Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
The firm is recommending leadership “take strong action to ensure that the University does not and will not — in any aspect of the University’s program, including athletics —tolerate sexual harassment, sexual assault, physical abuse or other prohibited misconduct against its students.”
I’m surprised Davie still has a job. Confused, actually. Over the course of two separate investigations since August, New Mexico’s then-interim president, Chaouki Abdallah, determined that, at best, Davie had violated ethical conduct and compliance portions of his contract. At worst, he had attempted to influence sexual assault investigations of his players.
The evidence couldn’t entirely prove the latter, but there was enough of the former that, combined when Davie’s team collapsed on the field last fall, it appeared Abdallah had enough to fire Davie with cause, even without concrete proof of the worst allegations.
Instead, the university simply suspended Davie for a month after National Signing Day. He missed a good portion of spring football practice, which ended on March 3 with no spring game. Now he attempts to pick up where he left off. It probably won’t go well.
This is a very strange situation, one for which I wish we knew more specifics. But New Mexico’s going to play a 2018 football season, so this is part of a season preview series.
On the field, he had only begun to produce results when the spigot was turned off. After winning just 12 of his first 40 games in charge, the Lobos won six of nine to finish the 2015 regular season, then went 9-4 in 2016. They began 2017 with three wins in five games, and despite a last-minute upset loss to in-state rival NMSU, things seemed to be going according to plan.
- First 5 games (3-2): Avg. score: UNM 24, Opp 21 | Avg. yards per play: UNM 6.6, Opp 5.0 | Avg. percentile performance: 66% (62% offense, 61% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-6.9 PPG
- Last 7 games (0-7): Avg. score: Opp 37, UNM 14 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.1, UNM 4.7 | Avg. percentile performance: 31% (28% offense, 37% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-19.7 PPG
After a tight win at Tulsa and an easy home win over Air Force, UNM collapsed almost overnight. The Lobos lost by big margins on the road (by 38 at Fresno State, by 39 at Wyoming, by 41 at Texas A&M, by 25 at SDSU) and by mostly tight margins at home.
Davie couldn’t decide on a quarterback, couldn’t keep the same five offensive linemen on the field, and couldn’t keep linebackers or defensive backs healthy. UNM got stuck in between a youth movement and an attempt to salvage another bowl bid for a senior class that had resurrected the program. And since the investigation into Davie came to light in mid-September, it’s fair to assume it had an impact on UNM as a whole.
Since Davie’s evidently still going to be in charge, there’s no choice: it’s youth movement time. Quarterback Lamar Jordan is gone, as are three of the top four running backs, four of the eight offensive linemen who started at least one game, the top two defensive linemen, and the top two safeties. Sophomores will take significant snaps everywhere on the offense, and Davie signed enough JUCOs to damn near fill a starting lineup on offensive line and throughout the defense.
Oh yeah, and the offense might change a bit. Davie fired Bob DeBesse, the engineer of the Lobos’ unique triple-option attack, and brought in a former Rich Rodriguez assistant, Calvin Magee. Magee is well-versed in the ways of the option, but expect some tweaks.
Despite seemingly dealing with QB controversies every year, Jordan’s career finished with 2,501 rushing yards and 3,225 passing yards. He had 91 non-sack rushing yards in UNM’s 2016 New Mexico Bowl win over UTSA, one of only two bowl victories for the program in the last half-century.
Jordan couldn’t shake free of Tevaka Tuioti in 2017, however. The redshirt freshman was able to nearly match Jordan in per-carry rushing, and he took far fewer sacks and risks in the passing game. For all intents and purposes, Tuioti will now become the Khalil Tate of the new-look New Mexico offense.
While he won’t produce Tate-like numbers, Tuioti could be up for the challenge. He was already the passer of choice — he attempted 120 passes to just 26 non-sack rushes, while Arizona State transfer Coltin Gerhart (29 pass attempts, 35 rushes) was used in obvious-run situations. We could see a similar setup in Magee’s spread option.
So what are the primary statistical differences in Magee’s attack compared to what UNM was running under DeBesse? Let’s consult some 2017 offensive footprint stats:
- Standard Downs Run Rate: UNM 80.8% (sixth in FBS), Arizona 73.8% (10th)
- Passing Downs Run Rate: UNM 43.3% (20th), Arizona 38.0% (44th)
- Adj. Pace: Arizona plus-3.0 plays above average (13th), UNM minus-1.8 plays (101st)
- % of Solo Tackles: Arizona 81.7% (12th), UNM 78.8% (23rd)
Arizona threw a little more, but not a lot, and both teams spread defenders out and forced solo tackles. The main difference came in the tempo department; knowing his team might be physically outgunned, Davie has never been one to press the issue, preferring instead to slow the tempo down and try to keep his defense off the field. The 2017 offense was slower than normal, but this has never been a pedal-to-the-metal attack.
It’s never really helped the defense all that much — UNM hasn’t ranked higher than 90th in Def. S&P+ since Rocky Long left in 2008 — but tempo is the primary source of tension between Magee’s likely philosophy and Davie’s.
This is a good time to open the passing game up a hair, since UNM returns five of its top six wideouts and almost no running backs of consequence. Leading rusher Tyrone Owens returns after going for 783 yards last season, but the next most productive returnee is sophomore Kentrail Moran, a former star recruit who carried 14 times for 32 yards.
