Category: Aggie football :)

Where will NMSU go?

 

Flashback: In early 2013, New Mexico State Aggies football was facing one of its darkest periods in school history. The Aggies are a program that has the longest bowl drought in NCAA history (going on 56 years) and at the time, had just been orphaned in conference affiliation.

The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) had disintegrated as a football conference after the 2012 season, as part of a broader wave of conference realignment. All of the football-playing members of the WAC had jumped ship to greener pastures in the Mountain West Conference, Conference USA, or the Sun Belt Conference – with the exception of New Mexico State and the Idaho Vandals.

Both teams were stranded and forced to spend the 2013 season as FBS independents. Both were forced to play brutal schedules under first-year head coaches (Doug Martin at NMSU, and Paul Petrino at Idaho), with both the Vandals and the Aggies going 2-10 that year. Luckily, the Sun Belt threw a life raft to both schools, offering both Idaho and NMSU football-only memberships in the conference starting in 2014.

This past March, the rug was pulled out from under the feet of both schools.

In 2018, both NMSU and Idaho’s football-only Sun Belt memberships will expire. Within the past year, the Sun Belt decided to add a new member from the FCS (Coastal Carolina) in 2017 and to create a conference championship game, following the leads of the other FBS conferences (it should be noted that the Big 12 and the Sun Belt were the last two conferences to add a conference championship).

In the process, both NMSU and Idaho were kicked out of the Sun Belt after having a grand total of two seasons to make an impression to the powers-that-be. In an ironic twist, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson was also the former WAC commissioner, and he was the one giving both programs the axe.

This was after NMSU President Garrey Carruthers and Idaho President Chuck Staben made their cases to stay in the Sun Belt via PowerPoint presentations to the conference administrators back in early March. There were allegedly supporters of both the Aggies and the Vandals among the presidents of the Sun Belt schools, but in the end, the vote was unanimous – goodbye, Aggies and Vandals.

Again, the Sun Belt’s rationale was to have an even number of teams. As of right now, there are 11 Sun Belt football teams (including Idaho and NMSU). Add Coastal Carolina to the mix next season, and you’ll have 12; subtract NMSU and Idaho and you’ll be back at 10. This was in response to the NCAA’s decision to allow championships to conferences that have only 10 members (the previous limit had been 12, leaving out the Big 12 and the Sun Belt).

Up at Idaho, Staben made the devastating decision for the Vandals to drop down from the FBS to the FCS, joining the Big Sky Conference (which the Vandals are in for all other non-football sports).

This was an unprecedented move. Idaho football had spent 20 years at the FBS level and only had two bowl games to show for it, but a Division 1 team had never moved down a level. This also has numerous ramifications for Vandal football:

  • Numerous long-time program boosters have threatened to withdraw their financial support for Idaho football.
  • The Vandals will have to fire one assistant coach as part of FCS protocol.
  • The Vandals will also have to reduce their roster by 22 players. FCS teams have only 65 players on scholarship, as opposed to FBS programs, which can have up to 85 and generally average 83. This means that within the next year, Coach Petrino and his staff will be forced to under-recruit in order to be compliant with the FCS scholarship limitations by 2018.

Recent emails between Staben and Idaho athletic director Rob Spear have came to light. These emails show Staben as being reluctant to fight for the Vandals’ FBS future, and already having made up his mind about dropping down to the FCS even before the Sun Belt officially announced its decision. Seeing the writing on the wall, it appears that Staben was ready to throw in the towel and hope for the best at the FCS level.

This was in stark contrast to Spear, Idaho’s longtime athletic director. Spear has been at his position in Moscow for over a decade – he was the one who hired Petrino and successfully maneuvered the team through the brutal 2013 campaign before accepting the Sun Belt’s initial invitation. For what it’s worth, Spear seemed to be optimistic that another conference would be willing to pick up the Vandals in the near future and reportedly urged Staben via email to err on the side of caution. (Note: these emails were legally obtained as part of an FOIA request by reporters at the  Lewiston Tribune.)

In the end, it didn’t matter. At the press conference where Staben announced Idaho’s decision to step down, he claimed that it was a mutual decision among all parties involved. Spear’s body language at the adjacent podium suggested otherwise, although he has declined to comment on the situation since then.

Over 1,500 miles away, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a different decision was reached. Both Carruthers and athletic director Mario Moccia agreed to keep the Aggies at the FBS level, go independent again, and cross their fingers that a new conference would pick them up. This surprised some observers, with many predicting that the fates of Idaho and NMSU were tied to each other.

Could there be another seismic shift in the national landscape as far as conference realignment is concerned? Quite possibly.

The Big 12 stated over the summer that they are open to the idea of expanding back to 12 teams (the conference currently fields 10 teams in football). The most logical choice – both geographically and in terms of gridiron competition – would be the Houston Cougars of the American Athletic Conference, with possible interest from a school out west. BYU is currently an FBS independent who has shown interest in moving to a Power Five conference after spending previous years in the Mountain West. Both Houston and BYU would be interesting candidates, with BYU the more obvious choice for a football-only membership (they’re in different conferences for Olympic sports).

