It is year four for Danny Gonzales at New Mexico, and it feels familiar. Change, excitement, and perhaps a tint of desperation from all around the program.
Gonzales enters year four sitting at 7-24, and coming off a 2-10 season, and a winless Mountain West Conference campaign. The 0-8 MWC run was the second time in four seasons that UNM accomplished such a feat. The last time cost Bob Davie his job. Heading into this season is a slight feeling that the beginning of the 2019 season had.
The Lobos have a new offensive and defensive coordinator heading into this season. Much like they did entering 2019. It didn’t end well that season and fans are hoping history doesn’t repeat itself.
Reasons For Optimism:
The Lobos fired offensive coordinator Derek Warehime in the middle of last season as the offense struggled. It didn’t get any better. To combat the issue of a struggling offense, Gonzales hired Bryant Vincent away from UAB. Vincent brings his quarterback with him in Dylan Hopkins.
Vincent spent the last five seasons at UAB, and his offense averaged over 36 points a game last season on the way to a 7-6 record including a Bahamas Bowl win over Miami of Ohio. The Lobos will run an offense that will lean on the run out of the spread but won’t be afraid to pass either.
Running back Christian Washington will see a ton of carries, but don’t be surprised if Jacory Croskey-Merritt sees a lot of carries too. Croskey-Merritt is a transfer from Alabama State, rushing for 1,164 yards and 13 touchdowns in 31 games there. He could be a dark-horse breakout this season.
The Lobos didn’t see 36 points in any but one of their games last season. With eight returning starters on offense, and Hopkins being the center piece of the UNM offense the scoreboard might get a better workout this season in UNM’s favor.
Reasons for Concern:
Even with eight returning starters from last year’s squad, all 11 projected starters at this point are either sophomores or juniors. While there is some experience, there is none built yet with Hopkins, or Vincent.
A new system brings a new learning curve for players that were used to an old mold. The hope is that the players pick up the offense quick and exploit the opposition time and again.
While the offense is heavily predicated on the rush, that leaves much speed on the outside with little chances to see the ball. Luke Wysong is easily one of, if not the, fastest player on the team, but his touches are limited playing at receiver in a run heavy offense. If the Lobos want to catch defenses off guard, they need to get the ball to Wysong often and let him do his thing.
With eight returning starters, and virtually a ninth with Dylan Hopkins, the Lobos have their most experienced offense since Danny Gonzales took over. This will prove huge down the stretch of the season with that much experience.
Receiver DJ Washington transferred from Iowa Central Community College where he was a standout. Washington caught 54 passes a year ago for 863 yards and 10 touchdowns. At 6-foot-5 he offers Hopkins a tall threat to catch the 50/50 ball down field.
Reasons for optimism:
New defensive coordinator Troy Reffett is actually just receiving a promotion. Reffett was an assistant under Rocky Long for the last three seasons and took over the DC gig when Long went to Syracuse this offseason. The knowledge of the 3-3-5 defense remains as stability in a time where only two starters come back to the team.
Even though the Lobos only return two starters on defense, they will add a ton of talent and experience thanks to transfers and freshman.
Sophomore defensive lineman Tyler Kiehne, a transfer from UCLA, has been landing on some prognosticators list for All-MWC team selections. Kiehne, originally from Los Lunas, New Mexico, saw no action at UCLA, but had the talent to catch Chip Kelly’s eye.
Linebacker Ray Leutele returns from an injury filled season last year. In 2021, Leutele was ninth on the squad with 36 tackles, playing behind the likes of Reco Hannah.
Safety Tavian Combs also returns from an injury filled 2022 season in which he saw just three games. Combs started 11 games in 2021 and had 81 tackles that season which was good enough for second on the team.
Reasons for concern:
The Lobos are keeping the same defense, the very same defensive scheme that produced just 25 sacks and nine turnovers all season. The top teams in the conference are able to produce way more turnovers and able to get to the quarterback more and more.
The two returning starters are both defensive backs. Tavian Combs and Donte Martin started the first three games of the season and then injuries hit. Combs tore his ACL in the third game, whileMartin suffered a collapse lung later in the season which he missed three games for.
