When New Mexico hired Danny Gonzales back in late 2019 to be their football coach, there was a lot of excitement in the program. He was a former player and coach, now returning to attempt to get the football team on track. The Lobo program was in shambles at the end of the Bob Davie era and needed a complete rebuild.
Gonzales has definitely made improvements to the New Mexico football team. They have become a pretty good defensive team and are prioritizing recruiting, something his predecessor never did. However, that doesn’t mean there have not been hardships and struggles.
Over the past three seasons, the Lobos have only won a combined seven games. In the past two seasons, they have started out strong but then faded after the first month and looked asleep on their feet by the end of the year. Much of this has been due to a lackluster offense that struggles to score points. New Mexico has been stuck in a rough cycle of intentionally trying to improve the offense, looking overmatched as the season goes on, losing a lot of games, losing some of their top young players to the transfer portal, and then having to regroup and attempt to make improvements before the next season. Below is a look at this cycle in more detail.
Stuck in a bad cycle:
Losing a lot of games
As mentioned above, New Mexico hasn’t won many games in Coach Gonazles’ first three seasons. That wasn’t unexpected, as he undertook a long and methodical rebuild. But that doesn’t mean the results, or lack of results, haven’t weighed heavily on those inside the program. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Lobos won only two games. However, it was their last two games, and it appeared the team got more competitive as the season went on. That momentum carried over into 2021 as they won the first two games of the season. Then, New Mexico dropped nine of their next ten games, with the lone win sandwiched around five and four-game losing streaks. Things were similar in 2022; they won two of their first three games and then rode a nine-game losing streak the rest of the season.
Starting off strong the past two years and then going on long losing streaks could be as simple as having easier games in September and harder games during conference play. But to some extent, it also probably says that the losing weighs on the coaches and players and then compounds the longer the losing streak goes. Regardless, the fact remains that New Mexico ends the season on a sour note, and that has to carry over to the next part of the cycle, players leaving in the transfer portal.
Losing key young players to the transfer portal
To be fair to New Mexico, a few things should be said about this topic. The first is that every team loses players in the transfer portal every season, even Mountain West champions or national champions. Secondly, it sounds like this past offseason, some of the Lobo transfers were initiated by conversations with the coaching staff, so their total number is skewed a bit. For those reasons, this section focuses more on the quality of players choosing to leave the team on their own accord. Over the past two seasons, New Mexico has lost some of its top players to the transfer portal. Four of them are featured below.
- RB Aaron Dumas: 658 yards, 2 touchdowns
- OL Cade Briggs: an anchor on the offensive line
- LB Cody Moon: 104 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks
- DB Adari Haulcy Jr: 87 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions
Three of the four players listed above transferred after their best year on the field. Two of them transferred out of the Lobo program after their first year in the program. All of them were considered one of the best players on the team during the year they ended up entering the portal. And each one of them resulted in a significant loss for New Mexico when they transferred away from the team.
The Lobos will not be able to build any positive momentum if they lose a few of their best players every single season.
Trying to regroup and make improvements
To New Mexico’s credit, their struggles have not been for a lack of effort or trying new ideas.
Danny Gonzales made a terrific initial hire for his defensive coordinator, convincing former Lobo player and coach Rock Long, his mentor, to return to Albuquerque and implement his highly regarded 3-3-5 defensive scheme. In 2021, Gonzales used the bye week to completely overhaul his offense and shifted to a triple-option attack in an effort to shake things up and catch teams off guard. They spent last offseason trying to become more explosive on offense, and when that wasn’t working, he wasn’t afraid to fire his OC to make a change. Also, they reimagined their recruiting philosophy to combat some of their issues on both offense and attempt to keep players in the program longer.
On the other side of the argument, the constant changes have contributed to the struggles as well. Changing the offense too much has resulted in a bit of a mismatched roster or players transferring because they no longer fit the scheme they were brought in to play. In an attempt to find the game-changing quarterback, nine different players have played quarterback for the Lobos in three years (plus four more have been brought in for the 2023 recruiting class). And at the end of the day, none of the changes mentioned here have helped New Mexico establish an identity, meaning they keep having to make changes every year.
Now that the nature of the Lobo’s cycle has been established, here are some things that may be able to help them break out of it.
How they can break out of their cycle:
This one is obvious, but also the most important aspect. New Mexico will be able to keep its top players if they win more games. Winning is fun, and players tend to stick around when they get to be part of a winning program. Building a program takes time, and progress is rarely linear.
However, if they want to keep their top players from transferring out of the program after a year or two, they will need to give them a reason to stay. And the biggest reason will be that the Lobos are increasing their total in the win column. After all, winning tends to cure all problems.
Use the Transfer Portal to their benefit.
The Lobos have been negatively impacted by the transfer portal, but it can work in their favor too. And the coaching staff has already started to lean into the portal much better.
After the December Signing Period, Coach Gonzales said the program had shifted its philosophy to prioritize more junior college players and transfers. For a Group of 5 program, and a struggling one at that, there is nothing wrong with trying to be a prime destination for a former Power 5 recruit looking for a new home. With transfers, the New Mexico coaching staff can promise a lot of playing time for talented players who have fallen down depth charts at their original schools. This might be the best way to inject talent into the Lobos’ roster.
The transfer portal can both give and take away, and New Mexico is beginning to balance things out by pursuing players in the portal more intentionally.
Recruit their strengths
To some degree, the New Mexico coaching staff has already started to do this. Over the years, they have developed a recruiting strategy and do their best to execute it. It may be helpful for the staff to do more of what works in an attempt to be more attractive to recruits.
For instance, they have done a good job recruiting locally. But they can recruit even more in-state players and put an imaginary wall around the state, being the top destination for recruits in New Mexico to play for. Likewise, given that they run a unique 3-3-5 defense, recruiting players who specifically fit that specific scheme as a way to stand out more on the recruiting trail. If their new offensive system can last for more than one season, they should do the same on offense.
In a similar fashion, the Lobos should recruit the positions they have had the most success with. The coaching staff has shown they can develop running backs, linebackers, and defensive backs very well. That means they should market that to recruits at those positions and be sure to stockpile those positions with talent in an attempt to compensate for positions they don’t have as much success recruiting. San Diego State and Wyoming have done this and found sustained success to some different degrees over the years.
Some things are working for the Lobos, and doing more of those things would be helpful in their attempts to build new patterns.
The New Mexico football team has found itself in cycles that keep contributing to their losing seasons. There are some positives and things going well that can start moving the program forward. However, Identifying and applying ways to break out of those cycles is imperative if the Lobos are to have any success on the football field, or else the next change to try to break the cycle may be one that is out of their control.
MORE: 2023 New Mexico Recruiting Breakdown