If the American loses Houston, they would likely poach a competitive team from Conference USA or the Sun Belt. Some likely C-USA candidates would be Western Kentucky, Southern Miss, or Marshall, while the Sun Belt’s most likely suitors would be Troy or Arkansas State.

Conference USA’s most recent additions were UTSA (2013) and Charlotte (2015); they currently field 13 teams in football (including NMSU’s closest regional rival, UTEP). If, for example, Western Kentucky jumped to the American, C-USA would be less likely to consider expanding, as they would be going from 13 teams back down to 12. Also, UAB is reinstating football in 2017 after a three-year absence, so instantly restocking C-USA with a brand-new team would be unlikely  – unless, of course, C-USA is open to having 14 teams in two divisions.

How about the Mountain West? Hypothetically, if the Big 12 snatched Boise State, where would the MW turn to find a new member? The answer could once again lie with a rival team. In 2013, University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs went to bat for his rival school, petitioning the MW to add NMSU, but he was ignored. Would the conference be more open to expanding in two years?

It’s worth noting that NMSU is much more competitive now than they were in 2013, when Coach Martin inherited a rough FBS independent schedule, not to mention a dumpster fire from predecessor DeWayne Walker. With one more full season left before going independent again, can the Aggies make a case for themselves to join the MW or any other conference?

I can’t imagine that the Aggies will roll over and play dead (and they haven’t so far this year). There’s a healthy chip on this team’s shoulder, both now and heading into their final Sun Belt season in 2017. Idaho has already raised the white flag, but NMSU hasn’t, choosing to stick it out in the FBS and hope that someone is sympathetic to their cause. It’s a daunting task, but it took guts to go for it, and both Carruthers and Moccia deserve credit for that.

Let’s hope someone outside of Las Cruces takes notice.

Sizing up the Sun Belt, one month in

Hard to believe it’s October – which means we’re five weeks into the college football season. Like many mid-major conferences, the Sun Belt Conference has been topsy-turvy. Some teams have been pleasant surprises, and others have been bitter disappointments. At this point, you can basically shake these teams up in a bottle and see where they land.

So where does everyone stand? Well, let’s find out. I’m recapping the first month of the season for all of these teams, as well as giving them a grade.

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Appalachian State Mountaineers (3-2, 1-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Georgia State, 17-3
  • Up next: Bye week

The Mountaineers have looked equally impressive on both sides of the ball. They raised eyebrows nationally by giving Tennessee a scare in the season opener. Then App State sandwiched that by convincingly defeating Old Dominion, falling to nationally-ranked Miami, and winning a shootout over Akron on the road. App State has one of the most experienced lineups in the Sun Belt, and it shows.

Grade: A-

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Arkansas State Red Wolves (1-4, 1-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Georgia Southern, 27-26
  • Up next: vs. South Alabama (Oct. 15)

The Red Wolves upset the apple cart in the Sun Belt last night with a last second win over the Georgia Southern Eagles. Up until then, Arkansas State’s offense had been a train wreck during an ugly 0-4 start. Even in the first half against Georgia Southern, they were shaky, losing two fumbles. It took sophomore QB Justice Hansen a huge effort to rally the troops and escape with a victory.

Hansen has been the unquestioned starter for a couple weeks now after Chad Voytik (a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh) was benched. With Hansen as a steady hand, new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner needs to get his unit to play faster and with more discipline.

Grade: D+

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Georgia Southern Eagles (3-2, 2-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Arkansas State, 27-26
  • Up next: @ Georgia Tech (Oct. 15)

Who are the Eagles? Are they an triple-option offense that passes, or a more balanced offense that is run-first? The Eagles have certainly been able to score points in bunches, but their star is falling after last night’s loss to Arkansas State and the previous week’s road drubbing at Western Michigan. The defense has been impressive, though, and it helps that first-year head coach Tyson Summers specializes on that side of the ball. This team is capable of rebounding, but they need to guard against complacency.

Grade: B-

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Georgia State Panthers (0-4, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Appalachian State, 17-3
  • Up next: vs. Texas State (Oct. 8)

The ball really bounced the Panthers’ way last year, when they won their last four games and qualified for their first bowl in school history. It’s safe to say that they aren’t recapturing that magic this year after an 0-4 start. Granted, they’ve had a tenacious schedule—Ball State, Air Force, Wisconsin, Appalachian State—but Georgia State is averaging a dreadful 13.8 points per game. The defense has been lackluster, too, which is mystifying considering that it’s mostly a veteran group. Adding injury to insult: star wide receiver Penny Hart is done for the year with a broken foot. 

