On paper, the Program Builder cycle makes sense. You take over a struggling program, scuffle for a couple of years while you bring in your own pieces, engineer a bit of a breakthrough in the third or fourth year, lose your first batch of difference-makers to graduation, take a slight step backwards while your new difference-makers are learning the ropes, surge forward a little further, etc. When you are not an annual power, you almost, inevitably, take occasional steps backwards following the departure of a particularly impressive senior class. It comes with the territory.
But what happens when your first batch of "difference-makers" leaves after winning only four games?
DeWayne Walker took over a mostly hopeless program in 2009, and after a couple of steps backwards, his New Mexico State Aggies took a definitive step forward in 2011. They knocked off Minnesota and Fresno State, and they came within just a few points of their first five-win season since 2004. Walker's regime absolutely made progress in his third year, but now they encounter the downside of the life cycle. They return just eight total starters from last year's 4-9 squad and almost certainly face a bit of a rebuilding season. But can a coach with nine wins in three years survive a down year?
There is quite a bit of pressure for New Mexico State to win right now. Not only is the WAC in flux, having recently lost established programs Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii and brought in new blood in Texas State and UTSA, but the entire mid-major universe is in flux right now. With the Mountain West and Conference USA forming a merger and potentially looking to add a few extra members, now would be a very good time to be good at football. And if NMSU cannot maintain 2011's progress, will Walker survive to see year five in Las Cruces?
Over the past three decades, NMSU has been perhaps the most consistent coaching graveyard at the FBS level. Tony Samuel actually produced two of the three winning seasons (6-5 in 1999, 7-5 in 2002) but could not sustain improvement enough to sustain his employment, and now he coaches at SE Missouri State. Idol of blogger royalty Hal Mumme couldn't generate any momentum here, and in 2009 NMSU turned to seemingly the only man willing to take the job: DeWayne Walker. The result has been both predictable and discouraging: two years, five wins and 13 losses by 20 points or more. Walker has put together a rather strong, experienced staff and gone 2-0 versus New Mexico, but the talent just hasn't been there to date, and the combination of facilities and history have not exactly caused boatloads of star recruits to give the Aggies a chance. Recruiting is improving, but only a smidge. In college football, the best predictor of success is past success ... and NMSU has had none. […]
Rooting for the underdog is deep in my DNA, and New Mexico State is perhaps the biggest underdog in FBS. Recruiting has improved slightly in Walker's first two years, and as mentioned above, the offense improved last year and should again this fall. But even though the coaching staff is experienced, but it really is unclear at this point whether anybody can succeed in Las Cruces.
This fall, Boise State mercifully leaves the schedule, and the Aggies potentially have four winnable home games: Ohio (last year's F/+ ranking: 91st), Idaho (99th), Utah State (101st) and UTEP (109th). Throw in road trips to each of their two victims last year -- San Jose State and New Mexico -- and we'll say that NMSU's season really involves six games. Don't worry about the other seven. Just improve your overall ratings and win four of these six games, and the season will have been a definitive step forward.
The Aggies won only two of the six games mentioned above, but they countered that with upsets of Minnesota and Fresno State. Turnovers destroyed potential upset bids versus Utah State and Nevada -- NMSU lost the Turnover Points battle by 12.3 points in a three-point loss to Utah State and lost three turnovers in their final four possessions in what was a tight game versus Nevada -- but again, the Aggies were a clearly improved squad in 2011. This was NMSU's best team since at least 2007 and even for a "coaching graveyard," progress is progress.
What NMSU lacked in efficiency in 2011, they made up for in explosiveness and game-planning. Quick starts were often the Aggies' friend. They gained 235 yards on their first five drives in the upset of Minnesota, they gained 201 yards in the first three drives of a 14-point win over New Mexico, and they gained 334 yards in the first half of the near-miss versus Nevada. And in running back Kenny Turner (1,074 yards, 10 touchdowns) and receiver/kick returner extraordinaire Taveon Rogers (1,049 receiving yards, 8.2 adj. yards per target; three kick return touchdowns, 25.8 yards per return), the Aggies had a couple of legitimate playmakers.
The problem: offensive coordinator Doug Martin, the likely mastermind of the solid gameplans, left for Boston College, and both Turner and Rogers are no longer in Aggie uniforms. Rogers was a senior, and Turner, a 26-year-old junior, jumped for his shot at the pros before it was too late. Gone, too, are starting quarterback Matt Christian (2,158 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 398 pre-sack rushing yards), No. 2 receiver Todd Lee (578 yards, 7.8 adj. yards per target) and three of the Aggies' four most experienced offensive linemen.
