The Vandal defense, much maligned for most of the last decade, returns former All-WAC safety SHILOH KEO after he was forced to redshirt last season due to an injury. In addition, Idaho's young defensive line returns virtually the entire unit -- bigger, stronger, and faster with another year of experience to draw on. Inside, we analyze the season opener when the Vandals are on defense.
Vandals on Defense
In 2008 the Vandal defense was porous to say the least. With two starting linebackers and a starting safety leaving the program early, much needed depth is gone only adding to the defensive woes. But there are bright spots at every level of the defense that bring hope to the Vandal faithful.
The defensive line is finally starting to show depth and size. Whether this translates into quarterback pressure remains to be seen, but the Vandals will field a much better defensive line than in the recent past. Preseason buzz is around NT Jonah Sataraka. At 6’2, 287, the junior brings experience and is as strong a clog as any in the WAC. Lining up next to him at tackle is a beast of a man, sophomore Michael Cosgrove. Both are quick off the ball, strong as bulls and they get good penetration off the ball. Finally there is depth at the inner line with Oga Faumui backing up Sataraka and Fonomanu Sekona spelling Cosgrove. All weigh in at 280 pounds or more. At the ends, Vandal fans will finally get to see highly touted sophomore Andre Ferguson. Ferguson has all the tools, and passes the eye test. It should be interesting to see how he responds to his starting role. Junior Aaron Lavarias makes the switch from defensive tackle to defensive end, and he has been a monster in camps. Both figure to improve outside quarterback pressure immensely and with that, finally garner some much needed sacks. Charles Smith Jr. has huge upside and with playing time under his belt he will provide a nice rotation for Lavarias. The Vandals will rely on youth for depth at end so freshmen Vincent Keener or Benson Mayowa should see the field. This unit may get a sack or two per game, which is very different than the 2008 campaign.
With the loss of two starting linebackers from last year’s squad, you would think it would be too much to overcome. In reality, the linebackers took a hit in depth but still field some very talented players. The overall speed of the linebacking corps has improved. The MLB position will be filled by junior Paul Senescall. Senescall has a knack for forcing turnovers and at 6’1, 229 pounds, he has the size to take on blockers. Right behind him is sophomore Tre’Shawn Robinson, who is bouncing back from a knee injury that sidelined him for most of 2008. Tre’Shawn limited action showcased a hard nosed hitter. At SLB, the Vandals return probably its best linebacker in junior JoJo Dickson. Dickson has beefed up his frame without losing a step. This should be his breakout season, as Dickson seemed to be in on every play last season. On the weak side, sophomore Robert Siavii gets the nod. Siavii has great speed for a linebacker, and now, with added bulk, he can withstand the blows he’s so willing to dish out. If it’s one linebacker that will be blitzed, it’s Siavii. Backing up the two outside linebackers are newcomers in true freshman Conrad Scheidt on the strong side, and JUCO transfer Korey Toomer on the weak side. It may be too early to throw Scheidt in there, but Toomer, who originally committed to Idaho out of high school, is game ready. Even after the loss of two starters, the linebackers look to be bigger, more athletic and faster than last year.
Alas, the return of strong safety Shiloh Keo. This has all Vandal fans pumped for 2009. Keo is the leader of the defense, and is a human highlight film. His hard hitting, ball hawking and run stuffing was sorely missed in 2008. Keo makes opposing players pay. At free safety, Jeromy Jones(Keo’s 2008 replacement)has earned the starting nod. Jones hits with ferocity, and should compliment Keo nicely. At corner the Vandals return Isaac Butts and Kenneth Patten. With experience under the belt, Butts and Patten should show Vandal fans that they can hawk a ball every game. There is little doubt Butts and Patten can come up and stop the run if needed. Now they need to show they can intercept and consistently cover down field. The exciting thing about this group is backup safety Quinn Ashley. After his stint at quarterback, Ashley has successfully transitioned into the safety role showing that his athletic ability has no boundaries. You couple this with the explosiveness of two new comers at corner, and this group looks to surprise opposing offenses this year. The word around the Vandal nation is that newcomers Gary Walker and Matt Harvey are shutdown corners. It should be interesting to see who sees snaps in the opener.
