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New Mexico State has no margin for error in 2019. As usual.

Doug Martin spent five years pushing the proverbial boulder up a hill in Las Cruces. Last fall, it rolled back down to the bottom.

New Mexico State v Minnesota
Doug Martin
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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

Hard jobs never really get easier. Doug Martin probably knew that before the 2018 season, and he most definitely knew it afterward.

After half a decade scratching, clawing, and program building, Martin took New Mexico State to a nearly unprecedented height in 2017 — the Aggies reached and won their first bowl game in 57 years. NMSU fans got to rush the field for clinching bowl eligibility in the season finale, then rushed the Arizona Bowl field as well. It was maybe my favorite pair of moments from that season.

Then the boulder that Martin worked so hard to push up that hill started rolling down again.

In 2018, NMSU officially embarked on indie life after getting booted from the Sun Belt. They put together a decent schedule — three Sun Belt foes, three MWC foes plus BYU, rival UTEP, the requisite P5 pay game, an FCS game, and only one true oddity (an in-season home-and-home with Liberty) — but the two-deep was a shell of its 2018 self. With a new starting quarterback, running back, and receiver, and with a defense that got shellacked by injury, the Aggies fell from seven wins to three and from 99th to 123rd in S&P+. The boulder wasn’t at the bottom of the hill, but it was close.

That you could see all this coming was maybe the worst part. As joyous as the end of 2017 was, it was clear 2018 was going to be a reset.

NMSU and its cousin UTEP, an hour down the road, are not in an area that’s going to produce a bounty of football talent. They are isolated in a way that will always hold them back. That both insist on playing football in the highest subdivision is an admirable affirmation of “the love of the game.” But in an environment of such ridiculous anti-parity, it’s also a quest for minimal joy.

That NM State fans still existed to rush the field is incredible. And they are due a lot more than one year of happiness. We’ll see if it continues. History doesn’t suggest it — most of the time, hard jobs don’t suddenly get easier — and a lack of a conference means the lack of a natural bowl spot.

Now comes the true grind of independence. One year is a novelty, but every year afterward is real life.

NMSU’s 2019 schedule is a bit more extreme. On one hand, the Aggies get six games against teams projected 112th or worse in S&P+ (and yes, two of them are against Liberty). On the other hand, there are pay-game road trips to Alabama, Washington State, and Ole Miss. Those six winnable games are the only winnable games on the schedule.

At least the team itself is in better shape. Sophomore quarterback Josh Adkins took over as the primary QB a month into last season, and he had a rhythm going for a while until hitting a wall late in the year. He’ll be surrounded by a senior-heavy supporting cast, and while the defense has to replace half its starters, so many guys got playing time last year that it’s hard to say who the starters really were. Plenty are back.

If anything good happened in 2018, it came in recruiting. Despite the move from the Sun Belt, NMSU averaged a per-signee rating of 0.7924, per the 247Sports Composite, in its 2019 haul. Its 2018 average was 0.7832 coming off of the bowl run, and it was 0.7664 in 2017.

Granted, after years of trying to bring in five-year recruits, Martin hopped aboard the JUCO train a couple of years ago, and once you start going after two-year guys, you can’t really stop. Still, if you’re looking for a ray of sunshine, it’s that NMSU’s depth might be getting a little stronger.

Offense

Martin serves as his own offensive coordinator, and he found an awkward existence in 2018. His preference is to throw the ball. NMSU ran just 44 percent of the time on standard downs (129th in FBS) and 22 percent on passing downs (127th).

But the Aggies were only good at running last year. In only a combined 17 carries per game, backs Jason Huntley and Christian Gibson combined for 1,095 yards and 13 touchdowns, and the Aggies ranked a decent 77th in rushing marginal efficiency.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State
Jason Huntley
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, they were 115th in passing marginal efficiency despite doing it a lot. Matt Romero began as the starting quarterback but struggled mightily, averaging just 8.5 yards per completion with a 55 percent completion rate. Nick Jeanty, the backup in 2017, also bombed his audition (he was 3-for-13 on the season), so Martin turned to Adkins in the fourth game.

Adkins was decent. He started eight games against FBS opponents (he torched FCS’ Alcorn State too), and you can pretty clearly figure out where he hit the wall:

  • Adkins’ first five starts vs. FBS: 61 percent completion rate, 12.3 yards per completion, 132.9 passer rating
  • Adkins’ last three starts: 48 percent completion rate, 10.3 yards per completion, 86.9 passer rating

He was 34-for-51 for 402 yards and four touchdowns in the first game against Liberty (a 49-41 home win), and he was 29-for-54 for 313, a TD, and a pick a month and a half later in a 28-21 road loss.

New Mexico State v Minnesota
Drew Dan (9) and Izaiah Lottie (10)
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

He was also a freshman. He should more know what he’s doing in 2019, and his skill corps should be able to help him out a bit more, too. Leading receiver Johnathan Boone is gone, but that’s about it. Seniors OJ Clark and Drew Dan return after combining for 89 catches and four scores; they were each particularly good against Liberty, catching a combined 28 balls for 379 yards and two scores in those two games.

Backup slot men Anthony Muse and Izaiah Lottie also return, and the RB position is featured pretty heavily in the passing game as well: Huntley caught 47 passes for 529 yards last year. So it seems the Aggies are awash in efficiency options. But unless Dan is making them, I don’t know where the big plays come from.

