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New Mexico State could be the darkhorse

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles previewing Western Athletic Conference football teams. Today, the Appeal takes a look at New Mexico State.

BY DARRELL MOODY

Appeal Sports Writer

When football coaches around the Western Athletic Conference were asked about a darkhorse selection, most all picked New Mexico State.

The reason? A high-powered run-and-shoot offense that even the best defensive units around the WAC had trouble containing last season.

The scary thing is that the Aggies, 4-8 a year ago, is that they return nine offensive starters from a team that averaged 31 points a game.

“I’m excited this year,” said head coach Hal Mumme. “We have a lot of veteran players who made plays in our league. As a coach you like to work with known factors. Two years ago, I didn’t even know the names (of the players). Last year I knew more.

“I think (the process of getting better) it can be done pretty quickly. It’s about having (and recruiting) better players. We’ve got to develop our younger guys to be ready to step in when players get injured. That’s our challenge. We’ve got to have depth.”

Mumme thinks his team can be at least a .500 team, but he laughingly says most of that talk comes out of his office.

Heading that veteran group Mumme talked about is quarterback Chase Holbrook, who completed 70 percent of his passes for 4,619 yards and 34 touchdowns. Holbrook would be the all-WAC quarterback if it wasn’t for a guy named Colt Brennan at Hawai’i.

“I think Colt Brennan is a great player, maybe the best in the league and nation,” Mumme said. “Chase is coming off an excellent season. He was where Colt was two years ago. We had a great game (against Hawai’i) last year, and should have a great game this year.”

The Aggies need to find a suitable back-up for Holbrook. Scott Grantham is no longer in the program, and that means the back-up role falls to incoming freshman J.J. McDermott, Alex Gibson or a pair of redshirt freshmen, Baer Philipbar or Matt Parsons.

Returning are five of his favorite receivers – the diminutive, yet speedy Chris Williams (92 catches, 1,415 yards, 12 TDs), A.J. Harris (71-789-7), Derek Dubois (53-800-7), Chris Buckner (23-151-0) and tight end Nick Cleaver (50-684-4). One would figure with another year under their belts together, this group will be even more dangerous in 2007.

“This receiving corps is comparable to a couple I had at Kentucky,” said Mumme, who tutored Tim Couch there. “How similar they are in style and even in size. Craig Yeast (played for Mumme at Kentucky) has skills identical to those of Chris Williams.

“A.J. and Buckner on the other side are pretty god wide receivers to have on the opposite side. Chris’s heart more than makes up for his lack of size. He wants to win.”

Four of the five starters on the offensive line return – tackles Mike Martinez and James Farrelly, center Richie Bolin and guard Polo Gutierrez. Joseph Palmer enters camp as the leading contender at guard opposite Gutierrez.

Kyle Smith and Patrick Blount are the reserves at tackle, Chuck Taylor and Joel Buschman at guard, and Alex Gottlieb at center.

That group will be blocking for a group of solid running backs, including Justine Buries, Tony Glynn and Brandon Perez.

As a sophomore, Buries gained 779 yards, but had his 2006 season cut short thanks to a knee injury. He carried 33 times for 133 yards. Jeremiah Williams led the team with 426 rushing yards last year, and he also caught 38 balls for 275 yards. Glynn had 76 yards rushing in limited action, while Perez caught four balls for 15 yards, but didn’t have a single carry in the season.

The aforementioned guys are the proven part of this team. Suffice to say, the defensive side of the ball needs to do better than the 369 points it allowed last season.

Linebacking would appear to be the strength of the Aggies’ team, which is why they are playing a 3-4.

Kramer Winningham (3 stops), Ross Conner (7.5 tackles) and Michael Hernishin (28 tackles) are vying for time at left inside linebacker. Dante Floyd (67 tackles) is the ‘mike’ linebacker, and he’s backed up by Derrick Hinkley and Dylan Moss. La’Auli Fonoti (41 tackles) is the starter at left outside linebacker and Jamar Cotton, who didn’t see much action a year ago, is running No. 1 at right outside linebacker.

The secondary is solid with Derek Richardson, (73 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries) the team’s leading tackler back. Cole Marton and Brennan Baimonte are battling for the free safety slot. Neither has a tremendous amount of experience. Alex Bernard (51 tackles, 2 interceptions) is the starter at left corner, while Chris Woods, who redshirted last season, starts at right corner. Marvin Betts is the top reserve entering camp at cornerback.

Maurice Murray (25 tackles) and Brandon McKinney (18 tackles, 2 sacks) are the starters at defensive end. In the middle is stout Ray Manumalena (9 tackles, 2 sacks), who was a back-up last season. There’s also Skyler Sargent (19 tackles), Mark Pole (10 tackles) and Jared Naylor, a redshirt senior.

Jared Kaufman, who averaged 41 a kick and put eight inside the 20-yard-line, is back to punt. True freshman Kyle Hughes takes over for Matt Pratt, who missed five extra points and five field goals last season. Hughes missed just one field goal last season at Hargraves Prep School, and that was blocked. He was perfect on PATs.

THE AGGIE FILE

Head coach: Hal Mumme

2006 record: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in WAC

Offensive starters back: 9

Defensive starters back: 9

Specialists back: 1