Grade: D-

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Idaho Vandals (2-3, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Troy, 34-13
  • Up next: @ Louisiana-Monroe (Oct. 8)

The Vandals still haven’t had an impressive win—they’ve beaten UNLV (in overtime) and Montana State by a combined six points, and QB Matt Linehan continues to have turnover issues. The running game has been stagnant, and the secondary has been suspect, despite plenty of veterans back there. But at the end of the day, head coach Paul Petrino will take wins wherever he can get them—and his squad has a chance again this weekend on the road at lowly Louisiana-Monroe.

Grade: C-

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Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (2-3, 1-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to New Mexico State, 37-31 (2 OT)
  • Up next: Bye week

The Cajuns have a chance to rest up this weekend during their bye, but their confidence has to be shaken after falling in double overtime to NMSU and in four overtimes to Tulane the previous week. The Cajuns’ new-look defense has improved, especially in the pass rush, and the receiving corps has been solid, but there are questions about the health of running back Elijah McGuire heading forward. This looks like a middle-of-the-pack team until they prove otherwise.

Grade: C+

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Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (1-3, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Auburn, 58-7
  • Up next: vs. Idaho (Oct. 8)

New coach Matt Viator knows what he’s getting into, and he’s had significant success at smaller programs. The Warhawks have had an unforgiving schedule—taking their lumps against Oklahoma and Auburn, among others—and are currently on a four game losing streak. Like Georgia State, they’ve had some serious problems scoring. Unlike Georgia State, Louisiana-Monroe can use youth as an excuse (they only have 14 seniors).

Grade: D

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New Mexico State Aggies (2-3, 1-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Louisiana-Lafayette, 37-31 (2 OT)
  • Up next: Bye week

In 2016, NMSU has their most experienced team in the Doug Martin era. They were largely competitive in a high-scoring loss to Kentucky, and they’ve clawed out narrow (but significant) victories against Louisiana-Lafayette and in-state rival New Mexico.

All-American running back Larry Rose III is back to 100% after missing a few weeks after  sports hernia surgery. NMSU still has a long way to go on defense, but they’re blitzing more and showing more aggressiveness this season. The Aggies are also fortunate to be heading into their bye week in relatively good health.

Grade: C+

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South Alabama Jaguars (3-2, 0-2 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat San Diego State, 42-24
  • Up next: Bye week

Like Georgia Southern, South Alabama seems to be suffering an identity crisis. They’ve shocked both Mississippi State and a nationally-ranked San Diego State team, but they barely beat FCS Nicholls State in between and also lost to both Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Quarterback Cole Garvin, a transfer from Marshall, has helped add much-needed consistency to the Jaguars’ offense, and the defense looks solid, particularly in the secondary. Nonetheless, it’s a good time for a bye week. 

Grade: B-

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Texas State Bobcats (2-2, 0-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Incarnate Word, 48-17
  • Up next: @ Georgia State (Oct. 8)

The Bobcats have been surprisingly competitive in what was widely predicted to be a rebuilding year under new coach Everett Withers. They upset Ohio in a season-opening overtime thriller, but then took their lumps in beatdowns at the hands of Houston and Arkansas. There’s very little depth, and the defense is inexperienced, but if Texas State can stay healthy, they should have a chance at a couple more wins the rest of the season.

Grade: C-

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Troy Trojans (4-1, 2-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Idaho, 34-13
  • Up next: Bye week

Troy was a trendy preseason pick as the Sun Belt’s dark-horse, and they’ve certainly lived up to that reputation. After pushing nationally-ranked Clemson to the brink in Week Two, the Trojans then added a comeback win over Southern Miss to their resumé, before beating NMSU and Idaho to earn their first two conference wins. The Trojans are entering their bye week with a ton of momentum.

Grade: A-

Who to watch in fall camp (defense)

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Roy Lopez, DT (Freshman)

The Aggies always seem to need more bodies on the defensive line, and Lopez (6’2″, 290 pounds) is an intriguing option. He’s very strong and fast for his size and is only going to get better. A decorated recruit from the Phoenix area, he chose NMSU over Utah State and Idaho.

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Christian Gibson, S (Redshirt Freshman)

Gibson, who can play both cornerback and safety, has shown impressive ball skills in the offseason. He made two acrobatic interceptions in the spring game, showing off his athleticism and  sub-4.4 speed. Originally from Dallas, Gibson played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and defensive back in high school.

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Derek Watson, DE (Redshirt Freshman)

Watson had an ultra-productive prep career and has shown a lot of ability since arriving in Las Cruces. He was in line to push for playing time in 2015 but injured his shoulder in fall camp and missed the season. Watson has good height and length and can pressure the quarterback. He’s an NMSU legacy – his dad played football for the Aggies and his mom was a swimmer.

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Bobby Hill, DT (Sophomore)

A transfer from Orange Coast College, Hill is a quality run-stuffer who looks to fill holes on the interior line for the Aggies. He’s shown a great work ethic in fall camp and could be in line to start at a wide-open position.

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Tymon Locklin, S (Sophomore)

The Aggies are set at safety with returning starters Jacob Nwangwa and Jaden Wright, but don’t count out Locklin. The son of defensive tackles coach Kerry Locklin, he’s shown adaptability after being moved from receiver in the offseason. Locklin has legit speed and length, and he’s turned some heads in scrimmages so far.