Aggies on Offense
Coach Walker has named his starter at quarterback. Junior Jeff Fleming is a JUCO transfer who is not only accurate, but somewhat mobile. His smarts and experience earned him the nod, but redshirt freshman Trevor Walls has the size and arm that could earn him a few snaps from center. Still, this is a brand new system with a stable of quaterbacks that haven’t played a down for the Aggies.
The pass happy Aggies are no more. This must be music to the ears of the stable of running backs. Marquell Colston can take it to the house on any carry. He has also proven he can catch the ball out of the backfield, which they might utilize more. Tonny Glynn is another speed burner back for the Aggies. Fully recovered from an ankle injury, Glynn has the size and speed to take it to the house on every carry. Donavan Roberts is yet another Aggie back with break away speed. With the new emphasis on the running game, the Vandals will likely see all three backs early and often.
Chris Williams and AJ Harris will not be easy to replace in the passing game. Williams’ electrifying speed and play making ability will be hard to duplicate. Senior flanker Marcus Anderson is up for the challenge. Anderson caught nine touchdown passes for the Aggies last year, and looks to become the main target in the passing game. Todd Lee will start at X, Julius Fleming at Z and Kyle Nelson at TE. Like all Aggie receivers, Lee is small but fast. He has limited playing time, but has earned the starting nod. Fleming has more experience, and in his limited minutes he has shown a toughness that also seems to be a common trait among Aggie receivers. Tight End Kyle Nelson will also benefit form the new offensive scheme. He should see some passes thrown his way. There are a few more exciting prospects that could see the field against the Vandals. Much sought after JUCO transfer Marcus Allen is more than capable of making some catches, and should see some minutes. Freshman Joe Cordova would make an excellent endzone target at 6’8, 205 pounds.
The Aggie Offensive Line is not only very big, they are the strength of the entire Aggie football team. The offensive line is chalk full of seniors with the exception of the sophomore center. It looks something like this; LT David Norman 6’4, 300 / LG Joe Palmer 6’3,308 / center Mike Grady, 6’3, 302 / RG Seioli Fakalata 6’3, 313 / RT Joe Suder 6’5, 346. They also have good depth at every position, making this one of the best offensive lines the Vandals will face all year long. Make no bones about it, these hogs can pave the way for a very capable stable of backs and Coach Walker intends on putting them to that very task.
The Vandal Special teams are getting a complete overhaul in the kicking department. All American Punter TJ Conley is gone. Bobby Cowan will take over punting duties and camp has gone well but the true test comes Saturday against the Aggies. Kicker Tino Amancio is also gone. But Trey Farquhar was a student of Amancio’s, and most have seen that his talent is equal to, if not better than Tino’s. But again, game time is different than practice. Long snapper Joel Jones will also be missed. His replacement, Christopher Ramos will need to step in and provide the consistent solid play that Jones provided week in and week out. With Keo back, punt return duties are once again his, while Kama Baily and Princeton McCarty will continue to return kicks.
As far as the NMSU special teams unit, the Aggies boast one of the better punters in the league. Kyle Hughes averaged around 43 yards per punt last year. Hughes also handled kickoffs but Jordan Davenport has taken those duties on. With Chris Williams gone, Marcus Anderson will try to pick up where he left off, returning punts and kickoffs.
Though the Vandals travel to Las Cruces for their opener, this is a winnable game. The Aggies are beginning a new era of football while the Vandals are three years into theirs. You can see the similar growing pains the Vandals faced on the defensive front a few short years ago, and where they might hold an advantage. Plain and simple, the Vandals have more veterans returning to a familiar system. This should help the Vandals to come out of this weekend’s matchup with a win. But to sum it up that quickly would be a mistake. One can only assume that this New Mexico State team, under Coach DeWayne Walker, will have a different intensity, a more physical presence than what the Vandals have seen in the past. And as we all know. That goes a long way in the game of football.