As far as the other nine, Leutele has experience, but the rest has little. The projected defensive front has just 21 games played combined, and 21 tackles combined. Lack of experience may be the downfall of this unit.
Corner Donte Martin returns along with his 25 pass breakups. The 25 PBUs are fifth all time in Lobos history and could be key in keeping the Lobos in game.
Standing at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds is redshirt freshman defensive end David Rowaiye, who was a menacing force in high school in Oklahoma. Rowaiye was the 5A Player of the Year in 2021 and was highly recruited by OU and Oklahoma State. Rowaiye has speed and size to disrupt backfields.
Reasons for optimism:
Both of the Lobos starters at kicker and punter return for the 2023 season, which can mean UNM fans can breathe a sigh of relief.
Aaron Rodriguez returns at punter for UNM. Rodriguez is either first or second All-MWC for many this preseason and was second team All-MWC last season. He averaged 44.2 yards on 81 punts last season. With a young defense, flipping the field could build confidence in that unit.
Luke Drzewiecki was 10-for-14 on field goals last season. His short to medium range is pretty accurate. He has the leg for 40+ yards, but accuracy might be shaky at that distance.
Luke Wysong will return punts and kicks, while DJ Washington might see some action returning kicks this year. Wysong is the wildcard in this group with speed to run away from everyone on the field. He could flip fields as well and set up the offense in good position for scores.
Reasons for concern:
Nothing against Rodriguez, as he hopes to follow in Corey Bojorquez’s shoes and head for the NFL, but if the Lobos use him 81 times again in the 2023 season, then chances are the Lobos win total will be around the two to three level. Which is not what the Lobos are looking for.
Schedule (Conference games in bold):
September 2nd ……@ Texas A&M
September 9th ……Tennessee Tech
September 16th ……New Mexico State
September 23rd ……@ UMass
September 30th ……@ Wyoming
October 7th ……Bye Week
October 14th ……San Jose State
October 21st ……Hawaii
October 28th ……@ Nevada
November 4th ……UNLV
November 11th ……@ Boise State
November 18th ……@ Fresno State
November 25th ……Utah State
Seemingly all six home games this season the Lobos could conceivably win. With that being said, they will be favorite in two games with Tennessee Tech and Hawaii. Take with that what you will.
Opening the 2023 will be a tough contest against Texas A&M, who are looking to rebound from a difficult 2022 season. The Lobos do draw a winnable road game at UMass the fourth week of the season, and the week before the Rio Grande Rivalry with New Mexico State could go either way.
UNLV, Nevada, and Utah State are all in rebuild mode too. Perhaps being able to pick off one or two could fuel the Lobos turn around.
The Lobos have a more experienced offense and a not so experienced defense, but the talent is there. If UNM can find its stride offensively then they could contend for five to six wins and look for a shot at a bowl game.
Best Case Scenario:
The Lobos can take all six home games, plus a road game over UMass to get to seven wins, which would cause minor hysteria among the Lobo faithful. Dylan Hopkins leads the way offensively, while the defensive talent gels and dominates enough to cash in turnovers and sacks to contribute to wins. In the offseason Gonzales signs an extension and we look forward to 2024 with a ton of optimism.
Worst Case Scenario:
The Lobos faulter against New Mexico State and UMass in back-to-back weeks and enter conference play at 1-3. Fans start grumbling for Gonzales’ job and things spiral in conference and end with Gonzales either resigning or being fired.
What’s Probably Going to Happen:
The Lobos are pegged at four wins over at DraftKings for the 2023 season. It could be said by this writer that they will win five games this season. They can get by Tennessee Tech, New Mexico State, UMass, Hawaii, and UNLV. This means they can become bowl eligible with a win in one of their last three games of the season. That is much better than they have been under Gonzales and will show improvement heading forward.
Even though this seems like déjà vu with the 2019 season, there is much more reason to think that this will be a better season than that. Hopkins brings a lot of talent, and Bryant Vincent’s offense will be high flying this season. The defense is talented, and Gonzales knows how to get the most out of that side of the ball and will probably do the same this season.
Four to five wins will probably seem like another failed season in some fan’s eyes, but it should be considered growth for a team that has won just 15 games over the last six seasons.