Anthony Hooks and senior Bubba Forrest. But Locksley is hoping these 2010 starters are looking over at all the talent waiting to jump into that secondary.
"We had too many breakdowns and there were times we weren't athletic enough to catch people," said Locksley. "We had to improve our production on the backside. There is competition now, and if a guy isn't getting the job done, there is a guy in his hip pocket ready to play."
The influx of talent in UNM's receiving corps and in the secondary is impressive. At both positions, the Lobos might see different starters throughout the 2011 season. The athleticism takes a huge bump in the secondary behind transfers Destry Berry and DeShon Marman, freshman Devonta Tabannah and redshirt freshman Martize Barr.
There also is some depth provided by sophomore Carmeiris Stewart, junior Freddy Young, sophomore Dante Caro, junior DeShon Marman, senior Jamarr Lyles, and redshirt freshmen Chase Clayton and Meiko Locksley.
"We have the talent and the depth in the secondary to create competition and demand production and efficiency," said Locksley.
The change to the 4-2-5 look also brings back a position called "Lobo." This position looks for a player who is half linebacker and half safety. He has to be physical and tough enough to deal with massive linemen and get to running backs when in a run-support mode.
The "Lobo" also has to have the quickness to play cover defense against tight ends, running backs, and receivers coming across the short flats. This player has more pure "read" responsibilities because he must quickly decide if his primary responsibility is run-support or pass coverage.
Barr is listed as the "Lobo" starter for Saturday with Caro and Locksley listed as backups.
"On defense, we need to create more turnovers and get off the field on third down," said Locksley. "We have to put teams into down-and-yardage situations where our defense has the advantage."
THE SPECIAL TEAMS
Locksley expects to see drastic improvement in this department -- especially return and return coverage -- except maybe one: James Aho can't get much better. UNM also returns a solid punter in Ben Skaer.
Aho, the freshman All-American, is now a senior and in 2010 he was a dead-on junior nailing 22-of-22 points-after and 8-of-9 field goals. That was a big jump from 2009 when he was 13-of-21 on his field goal attempts.
Aho's talented toe is a big weapon and UNM needs to cash in on the accuracy of that foot. Sure, UNM would prefer to get into the end zone and pad Aho's numbers in PATs, but the Lobo offense also has to move the ball enough to give Aho more shots at those 3-pointers.
One area UNM definitely needs to improve is field position both from receiving the football and kicking the football to the enemy.
UNM averaged 2.3 yards in punt returns and allowed a 15.6 average. That's 23 yards in punt returns for UNM compared with 531 yards for the opposition. The Lobos fared better in kickoff returns with a 23.5 average compared with a 29.9 average for opponents.
"Our special teams should show major improvement because of us finally having some depth," said Locksley. "Last season we had one, maybe two guys, who could field punts. Sometime is wrong with that. This season we have five or six guys who can field punts.
"The improved depth also allows us to put better players, more skilled players, on the special teams.
"The big thing for us now is to quit talking about what we want to do on the football field and go out there and take the action necessary to produce our beliefs and wants," said the third-year Lobo coach.
"Everybody on this team needs to be accountable in putting out the action that can produce the consequences and the results we believe we can obtain. I'll be very disappointed if we don't put a product on the field that doesn't see us in a bowl game."
NEW MEXICO LOBOS 2011 FOOTBALL/TV SCHEDULE