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Shane Jackson, LB (Redshirt Freshman)

Jackson is a young linebacker who is capable of pulling off quality spot duty despite his lack of ideal size (6’0″, 244 pounds). There’s plenty of talent ahead of him, but injuries in camp have given Jackson a chance to shine. He’ll be in the mix this fall.

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DeMarcus Owens, CB (Sophomore)

Owens has arguably been the Aggies’ best defensive back in fall practice, making plays and routinely turning heads on the field. He learned on the job as a true freshman in 2015 and took his lumps, but improved down the stretch, making two INTs in his final two games.

Who to watch in fall camp (offense)

The New Mexico State Aggies are well into fall camp. As usual, I’m compiling a list of Aggie players who are looking to take a leap forward this fall. Some are veterans and some are newcomers, but I’ve got a good inclination that these players are going to shine in the 2016 season.

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Royce Caldwell, WR (Sophomore)

He’s only 5’8″, 175 pounds, but Caldwell is the fastest player on the team. The sophomore from Columbus, Texas was a delayed enrollee out of high school (academic reasons) but showed glimpses of his potential last season as a freshman. During a thrilling come-from-behind win over Idaho last October, Caldwell caught a short pass and turned it into a 61-yard touchdown reception.

“Royce sat out his first year here for academics and had a year off from football. And what I’ve noticed is those kind of guys are OK when they come back, but the next year they take a giant leap,” Aggies head coach Doug Martin said. “He was good last year but nowhere near where he is now.”

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Johnthan Boone, WR (Sophomore)

After a year at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa, Boone enrolled in the spring and make a heck of an impression. At 6’3″, 180 pounds, Boone has the height, length, and speed to play immediately for the Aggies. Entering 2016, he has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

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Jaleel Scott, WR (Junior)

Scott is a towering, physical presence at 6’6″, 212 pounds. Like Boone, he spent 2015 at Ellsworth C.C. and was a very productive receiver. With his size and speed, Scott is an enticing option as a red-zone target.

“I bring a deep threat and an advantage over the DBs. When the quarterback is scrambling, they can look for me and throw it up and I’ll come down with it,” Scott said. “Junior college taught me effort and hard work and putting in the extra time on the side.”

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Isaiah McIntyre, WR (Freshman)

McIntyre was a bit of an unknown entering fall camp. The local product was a signee in the Class of 2015 who missed most of his senior year at Las Cruces High due to a knee injury. In order to rehab, McIntyre grayshirted last fall while on full scholarship and got a head start in the classroom (he’s majoring in wildlife science). However, he’s shown great hands in fall camp and is as fast as any receiver on the roster. Although it’ll be hard for him to crack the top of the depth chart as a freshman, McIntyre can possibly help boost a sluggish punt/kick return game.

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Brayton Medina, OT (Junior)

Medina was a late arrival over the summer and looks to play right tackle for the Aggies. Originally from Fountain, Colorado, he originally walked on at Wyoming out of high school, redshirting there in 2013 before landing at Glendale Community College in Arizona. With returning starter Thomas McGwire likely the miss the season due to a knee injury, Medina will be ready to answer the bell soon enough.

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Sebastian Anderson, OT (Redshirt Freshman)

A 6’6″, 285-pounder from Goodyear, Arizona, Anderson is looking to replace two-year starter Houston Clemente at left tackle. That’s a lot to ask of a redshirt freshman, but Anderson has made significant weight and strength gains in the offseason and is excited to have an opportunity to start.

“It took a lot of knowledge on how to work in the offense,” Anderson said in the spring. “The speed is different, but learning from the older guys has been helpful. It’s really exciting. It’s a little pressure, but I love football and I’m having fun out here.”

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Brian Trujillo, OC (Redshirt Freshman)

An Albuquerque native, Trujillo has made a lot of strides in the offseason. He played both guard and tackle in high school, but has been working with the second team as a center since the start of the spring. Coaches love his work ethic, footwork, and football IQ.

KNOW THE FOE: Troy Trojans

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  • LOCATION: Troy, Alabama
  • HOME FIELD: Larry Blakeney Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium (capacity 30,000)
  • CONFERENCE: Sun Belt Conference
  • 2015 RECORD: 4-8, 3-5 in Sun Belt
  • PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Brandon Silvers, RB Jordan Chunn, OL Antonio Garcia, DE Rashad Dillard, LB William Lloyd, LB Justin Lucas, LB Demetrius Cain
  • HEAD COACH: Neal Brown, 2nd season (4-8)
  • OFFENSIVE COORDINATORS: Kenny Edenfield (2nd season), Matt Moore (2nd season)
  • DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Vic Koenning (2nd season)
  • ASSISTANT COACHES: 
    • Kenny Edenfield, Inside Wide Receivers (9th season)
    • Matt Moore, Offensive Line (2nd season)
    • Vic Koenning, Safeties (2nd season)
    • Bam Hardmon, Defensive Line (2nd season)
    • Al Pogue, Cornerbacks/Recruiting Coordinator (3rd season)
    • Sean Reagan, Quarterbacks/Running Backs (2nd season)
    • Jordan Lesley, Defensive Tackles (1st season)
    • Cornelius Williams, Outside Wide Receivers (2nd season)
    • Jon Sumrall, Linebackers/Special Teams Coordinator (2nd season)

