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New Mexico has shown Bob Davie tons of patience. It probably won’t pay off

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New Mexico’s attendance is plummeting, and wins have disappeared, but Davie gets another shot to right the ship.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Colorado State
Bob Davie
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Frustrated by a lack of support and diminishing win totals, New Mexico head coach Rocky Long resigned following the 2008 season, and Mike Locksley replaced him. Locksley attracted decent talent to Albuquerque but had no idea what to do with it, and the Lobos went an incredible (for all the wrong reasons) 1-11 in 2009, 1-11 in 2010, and, after he was fired four games in, 1-11 in 2011.

  • New Mexico’s average home attendance in those three seasons: 22,620.
  • New Mexico’s average home attendance in 2018: 16,587, a full 27 percent lower.

Obviously home attendance depends in part on who’s on your home schedule — the NMSU-UNM game, for instance, almost always draws 30,000-plus, and UNM’s home attendance in odd-numbered years, when NMSU visits, is always higher than evens. Still, from 2009-17, the Lobos had a listed attendance under 2018’s average just four times.

Morale is low, in other words. It’s not hard to see why.

Two years ago, the Lobos stopped winning. Bob Davie’s squad won 16 games and bowled twice in 2015-16; they’ve gone 6-18 since. They collapsed in 2017, and then Davie spent part of the offseason suspended.

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.

When New Mexico stunk again last fall, he again wasn’t fired. We’ll see if that changes with another bad season.

S&P+ projects the Lobos 115th overall, with only a manageable early schedule — Sam Houston State, NMSU, Liberty, SJSU, and Colorado State among the first six games — salvaging a 4-8 projection. Davie will be breaking in two more coordinators (he’s gone through a lot of them lately), and while the offense enjoys a little continuity, both the linebacking corps and secondary have been destroyed by attrition.

Davie is sending out as many positives vibes as possible, talking about this offseason as a brand new starting point.

“I’m right back to where I started my first time coaching, attacking it like that,” Davie said. “We’re starting, in a lot of ways, completely over, which is dramatically needed.”

Davie, entering his eighth year at UNM, described his coaching staff and players as, “hungry,” coming in every morning as if their backs are against the wall after back-to-back 3-9 seasons, each of them ending with seven-game losing streaks.

This is, of course, what any coach in his situation would say, but occasionally those vibes can take hold. Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, for instance, went 8-17 in 2012-13, then went 28-12 from 2014-16. But the Mountain West of 2014-16 was not this Mountain West.

The league is coming off of its best season since 2009, and while UNM’s conference schedule is as positive as could be imagined — no San Diego State or Fresno State in cross-division matchups — it probably won’t be positive enough.

Offense

I’ve long admired Davie’s sense of reality when it comes to the talent at hand. A few years ago, admitting that he didn’t have nearly the amount of talent required to win lots of one-on-one matchups, he installed a unique spread-option system that he road to the aforementioned bowls.

The Lobos slipped from 47th to 113th in Off. S&P+ in 2017, however, so he fired OC Bob DeBesse (who went to Georgia Southern and completely revived the Eagles’ option game) and brought in Calvin Magee to run a Rich Rod-style spread option. UNM proceeded to rank just 107th last fall, so Davie’s changing things up again.

Now it’s Joe Dailey’s turn. Davie’s ethos hasn’t changed...

Davie said the Lobos don’t have the talent to be a better spread-offense team than other teams that use the spread.

“We still have to be, from a schematic standpoint, a pain-in-the-butt to prepare for,” he said. “On a given week, we have to do some things different from what they saw before.”

... but while Dailey is well versed in option concepts — he began his career playing for Frank Solich’s Nebraska and has spent a good portion of his coaching career with Nebraska product Turner Gill at Buffalo, Kansas, and Liberty — the biggest draw for Davie was Dailey’s flexibility. As OC at Liberty, he was able to craft a “hybrid spread” system (his words) based specifically around the talent at hand.

LU ranked in the double digits in Off. S&P+ in its FBS debut last year under Dailey, and, perhaps more importantly, torched New Mexico for 568 yards and 52 points in September.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Colorado State
Sheriron Jones
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Liberty’s primary strengths in 2018 were the ability to avoid negative plays — 32nd in stuff rate, 21st in sack rate — and the ability to pitch the ball around a bit. The former matches up well with the ideals of the option offense Davie has chosen to forego. The latter is ... a bit of a mystery.

The New Mexico passing game was all-or-nothing like that of option attacks often are, and we’ll see if Dailey can find seeds of consistency in one of the quarterbacks in a crowded race: senior incumbent Sheriron Jones, sophomore Tevaka Tuioti, redshirt freshman Trae Hall, or JUCO transfer Brandt Hughes.

Each candidate is intriguing in his own way.

  • Tuioti began last season as the starter and torched Incarnate Word for 327 passing yards and 54 rushing yards but barely played after that.
  • Jones, a onetime Tennessee signee and four-star prospect, looked sensational in a trio of games against Liberty, UNLV, and Colorado State, but his production trailed off considerably from there.
  • Hall, listed as an athlete rather than a QB by recruiting services, was still a three-star prospect with offers from FAU, UL Lafayette, ULM, Tulane, and NMSU.
  • Hughes threw for 2,146 yards, with 19 combined passing and rushing touchdowns, last year at Butte College.
NCAA Football: New Mexico at Colorado State
Elijah Lilly
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If Dailey can unearth a semi-consistent QB, the next step will be finding some consistent WRs. Leading returnees Elijah Lilly and Anselem Umeh were used primarily on go routes last year, averaging 18.7 yards per catch but with just a 50 percent catch rate. Junior Q’ Drennan was the same in 2017. There’s obviously some speed here, but we’ll see if a more fleshed-out route tree is possible. Davie signed some JUCOs (juniors Emmanuel Logan-Greene and Jordan Kress and sophomore tight end Kyle Jarvis) just in case.