What is left for new offensive coordinator Jerry McManus? Hard to say. Between Andrew Manley and Travaughn Colwell, the Aggies will likely have a solid quarterback in 2012. Manley was particularly impressive coming off the bench against Minnesota; he completed 20 of 31 passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns and two picks. Meanwhile, in 72 attempts, Colwell was a little better in terms of improvisation, but that comes with a down side, namely a horrific sack rate.
The loss of three solid targets (Rogers, Lee and Turner) will almost certainly hurt the passing game a bit, either Manley or Colwell (or, technically, junior college transfer Andrew McDonald) will have an intriguing target in sophomore Austin Franklin. One of Walker's more high-profile recruiting gets, Franklin caught 69 percent of the passes thrown his way (despite most of them coming on passing downs), gaining 524 yards in 34 catches. If he can adapt to facing opponents' No. 1 cornerbacks in 2012, he could thrive.
Even if the passing game keeps its head above water, the run game could struggle. Likely starter Robert Clay looked strong against Minnesota (20 carries, 97 yards; two catches, 34 yards), but his performance versus Ohio and UTEP (20 carries, 25 yards) probably dampens the the hope that he can put up Turner-esque numbers. Junior college transfer Akeelie Mustafa may be able to carve out some playing time pretty quickly. Whoever wins the job will be running behind a line that returns 59 career starts; its left side -- tackle Davonte Wallace (24 starts) and guard Maveu Heimuli (19) -- returns intact, though 73 career starts went out the door with departed seniors Aundre McGaskey, Sioeli Fakalata and Mike Grady.
Despite lacking in the pass rush department, NMSU fielded a downright solid pass defense in 2011. They were nicely efficient (62nd in Passing Success Rate+) and better on passing downs than standard downs. A reasonably effective back line perhaps gave them the confidence to get aggressive at times. They had six tackles for loss versus Nevada, nine versus Hawaii and seven versus Louisiana Tech. (Of course, they allowed 137 points in those three games, so perhaps they were a little TOO confident in their last line of defense.)
As much as attrition may have impacted the NMSU offense, however, it simply decimated the defense, especially a secondary that must replace all four starters. Cornerback Jonte Green who picked off two passes and broke up 14 more is gone. Safeties Donyae Coleman and Ben Bradley combined for seven picks, 10 passes broken up, four forced fumbles and five tackles for loss; they're gone, too. Junior corner Darien Johnson, a former three-star signee, is a potentially strong defensive back, but … he's only one defensive back. To somehow succeed in 2011, NMSU will have to rely quite a bit more on its front seven.
That could be a problem, as not only was the front seven a bit of a sieve in 2011, but it has some holes to fill as well. Gone are ends David Miumatalolo and Pierre Fils, who combined for 20 tackles for loss and over half of NMSU's sacks, as well as middle linebacker Boyblue Aoelua. If newcomers like freshman linebacker Robert Wagner and three-star junior college transfers Kalvin Cruz (a big end), Kevin Laudermill (tackle) and Trashaun Nixon (linebacker) are able to make an immediate impact, they can potentially tread water. But how often does relying on newcomers actually work out? And besides, the newcomers not only need to match last year's talent, but exceed it. Nevada's Lampford Mark rushed for 185 yards (in just eight carries) versus NMSU, while Louisiana Tech's Hunter Lee gained 148 yards and the Utah State trio of Michael Smith, Adam Kennedy and Kerwynn Williams combined for 284 yards in 45 carries.
Potential stars on this unit are few and far between, but there are a few players with potential. Senior tackle Walton Taumoepeau had 4.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles last year. Strongside linebackers B.J. Adolpho and Alexander LaVoy looked promising at times in an attacking role and Johnson may be a stellar cornerback. But to say the least, this defense is lacking in known quantities.
Last year, NMSU ranked 109th overall in F/+. That was, sadly, definitive improvement; if, somehow, they manage to make a similar improvement in 2012, there are quite a few winnable games on the docket. The Aggies host FCS's Sacramento State, FBS newcomer UT-San Antonio, New Mexico and San Jose State, and they face less-than-intimidating road trips to Texas State, Idaho and UTEP. A team ranked only in the 95th to 100th range could figure out how to win five or six games against this schedule, so with pressure piling on Walker heading into Year Four, we'll set the success-or-not line at around 5-7.
As I mentioned last year, I have a soft spot in my heart for the perpetual underdogs, and at the FBS level, there might not be a bigger underdog than New Mexico State. DeWayne Walker engineered a strong coaching job to get the Aggies as far as they got in 2011, but instead of taking another step forward in 2012, the Aggies will be lucky to hold steady. They just lost too much on both sides of the ball. If the NMSU administration keeps faith in Walker beyond this year's potential step backwards, it might pay off as newcomers learn their roles and improve. But with the pressure currently facing all WAC programs to win quickly and, potentially, punch a ticket to Mount USA, it wouldn't be surprising to see Walker's fourth season in Las Cruces also becoming his last.