2016 SCHEDULE

  • 9/3 – Austin Peay
  • 9/10 – at Clemson
  • 9/17 – at Southern Miss
  • 9/24 – New Mexico State*
  • 10/1 – at Idaho*
  • 10/15 – Georgia State*
  • 10/20 – at South Alabama*
  • 11/5 – Massachusetts
  • 11/12 – Appalachian State*
  • 11/17 – Arkansas State*
  • 11/26 – at Texas State*
  • 12/3 – at Georgia Southern*

*Conference game

CLASS OF 2016

  1. Kelvin Lucky, DE (Elmore, AL)
  2. Zo Bridges, LB (Opelika, AL)
  3. Dominic Walker, WR* (Orlando, FL)
  4. Sawyer Smith, QB (Cantonment, FL)
  5. Tristan Crowder, OL (Carrollton, GA)
  6. Sam Letton, TE (Marietta, GA)
  7. B.J. Smith, RB (Millbrook, AL)
  8. Tevaris McCormick, WR* (Biloxi, MS)
  9. Kaleb Barker, QB (Decatur, AL)
  10. Michael Robinson, DT (Auburn, AL)
  11. Terrance Corbett, DE (Athens, AL)
  12. Jabir Frye, RB (Pensacola, FL)
  13. Adarius Wesley, WR (Montgomery, AL)
  14. Kris Weatherspoon, S* (Natchez, MS)
  15. Walter Pritchett, LB (Phenix City, AL)
  16. Marcus Webb, DE (Decatur, AL)
  17. Jai Nunn-Liddell, CB (Mableton, GA)
  18. Brandon Niccum, OL* (Justin, TX)
  19. Dylan Bradshaw, OL (Enterprise, AL)
  20. J.L. Gaston, OL (Monroeville, AL)
  21. Baron Poole II, DT* (Decatur, GA)
  22. Jeremiah Jones, S (Bessemer, AL)
  23. Tyler Sumpter, P (Hoover, AL)

*Junior college transfer

Bold indicates early enrollee.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – OFFENSE

  • QB – Brandon Silvers (Jr., Orange Beach, AL)
  • RB – Jordan Chunn (R-Jr., Gurley, AL)
  • WR – Emanuel Thompson (Jr., Clayton, AL)
  • WR – Dominic Walker (Jr., Orlando, FL)
  • WR – Tevaris McCormick (Jr., Biloxi, MS)
  • WR – John Johnson (Jr., Troy, AL)
  • LT – Antonio Garcia (Sr., Atlanta, GA)
  • LG – Deonte Crumitie (So., Lake City, FL)
  • C – Brandon Niccum (Jr., Justin, TX)
  • RG – Xavier Fields (Sr., Montgomery, AL)
  • RT – Tyler Lassiter (Sr., Hazel Green, AL)

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – DEFENSE

  • DE – Rashad Dillard (Sr., Greer, SC)
  • DT – Seth Calloway (Jr., Ariton, AL)
  • DT – Baron Poole II (Jr., Decatur, GA)
  • DE – Terris Lewis (Sr., Linden, AL)
  • LB – William Lloyd (Sr., Rosedale, MS)
  • LB – Demetrius Cain (Sr., Hazlehurst, MS)
  • NB – Josh Marshall (Sr., Lawrenceville, GA)
  • CB – Jalen Harris (Sr., Dothan, AL)
  • CB – Kamryn Melton (Jr., Dothan, AL)
  • S – Kris Weatherspoon (Jr., Natchez, MS)
  • S – Cedarius Rookard (So., Spartanburg, SC)

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – SPECIAL TEAMS

  • P/K – Ryan Kay (Sr., Jonesboro, GA)

GOOD NEWS

  • The Trojans bring back a lot of experience on both sides of the ball, starting with junior QB Brandon Silvers, who is entering his third year as the starter. Getting running back Jordan Chunn back from a season-ending collarbone injury should help.
  • Troy’s defense looks to be potent in the front seven. They lose pass-rusher Tyler Roberts, but return senior Rashad Dillard (seven sacks) and have improved depth.
  • The Trojans’ offensive line brings back almost everybody, including left tackle Antonio Garcia, an NFL prospect.

BAD NEWS

  • The Trojans are scary thin in some areas, including quarterback, the offensive line, and the secondary. No one behind Silvers has thrown a collegiate pass, and the secondary is breaking in new starters at safety after one presumed veteran, JaQuadrian Lewis, unexpectedly quit the team over the summer.
  • Troy lacks experience at wide receiver, with Emanuel Thompson (28 catches) the only major returning playmaker. Junior college transfers Tevaris McCormick and Dominic Walker enrolled early in the spring to help out. Walker began his career at Auburn.
  • The Trojans need to regain their mojo in late-game situations. They lost four Sun Belt games by 10 points or less in 2015.

