Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Unreadables: SDSU and New Mexico

Next in the Wimple's pre-season parade come two teams that defy confident prognostication: the New Mexico Lobos, and the San Diego State Aztecs. Both sport new coaches and coordinators (the twists: UNM's former leader is now the DC at SDSU, and every single Lobo coach is new to the program this year).

New Mexico wasn't really a team in distress like Wyoming or SDSU were; and early indications are that the change from run to spread won't be as traumatic as one usually expects. Locksley's spreads feature more running than Missouri/Wyoming's, for example. Further, it's easier mentally. "We as coaches are making the checks," the coach explains. "If we see blitz and we don't want to run the play, we check out as opposed to teaching the quarterback . . . and saying, 'If you see this, this or this, run that play, that play or that play. . .' We've got coaches paid to know all that. [For the QB,] you're taking the thinking out of it."
So who'll be running this new attack? Donovan Porterie, now in his 11th (it seems) year under center in Albuquerque, and redshirt freshman B. R. Holbrook have risen to the top of the depth chart. Holbrook has the Lobo's fan sites twitter-painted. (Heralded freshman QB Emmanuel Yeager quit the team shortly after enrolling.)

Look for Roland Bruno, Bryant Williams, and Nick Willhelm to be UNM's go-to receivers. All-MWC center Eric Cook and his now-experienced brethren on the offensive line appear capable of opening holes for freshman Demond Dennis, pictured, who has blown passed Terrence Brown, Kasey Carrier, and A. J. Butler in the backfield depth chart.

The only concern on the defense might be safety Ian Clark's sore shoulder, which kept him out of most practices. But Bubba Forrest played very well Clark's place. If the offense hums along as good as it could, the Lobos may make the MWC's biggest waves out of conference, beating Texas A&M and scaring Texas Tech.

But New Mexico still baffles predictors. Phil Steele relegated them to the conference's second-worst, which seems too low, considering the Lobos' strong returning lines, QB experience, and general good performance and expectations. The Wimple predicted a mushy-middle finish for them this spring, but if the Lobos' own Year One of the spread proves as difficult as Years One usually do, that may be too high. Thus the retreat to professed ignorance: New Mexico is Unreadable in 2009.

The other unreadable, San Diego State, has the most returning experience in the conference, but the least institutional memory of success. New headcoach Brady Hoke worries about both of his lines. He does have experienced returners in both sides of the trenches, however. Jonathan Soto and B.J. Williams are one of the conference's better pairs of DEs, as are Tommie Draheim and Peter Nelson at OT.

Where the Aztecs excel on defense is at linebacker, where Jerry Milling, Luke Laolagi, and Miles Burress will shine in Rocky Long's 3-3-5. Nick Sanford appears to have sewn up the role of inaugural "Aztec" back. Toss in a few good WRs (Brown, Sampson, and Wallace), and more returners on the lines than... than probably any team in the NCAA, and you have a first-class condundrum. How will SDSU perform in '09? The answer probably lies with the Mountain West's most undervalued quarterback, sophomore Ryan Lindley.
Lindley (pictured) has impressed his position coach with the speed that he's learned Hoke's west coast attack. OC Al Borges adds further praise, "[Lindley]'s taken to heart some of the things we've talked about, particularly regarding some of the footwork issues we're trying to get him to do. There were growing pains in the spring, but they're really not showing up much in the fall.” This should hearten Aztec fans immeasurably, because Lindley was able to make even last year's humble offense run pretty well. Add a much healthier supporting cast, and any life at all in the running game, and this year's Lindley may command an offense that is . . . really good.

Questions remain for the ground attack, however. Attiyyah Henderson, another seemingly 11th-year starter, cracked a bone in his upper back, and has ceded the backfield to Brandon Sullivan, and freshmen Anthony Miller and Ronnie Hillman. Hoke fingers Sullivan to carry the running game with more focus and health this year. Further furrowing the forecaster's brow is SDSU's lines, which, for all their experience, don't have any experience being good.

Consider further these football Rules: (1) the first year of a new scheme always disappoints; (2) thou shalt have strong lines; (3) success is learned; and (4) college teams in pro-sports towns suffer. San Diego State must break all four of these rules in order to excel, and to date it remembers no success doing so. But the Aztecs may hit conference play with three or four skins on its wall; they will begin the season in much better shape physically than they're used to being (note the lighter tans this season, perhaps signalling fewer hours at the beach). How this season's SDSU shakes out is requires too much speculating to give a numbers, or ranking, figure. Something better than last year is the best one can do.

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