Perhaps the transfer train can help. It brings former Baylor receiver Tony Nicholson to town, plus a trio of JUCOs in Jared Wyatt, Robert Downs III, and Terrell Warner.

The run game could still be useful if Martin employs it more. (I recommend it.) The slot receiver-sized Huntley is solid, and at 6’1, 210, Gibson is an exciting bigger option. He was averaging 6.9 yards per carry until, like Adkins, trailing off in November.

The line loses two two-year starters but returns two others in left tackle Sage Doxtater and left guard Brian Trujillo. They average 6’6, 321, and incoming JUCO transfer Blake Walker is 6’8, 332. Beef is not a problem in Las Cruces.

Defense

The bar is not high, but according to S&P+, NMSU’s 2017 defense was its best since 2004 and its second-best since the 1970s. Longtime Boston College defensive coordinator (and friend of Martin) Frank Spaziani came to Las Cruces in 2016, and by his second season, the Aggies were teeing off like a Spaz defense should. They were fifth in the country with 43 sacks and 32nd in overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays).

The Aggies enjoyed decent continuity from 2017 to 2018, and it appeared they were ready to field another solid unit. But the injury bug had other ideas.

Only three regulars in the front seven played in all 12 games. Star linebacker Terrill Hanks missed three games, and another starting LB, Lui Fa’amasino, missed 10, and rush end Malik Demby missed eight. Senior tackle DeShawnte Lloyd was putting together a great season, then missed the final seven games.

It was brutal, and the numbers reflected it. NMSU fell to 113th in Def. S&P+, and while the Aggies were still able to rush the passer (19th in sack rate), they never got the chance — between a porous run defense and the fact that the NMSU offense wasn’t scoring much, opponents rarely had to throw the ball.

New Mexico State v Arkansas
Cedric Wilcots II
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Now that the dust has settled, here’s what’s left in the front seven:

  • Senior linemen Roy Lopez and Cedric Wilcots II combined for 22 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last year. Wilcots has 15.5 sacks in the last two seasons, and Lopez was the only lineman not to miss a game.
  • Junior tackle Myles Vigne and sophomore end Donovan King were also in last year’s rotation, and redshirt freshman tackle John Graves III saw some success during a four-game audition. Plus, Martin signed a pair of three-star JUCO linemen in end Tevan McAdams and Jomaious Williams.
  • Senior linebackers Javahn Fergurson, Jonathan Hood, and Shane Jackson are all back; Fergurson logged 7.5 TFLs in 10 games. These are the only three returnees among last year’s top eight LBs, but Martin has brought in three more JUCOs (including a three-star in Michael Bowe Jr.), and redshirt freshman Devin Richardson was one of the stars of last year’s recruiting class.

Depth could be an issue if the JUCOs don’t stick in the rotation, but there should be a solid starting front seven.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State
Shamad Lomax
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

In the secondary, Shamad Lomax might be the best returning cornerback and safety. It appears he’s moved back to corner, where he’s joined by fellow seniors Ray Buford Jr. and Komotay Koffie. That leaves the safety position a bit thin, but between senior Austin Perkins, three-star redshirt freshman Rodney McGraw II, Oklahoma State transfer Chance Cook, and JUCO Christopher Bell, a decent rotation might emerge. And it bears mentioning that the jewel of this year’s signing class, mid-three-star Brandon Shivers, is a defensive back as well.

Special Teams

NMSU’s return game is strong: Jason Huntley is explosive, if inefficient, on kickoffs, and OJ Clark is super steady on punts.

Unfortunately, punting and place-kicking are more important to your Special Teams S&P+ rating, and NMSU ranked just 110th in the former and 103rd in the latter last year. Punter Payton Theisler and kicker Dylan Brown are both back, but improvement is necessary here.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Washington State 36 -29.3 5%
7-Sep at Alabama 1 -55.8 0%
14-Sep San Diego State 54 -20.3 12%
21-Sep at New Mexico 115 -5.1 38%
28-Sep Fresno State 51 -20.9 11%
5-Oct Liberty 112 -1.6 46%
12-Oct at Central Michigan 122 -1.9 46%
26-Oct at Georgia Southern 81 -18.9 14%
9-Nov at Ole Miss 39 -28.9 5%
16-Nov Incarnate Word NR 6.2 64%
23-Nov UTEP 130 13.1 78%
30-Nov at Liberty 112 -6.6 35%
Projected S&P+ Rk 121
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 108 / 120
Projected wins 3.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -17.7 (127)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 126
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -8 / -5.7
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (79%, 48%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 2.6 (0.4)

The good news first: this roster is in much better shape now than it was a year ago. An exciting young quarterback emerged and heads into his first full season with a seasoned and semi-reliable supporting cast. The Aggies have meat in the trenches, play-makers in the front seven, and options in the back.

More good news: the Aggies’ primary rivals, New Mexico and UTEP, are in the same or worse shape. The Aggies have won two of the last three against both, and while they have to travel to UNM, they won in Albuquerque two years ago.

Now the bad news: on paper, they are projected to improve only from 123rd to 121st in S&P+, and five games are against teams projected 54th or better. They are a healthy favorite in one game and a three-score (at least) underdog in six. They will have to sweep every winnable game, or pull a significant upset, to have a chance at .500 again.

This job just doesn’t get easier.

NMSU is forever an inspiration when it comes to fielding a team just to prove you can field a team. The Aggies have a small but dedicated fan base, and Martin has provided more bright moments than his seven or eight predecessors combined. But as long as they are in FBS, the road to .500 will remain rocky.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.