VERDICT

The Trojans are making progress under second-year coach Neal Brown. The air-raid offense should continue to be entertaining to watch, and the defense was a pleasant surprise in year one under a new coaching staff. The Trojans are also benefitting from renewed fan support and they have more clout on the recruiting trail these days. Troy is probably at least one year away from being true conference contenders, but they’ll have a chance to push for their first bowl bid since 2010 if they stay healthy.

KNOW THE FOE: Appalachian State Mountaineers

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  • LOCATION: Boone, North Carolina
  • HOME FIELD: Kidd Brewer Stadium (capacity 24,050)
  • CONFERENCE: Sun Belt Conference
  • 2015 RECORD: 11-2, 7-1 in Sun Belt
  • PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Taylor Lamb, RB Marcus Cox, TE Barrett Burns, DE Nate Norwood, LB John Law, LB Eric Boggs, CB Latrell Gibbs
  • HEAD COACH: Scott Satterfield, 4th season (22-15)
  • OFFENSIVE COORDINATORS: Shawn Clark (1st season), Frank Ponce (4th season)
  • DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Nate Woody (4th season)
  • ASSISTANT COACHES:
    • Shawn Clark, Offensive Line/Run Game Coordinator (1st season)
    • Frank Ponce, Quarterbacks/Pass Game Coordinator (4th season)
    • Nate Woody, Outside Linebackers (3rd season)
    • Stu Holt, Running Backs (2nd season)
    • Mark Ivey, Defensive Line/Special Teams Coordinator (3rd season)
    • Bryan Brown, Cornerbacks (5th season)
    • Justin Watts, Wide Receivers (2nd season)
    • Dale Jones, Inside Linebackers (21st season)
    • Scot Sloan, Secondary/Recruiting Coordinator (6th season)

2016 SCHEDULE

  • 9/1 – at Tennessee
  • 9/10 – Old Dominion
  • 9/17 – Miami
  • 9/24 – at Akron
  • 10/1 – Georgia State*
  • 10/12 – at Louisiana-Lafayette*
  • 10/22 – Idaho*
  • 10/27 – at Georgia Southern*
  • 11/5 – Texas State*
  • 11/12 – at Troy*
  • 11/19 – Louisiana-Monroe*
  • 11/26 – at New Mexico State*

*Conference game

CLASS OF 2016

  1. Marcus Williams Jr., RB (Pinetops, NC)
  2. Matthew McClurg, DE (Alcoa, TN)
  3. K.J. Chamberlain, S (Greenwood, SC)
  4. Aris Duffey, S (Ponte Vedra Beach, FL)
  5. Shemar Jean-Charles, CB (Miramar, FL)
  6. Jeremy Level, S (Greensboro, NC)
  7. Crisjohn Roscoe, WR (Neptune Beach, FL)
  8. Mitchell McClurg, TE (Alcoa, TN)
  9. Jalen Virgil, WR (Lawrenceville, GA)
  10. Zac Thomas, QB (Trussville, AL)
  11. Nate Haskins, OL (Orlando, FL)
  12. Kaiden Smith, CB (Lawrenceville, GA)
  13. A’darius Purifoy, CB (Pensacola, FL)
  14. Devonte Harrison, S (Jacksonville, FL)
  15. Matt Williams, OL (Lehigh Acres, FL)
  16. Jordan Fehr, LB (Charlotte, NC)
  17. Chris Willis, DE (Shelby, NC)
  18. Cole Garrison, OL (Pinson, AL)
  19. Clifton Duck, CB (Matthews, NC)
  20. Jacob Huesman, QB (Bradenton, FL)
  21. Ryan Neuzil, OL (Bradenton, FL)
  22. John Hunter, DE (Clemmons, NC)
  23. Darrynton Evans, S (New Smyrna Beach, FL)

Bold indicates early enrollee.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – OFFENSE

  • QB – Taylor Lamb (Jr., Calhoun, GA)
  • RB – Marcus Cox (Sr., Dacula, GA)
  • WR – Ike Lewis (Jr., Simpsonville, SC)
  • WR – Shaedon Meadors (Jr., Duncan, SC)
  • WR – Jaylan Barbour (So., Monroe, NC)
  • TE – Barrett Burns (Sr., Woodstock, GA)
  • LT – Beau Nunn (Jr., York, SC)
  • LG – Parker Collins (Sr., North Augusta, SC)
  • C – Tobias Edge-Campbell (So., Raeford, NC)
  • RG – Jamie Collmar (Sr., Gastonia, NC)
  • RT – Colby Gossett (Jr., Cumming, GA)