Redshirt freshman Daevon Vigilant and JUCO transfer Ahmari Davis will probably be asked to fill some carries, but after the unspectacular Owens, this is almost an entirely unknown unit.
The same could be said for the offensive line. Honorable mention all-conference tackle Aaron Jenkins is back, as are three others who combined to start 11 games last year. But the pool of available talent shrank to such a degree that Davie signed three JUCOs (Tre Bland, David Zavala, and Jarred Sylvester) to plump up the two-deep.
There’s some talent — sophomore tackle Teton Saltes was a mid-three-star recruit — but depth is a massive concern. Jenkins is the only senior, so whoever sticks will be scheduled to return in 2019 and maybe beyond.
Magee’s spread will likely be a run-first (and maybe run-second) attack, but the success of the receiving corps could dictate success. And it’s hard to know what to expect. Only two players caught more than 15 balls last year, and only one (sophomore Jay Griffin IV) returns. Griffin caught 29 balls for 393 yards with a 69 percent catch rate; he’s a pretty exciting weapon out of the slot. But who might provide danger out wide?
There are candidates, at least. Delane Hart-Johnson is a 6’4, 213-pound target who missed 2016 with injury but caught a combined 26 of 59 balls for 637 yards in 2015 and 2017. He was used primarily in play-action deep shots, but he could be capable of more. So, too, could 6’1 speedster Q’ Drennan (20 catches for 466 yards in 2016-17) and three-star sophomore slot Anselem Umeh. Davie has recruited strangely well at receiver, considering how little his team threw, and that could pay off this year.
With Davie gone for spring ball, Kevin Cosgrove served as acting head coach. Davie’s longtime right-hand man in Albuquerque, Cosgrove has seen plenty over his nearly four-decade career. He has served as a defensive coordinator or co-coordinator at SE Missouri State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Akron, and UNM. He was part of a massive turnaround (Wisconsin) and a pretty solid one (UNM).
He hasn’t been part of a particularly awesome defense in a while, but 2017’s was his best so far at UNM. The Lobos improved from 121st to 91st in Def. S&P+, defending the run reasonably well (49th in rushing success rate, albeit with lots of big plays) and disrupting a little in the back (57th in DB havoc rate).
The Lobo offense could suffer some growing pains during the transition to Magee’s offense, which means the defense needs to improve further. It’s conceivable, as long as quite a few JUCOs take root. That’s not something you’d bet your life savings on.
UNM loses five starters, but three of the top five havoc guys are back, including senior corners Jalin Burrell and D’Angelo Ross (combined: 21 passes defensed, 1.5 tackles for loss) and linebacker Alex Hart (5.5 TFLs, three passes defensed). Burrell and Ross helped to keep opponents’ completion rate just under 60 percent, though if they could have held onto a few of those batted balls (all 21 of their passes defensed were breakups, and none were picks), that could have changed a couple of close games.
The main turnover comes at safety and defensive end. Nickel Jake Rothschiller and strong safety Jacob Girgle depart after combining for seven TFLs and nine PDs. Backup nickel Kenneth Maxwell is also gone. Luckily, thanks to the fact that four regulars missed at least four games each, there was a well of experience.
Seven DBs (and at least three safeties) return after making at least 7.5 tackles, and they’re all juniors and seniors. Add in three JUCO transfers, and experience certainly won’t be an issue here. But if younger players like mid-three-star redshirt freshman safety Nico Bolden or three-star sophomore corner Corey Hightower can carve out a niche, that might be for the better.
In Cosgrove’s front six, the linebacking corps is well set. Hart’s back, and six returnees (five of whom are seniors) made at least one TFL last year. Evahelotu Tohi made 4.5 of them. But the line is a question mark. Only four linemen made more than 8.0 tackles, and two are gone, leaving end Cody Baker, nose tackles Jermane Conyers and Aaron Blackwell, sophomore ends Emmanuel Joseph and Nahje Flowers, monstrous redshirt freshman Langston Murray, and JUCO transfers Trent Sellers and Erin Austin.
Joseph is promising — 2.5 of his 4.0 tackles were sacks — and all these guys seem to have nice athletic potential. But there are no knowns.
UNM rode some senior legs to a top-30 Special Teams S&P+ finish last year, but both punter Corey Bojorquez (47.3-yard average) and kicker Jason Sanders (81 percent touchback rate, plus five FGs over 40 yards) are gone. Elijah Lilly is an explosive, if inefficient, kick returner, but he’s basically it. UNM is starting over.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|15-Sep||at New Mexico State||100||-5.0||39%|
|13-Oct||at Colorado State||95||-6.6||35%|
|27-Oct||at Utah State||77||-11.6||25%|
|3-Nov||San Diego State||55||-10.2||28%|
|10-Nov||at Air Force||112||-2.5||44%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||111|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||107 / 102|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-8.5 (109)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||114 / 108|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-16 / -5.6|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||-4.3|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||65% (64%, 66%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||4.5 (-1.5)|
On paper, you can talk yourself into a New Mexico rebound. The offense has an exciting dual-threat quarterback, and the receiving corps could be ready for more opportunities under a new coordinator. The defense returns most of last year’s more disruptive pieces.
But S&P+ doesn’t know about suspensions or investigations, and even it sees a pretty trying year. UNM is projected just 111th overall, and an unfavorable home-road split means the Lobos are projected to win in just two games. There are six games projected within a touchdown, so unexpected improvement could lead to a bowl run, but it’s easy to imagine UNM looking for a new head coach in about eight months.