It is that time again. We are less than a month from another New Mexico Lobos football season, and it is one of excitement and concern.
Excitement, of course, over the fact that the Danny Gonzales era will begin. Concern over the fact of just how much of, if any, the 2020 season will the Lobos see. Two of their original 13 scheduled games have been canceled. Leaving UNM with 11 games on the slate still, but lots of questions surrounding even those games.
Nonetheless, there is some extreme excitement for the 2020 season for Lobo football given the fact that Danny Gonzales is back in town, this time as head coach. Also helping push the excitement level up is the fact that Gonzales brought back many former Lobos as assistants and hired former Lobo head coach Rocky Long to be the defensive coordinator. The hope is that the changes return the Lobosto the winning ways they had when Long was roaming the sidelines. Let us delve into what each side of the ball will look like.
Reasons for Optimism:
For starters, Tevaka Tuioti is back and the gunslinger has a chance to really show off his arm this season as Gonzales has stated that the Lobos will run an up-tempo spread offense this season. Tuioti has a cannon for an arm and can pick defenses apart.
The deepest part of the team as far as talent goes sits at the running back position. New Mexico does have to replace their leading rusher from a year ago in Ahmari Davis, who rushed for 849 yards. However, Bryson Carroll is the leading returning running back for 2020. Carroll ran for 568 yards last season, including 193 against Colorado State. He has a ton of speed to burn.
After Carroll there is not much drop-off. The Lobos have more speed with Daevon Vigilant, Kentrail Moran and Bobby Cole all returning. And to top it off, the Lobos have L.O. Johnson coming in after a redshirt 2020 and possibly what could be their best player in the near future in Nathaniel Jones, whom the Lobos got to flip his commit from UCLA to UNM. Jones has NFL level potential, and if he shows promise early in the season, expect him to get a lot of the load throughout the season.
Cause for Concern:
The Lobos ran a spread offense the last two seasons under Bob Davie and struggled to score points, and even gain yards. Because of that, the wide receivers still are not too proven in a spread offense at the college level. The Lobos’ leading receiver last season had 28 catches.
With the ball expected to be flying around this season in the Albuquerque air, the Lobos need to find several reliable targets for Tuioti to find. Expect a lot of Elijah Lilly, who is coming back from an injury that caused him to miss much of 2019, and Marcus Williams, the tight end that had 26 catches for 428 yards and one touchdown last season.
If Tuioti stays healthy this season, it will go a long way to helping the Lobos win games. That health resides a lot with the offensive line, and the leader of the line is tackle Teton Saltes. Saltes was named to the preseason Outland Trophy watch list, the award for the top offensive lineman in the country. Him and his teammates job will be huge this season to keep the Lobos moving up and winning games.
Reasons for Optimism:
Do I really need to tell Lobo fans about this one? Probably not, but for everyone else, the main reason for optimism on the defensive side of the ball is the fact that Rocky Long will be running it. This was the weak spot of Bob Davie during his tenure. Therefore, there are a lot of people who think this is the weakest link of the 2020 New Mexico team. However, Rocky Long is known for getting the most out of his players on defense and this should be no different.
The key to Long’s 3-3-5 scheme is the Lobo position, made famous by former NFLer Brian Urlacher. This season we could see many different players shift in and out of the Lobo position. The two most notable that will fill that role will be Nico Bolden and Jerrick Reed.
Cause for Concern:
The Lobos have-to replace their top four tacklers from a year ago. There are just four starters returning from last seasons team, which on paper doesn’t bode well for this team. Again though, Long knows how to get the most out of players, and Lobo fans should expect the same this season.
As was said before, the Lobos need to replace some top tacklers. One of the top returning tacklers from a year ago is senior linebacker Jacobi Hearn. Hearn led the team with six sacks last season, and is hoping for continued growth this season, and to turn into one of the more famous linebackers in Lobo lore. Names like Mike Barnett, Nick Speegle and Greg Davis to name a few. Hearn will be the starter at outside linebacker.
Certainly, there is only one way to go with this team given the last three seasons, and that is up. New Mexico has seen mostly mediocrity since Rocky Long left over a decade ago. Just two winning seasons since then have Lobo football fans chomping at the bit for success.
This season is a rebuilding season, but don’t be surprised if the Lobos better their 2-10 2019 campaign. On paper, they will be favored in all three of their out of conference tilts, and should be in line to win them. The Mountain West Conference slate looks tougher than ever. Nevada is a favorite to come out of the West Division this season; we all know Boise State is still Boise State; Wyoming looks poised to challenge the Broncos; and Hawaii doesn’t have much turnover heading into this season and of course I haven’t even gotten to Air Force, or San Jose State.
The Lobos will sneak up on people when they play again, the question will be; will it be enough to get them to the postseason sooner rather than later?