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – DEFENSE

  • DE – Nate Norwood (Sr., Hampton, GA)
  • NG – Tyson Fernandez (Sr., Fuquay-Verina, NC)
  • DE – Caleb Fuller (Jr., Wilmington, NC)
  • LB – Kennan Gilchrist (Sr., Abbeville, SC)
  • LB – Eric Boggs (Jr., Belton, SC)
  • LB – John Law (Sr., Atlanta, GA)
  • LB – Devan Stringer (Jr., Gainesville, GA)
  • CB – Latrell Gibbs (Jr., Kennesaw, GA)
  • CB – Tae Hayes (So., Decatur, GA)
  • SS – A.J. Howard (Jr., Hamilton, GA)
  • FS – Alex Gray (Sr., Suwanee, GA)

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – SPECIAL TEAMS

  • P – Bentlee Critcher (Sr., South Daytona, FL)
  • K – Michael Rubino (R-Fr., Apex, NC)

GOOD NEWS

  • The Mountaineers’ explosive offense averaged 37 points per game in 2015, and could match that this season. Quarterback Taylor Lamb and running back Marcus Cox are both all-conference candidates, and the offensive line returns four starters.
  • App State’s salty defense returns nine starters, including linebackers John Law and Eric Boggs. The duo combined for 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks last season.
  • Cornerback Latrell Gibbs (Sun Belt-leading seven interceptions) leads an experienced and talented secondary, which loses safety Doug Middleton, but returns sophomore Tae Hayes, junior A.J. Howard, and senior Mondo Williams.

BAD NEWS

  • The Mountaineers lost a trio of experienced receivers to graduation, leaving very little experience at the position. Leading returning receiver Shaedon Meadors (21 receptions) has been injury-prone, and he’s joined by some gifted, albeit undersized, targets (Deltron Hopkins, Jaylan Barbour, and Mykelti Armstrong, to name a few). At 6’3″, redshirt freshman Mock Adams looks like a potential deep threat, but is unproven.
  • App State must find a way to replace the leadership and production of defensive end Ronald Blair. Blair, the 2015 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, recorded 7.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss and was a fifth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers.
  • The Mountaineers are bound to play in plenty of close games, and they’re rolling the dice on a freshman placekicker, Michael Rubino. He was highly-touted coming out of high school, but he’ll need to deliver in crunch time.

VERDICT

Coming off an 11-2 season and a thrilling bowl victory over Ohio, the Mountaineers are sitting pretty near the top of the Sun Belt. Coach Scott Satterfield signed an offseason extension running through the 2020 season, and the momentum is there for App State to capture an outright Sun Belt championship this season. With a tenacious defense, a powerful running game and experience littered across the roster, the Mountaineers have a chance to make some more noise in the conference this fall.

PREDICTION

10-2, 7-1 in Sun Belt

KNOW THE FOE (RIVALRY EDITION): UTEP Miners

UTEPMiners

  • LOCATION: El Paso, Texas
  • HOME FIELD: Sun Bowl Stadium (capacity 51,500)
  • CONFERENCE: Conference USA (West Division)
  • 2015 RECORD: 5-7, 3-5 in C-USA
  • PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Aaron Jones, WR Jaquan White, TE Hayden Plinke, OL Derek Elmendorff, OL Will Hernandez, LB Nick Usher, LB Alvin Jones, K Jay Mattox
  • HEAD COACH: Sean Kugler (4th season, 14-23)
  • OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brent Pease (1st season)
  • DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Tom Mason (1st season)
  • ASSISTANT COACHES:
    • Brent Pease, Quarterbacks (1st season)
    • Tom Mason, Linebackers (1st season)
    • Brian Natkin, Tight Ends/Special Teams Coordinator (5th season)
    • Cornell Jackson, Running Backs (4th season)
    • Spencer Leftwich, Offensive Line (4th season)
    • Andrew Browning, Defensive Line (4th season)
    • Derrius Bell, Cornerbacks (1st season)
    • Don Yanowsky, Safeties/Recruiting Coordinator (1st season)
    • Theron Aych, Wide Receivers (1st season)

2016 SCHEDULE

  • 9/3 – New Mexico State
  • 9/10 – at Texas
  • 9/17 – Army
  • 9/24 – Southern Miss*
  • 10/1 – at Louisiana Tech*
  • 10/8 – Florida International*
  • 10/22 – at UTSA*
  • 10/29 – Old Dominion*
  • 11/5 – Houston Baptist
  • 11/12 – at Florida Atlantic*
  • 11/19 – at Rice*
  • 11/26 – North Texas*