There’s another reason why it’s important the passing game figures some things out: the running game is starting over to a degree. Leading backs Tyrone Owens and Zahneer Shuler are gone, as are both starting guards, including four-year starter and all-conference RG Aaron Jenkins.

Granted, Owens’ and Shuler’s production was pretty bad (3.9 yards per carry, 40 percent success rate), and the bar’s not high. But the leading returnees — senior Ahmari Davis and sophomores Daevon Vigilant and Bryson Carroll — didn’t fare any better. Vigilant’s a former star recruit, at least, and sophomore Kentrail Moran was a damn near four-star recruit but missed last year with a knee injury. There might be upside with those two in particular.

Defense

We all do it: when a former defensive coordinator gets a head coaching job, we assume his defense will be as awesome as whatever defense he used to get the HC promotion, and we ask questions about his OC hire. We do the same in reverse, too — assume good offenses from OCs and ask more questions about the defense.

It’s funny, then, to think back and realize that...

  1. Davie was an immensely successful defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and Notre Dame, which earned him the Notre Dame HC job when Lou Holtz (briefly) retired.
  2. Indeed, his ND tenure was undone by a horrid 2001 offense that ranked 92nd in Off. S&P+ (while his defense ranked sixth).
  3. His first five offenses at New Mexico averaged a healthy Off. S&P+ ranking of 66.8, peaking at 47th in 2016.
  4. His defenses, meanwhile, have been consistently horrible. Average Def. S&P+: 113.9. Best ranking so far: 102nd.

An odd path, that. But for whatever reason, Davie just has never had the horses to do what he wants defensively, and he’s never figured out what he can do with the horses he’s got.

So now it’s Jordan Peterson’s turn to try his hand at fixing the D. The former Texas A&M DB has spent the last two years as Davie’s DBs coach, and he’s been tasked with creating a unit as hard to prepare for as UNM’s offenses were a few years ago.

Good luck.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Wisconsin
Patrick Peek
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Lobos had the components of an aggressive and interesting pass defense last year, but the pass rush wasn’t quite good enough, and the secondary suffered a few too many big-play glitches to justify the aggression.

But that’s enough of talking about last year — UNM’s primary pass rusher is gone, as are the top seven defensive backs. Ouch. Senior DBs De’John Rogers (CB), Willy Hobdy (CB), and Patrick Peek (FS) and junior Kameron Miller (nickel) all have some semblance of experience; Peterson won’t be fielding a secondary of five freshmen or anything. But it was still awfully revealing that Davie signed five JUCO defensive backs, wasn’t it?

New Mexico v Texas A&M
Willie Hobdy
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Up front, there’s better continuity, at least. Five of last year’s six linemen are back, including end Nahje Flowers and nose tackle Aaron Blackwell, but Davie inked three JUCO linemen as well. And the linebacking corps loses four of last year’s top five and will rely on some combination of returning MLB Alex Hart (who missed 2018 with injury), junior Brandon Shook, senior Alexander “Moana” Vainikolo, and, you guessed it, four JUCOs.

The returning depth chart was dire enough that Davie used almost half his 2019 class on JUCOs. That usually backfires — even if there’s initial improvement (and there often isn’t), it leads to a detonated two-deep a couple of years later — but you never know for sure. The defense has been so bad for so long that it might be worth a JUCO Hail Mary.

Special Teams

New Mexico has wasted a couple of good special teams units these last two bad years. The Lobos were 30th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2017 and improved to fourth last season, and it didn’t matter.

UNM was good at basically everything in special teams last year, but place-kicker Danny Sutton and dynamite punt returner Marcus Hayes are gone. Punter Tyson Dyer and kickoffs guy Andrew Shelley should ensure another decent rating, but top-five might be a bit too much to ask for.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Sam Houston State NR 8.8 70%
14-Sep at Notre Dame 12 -36.9 2%
21-Sep New Mexico State 121 5.1 62%
28-Sep at Liberty 112 -4.0 41%
5-Oct at San Jose State 117 -1.6 46%
12-Oct Colorado State 109 0.0 50%
19-Oct at Wyoming 92 -13.1 22%
26-Nov Hawaii 94 -7.3 34%
2-Nov at Nevada 83 -15.8 18%
9-Nov Air Force 90 -9.3 30%
16-Nov at Boise State 24 -30.3 4%
30-Nov Utah State 42 -20.4 12%
Projected S&P+ Rk 115
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 104 / 117
Projected wins 3.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -10.2 (103)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 121
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / 0.4
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 51% (59%, 43%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 4.0 (-1.0)

I’d be surprised if Davie is still in his job this time next year, but what do I know? I was surprised last year, and I’m surprised right now, too. Maybe he’s got tenure.

When a coach is forced by circumstance to basically start from scratch, you occasionally end up with a “necessity is the mother of invention” situation, and who knows — maybe Dailey crafts something really exciting on offense, and maybe Peterson finally cracks the “how to play good defense in Albuquerque” code. (I’m more optimistic about the pieces on offense, for whatever that’s worth.)

More likely, however, is that this is another down year for New Mexico. Anything less than a 4-2 start will likely preclude any bowl hopes, and S&P+ suggests something like 2-4 or 3-3 is more likely.

New Mexico desperately needs something to get the fans engaged again. You never know for sure, but odds aren’t good that that happens until a new head coach takes over.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.