*Conference game

CLASS OF 2016

  1. Keith Sullivan, DE (Houston, TX)
  2. Antonio Dupree, RB (Baltimore, MD)
  3. Quardraiz Wadley, RB (Kennedale, TX)
  4. Joseph Pickney, S (Crosby, TX)
  5. Walter Dawn, RB (Mesquite, TX)
  6. Amorama Noel, TE (Houston, TX)
  7. Brannon Bullitt, WR (El Paso, TX)
  8. Kolbi McGary, LB (Cedar Hill, TX)
  9. Tiano Tialavea, DT (Seattle, WA)
  10. Richie Rodriguez, WR (El Paso, TX)
  11. Christian Johnson, DE (El Paso, TX)
  12. Justin Rogers, CB (Los Angeles, CA)
  13. Bobby Deharo, OL (El Paso, TX)
  14. Mark Torrez, QB (El Paso, TX)
  15. Broderick Harrell, CB (Wolfforth, TX)
  16. Tanner Stallings, OL* (Sterling, KS)
  17. Josh Ortega, DT (El Paso, TX)
  18. Dedrick Simpson, LB (Houston, TX)
  19. Kevin Dove, FB (El Campo, TX)
  20. Jared Goldwire, OL (Covington, WA)
  21. Dylan Parsee, LB (San Angelo, TX)
  22. Eric Foster, CB (El Paso, TX)
  23. Sione Tupou, LB (Allen, TX)
  24. Ronald Awatt, RB (Wolfforth, TX)
  25. Peytton Pickett, RB (Arlington, TX)

*Junior college transfer

Bold indicates early enrollee.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – OFFENSE

  • QB – Zack Greenlee (Jr., Stockton, CA)
  • RB – Aaron Jones (R-Jr., El Paso, TX)
  • FB – Darrin Laufasa (Sr., Bothell, WA)
  • WR – Jaquan White (Sr., Lancaster, TX)
  • WR – Tyler Batson (Jr., Spring, TX)
  • TE – Hayden Plinke (Sr., Hillsboro, OR)
  • LT – Jerome Daniels (Sr., Little Elm, TX)
  • LG – Will Hernandez (Jr., Las Vegas, NV)
  • C – Derron Gatewood (So., Odessa, TX)
  • RG – Derek Elmendorff (Jr., El Paso, TX)
  • RT – John De La Rosa (Sr., Bay City, TX)

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – DEFENSE

  • DE – Luke Elsner (Jr., Seymour, WI)
  • NT – Christian Harper (Sr., Houston, TX)
  • DE – Mike Sota (So., Placentia, CA)
  • LB – Nick Usher (Sr., Los Angeles, CA)
  • LB – Cooper Foster (Sr., Cedar Park, TX)
  • LB – Silas Firstley (Sr., Mesquite, TX)
  • LB – Alvin Jones (Jr., El Paso, TX)
  • CB – Kalon Beverly (So., New Orleans, LA)
  • CB – Nik Needham (So., Buena Park, CA)
  • SS – Dashone Smith (Sr., Spring, TX)
  • FS – Devin Cockrell (R-Jr., Port Arthur, TX)

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP – SPECIAL TEAMS

  • K – Jay Mattox (Sr., Las Vegas, NV)
  • P – Alan Luna (Sr., El Paso, TX)

GOOD NEWS

  • New offensive coordinator Brent Pease brings experience and enthusiasm as he attempts to breathe life into a sluggish Miners offense. Four starters return on a big, physical offensive line, and running back Aaron Jones is back after a knee injury wiped out almost all of his 2015 season.
  • The Miners have the makings of a quality defensive line, recording multiple sacks in spring scrimmages. UTEP is transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front under new coordinator Tom Mason, but the adjustments have been relatively smooth. Mason, most recently the DC at Hawaii, adheres to a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy that emphasizes speed.
  • The Miners have both continuity and consistency on special teams. Placekicker Jay Mattox and punter Alan Luna, both seniors, could push for all-conference honors.

BAD NEWS

  • Who is the quarterback? The Miners lost their presumed starter, junior Mack Leftwich, to a season-ending shoulder injury in spring practice. Sophomores Ryan Metz and Kavika Johnson, both of whom split time with Leftwich in 2015, battled in the spring without an obvious winner. The 6’4″ Metz has a strong arm and led UTEP to a few victories last fall, but Johnson is more athletic. However, neither QB impressed in the spring game, and the job will remain open until Fresno State graduate transfer Zack Greenlee arrives in the fall. Greenlee will have two years of eligibility remaining at UTEP.
  • There’s not much depth at linebacker, and in a new 3-4 scheme, that could be troublesome. Leading returning tackler Alvin Jones (twin brother of Aaron Jones) is talented and experienced, but he needs help.
  • The Miners were vulnerable to the pass last season and need to create more turnovers. Depth and experience could be concerns at cornerback. Sophomores Kalon Beverly and Nik Needham were picked on as true freshmen, but they’ll be key cogs in the rotation again.

VERDICT

The Miners have a friendly schedule – they only leave the state of Texas twice – and there’s a good mix of talent and experience on the roster. As usual with Sean Kugler-coached teams, there’s a lot of talent and size in the trenches, and running the ball should be a strength if Jones stays healthy.

Questions remain at quarterback and in the secondary. A group of undersized receivers also needs to take a step forward. Six new assistant coaches will bring with them new philosophies, and it all needs to mesh well in order for UTEP to go bowling again.

PREDICTION

6-6 (4-4 in C-USA)