by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Why did he do it? A chance to be closer to those legendary green chile cheeseburgers at the Owl Cafe (left...pretty cool, eh?)? Or was it the cinnamon rolls at the Frontier Restaurant? Rides on the aerial tramway to the top of Sandia Peak, perhaps? Or did the wife simply want to be closer to the boutiques and galleries of nearby Santa Fe?

Or, was the allure of coaching--anywhere--just simply too much to avoid?

Whatever, in one of the more curious moves of the football offseason, former Notre Dame HC Bob Davie has enlisted with the outwardly thankless task of resurrecting a moribund New Mexico program that, much like those audio tape instructions to Peter Graves’ Jim Phelps character in the old Mission: Impossible TV series that would self-destruct within a few seconds, came as close to committing gridiron hari-kari as we can ever recall over the past three seasons.

(As an aside, with another once-deposed Fighting Irish coach, Charlie Weis, resurfacing as Kansas’ new HC in the offseason, some sports wags have joked that Ty Willingham and Gerry Faust could be next in line for job openings.)

It wasn’t as if Davie was out of the football mix, having settled into a comfortable life for the past decade in Scottsdale while working as one of ESPN’s featured college analysts. That’s the sort of well-paying, low-pressure dream job to which many football types would aspire. But Davie missed the adrenaline rush of the sidelines, and though he had been observing the college game from a non-coaching perspective since 2002, nonetheless presented the Lobos with their highest-profile alternative when seeking to clear away the stench of the disastrous regime of predecessor Mike Locksley.

Now, what really happened at New Mexico over the past few years?

In all of our decades covering college football at TGS, stretching back to 1957, we hardly recall such a complete demolition to a program similar to the one Locksley conducted the past few years in Albuquerque. Not that the school deserved much better after a callous railroad job against predecessor and alum Rocky Long, who had elevated the program to a respectable level (no easy feat at New Mexico) while rewarding Lobo faithful with several bowl appearances in the previous decade. But the movers and shakers in Albuquerque were convinced that Long couldn’t take the program to the “next level” as they dreamed, and instead believed Locksley, the offensive coordinator at Illinois with no head coaching experience and never having worked west of the Mississippi River, would be a better alternative.

Neville Chamberlain couldn’t have fared any worse.

Locksley took the Lobos to another level, alright, down several floors and into the barren basement of the Mountain West. His supposed offensive expertise with the spread never manifested in Albuquerque, nor did his reputed national recruiting “pipeline” with extra connections in the Baltimore-Washignton region. Few preps in and around the D.C. Capital Beltway had ever heard of New Mexico, and, predictably, that pipeline was mostly dry. (Locksley, by the way, has resurfaced this season as Randy Edsall’s new o.c. at Maryland, supposedly closer to Locksley’s recruiting strongholds...or so the narrative goes.)

The result was an embarrassing pratfall that commenced almost immediately after Long's forced resignation. Before a month had passed during Locksley’s first campaign in the fall of 2009, the red flags were hard to ignore. The Lobos were suddenly non-competitive on the field, awful on both offense and defense, and Locksley had already found himself in hot water after being the target of an internal age and sex discrimination complaint by a 54-year-old New Mexico staff assistant, plus a punch-out with assistant coach J.B. Gerald after an early-season beating administered by Air Force. There was enough evidence by midseason 2009 to justify pulling the plug on the Locksley regime right then; instead, the coach was given a mere one-game suspension by AD Paul Krebs, who allowed Locksley to stay on the job.

It was not lost on some savvy New Mexico boosters that Krebs had missed a chance to rid the program of the Locksley mistake with cause, as the coach’s antics could easily have constituted a break of the behavior clauses in his contract, and justification to extricate the school from further financial commitments to Locksley right then and there.

Krebs would eventually re-work the Locksley deal after another dreadful 2010 campaign in which the Lobos repeated their 1-11 mark of 2009, giving the coach another season with a much-reduced buyout clause. But the Locksley die had been cast. Losing the first four out of the gate in 2011, Locksley would walk the plank after a home overtime loss to FCS Sam Houston (in retrospect not a bad effort by the Lobos, as the Bearkats would advance to the FCS title game), which lowered his career mark in Albuquerque to a woeful 2-26. Only wins by two points over Colorado State in 2009, and three points vs. Wyoming in 2010, prevented Locksley from recording the big donut in his New Mexico tenure. Defensive coordinator George Barlow assumed the interim HC reins for the remainder of the season, and managed to scratch out a win vs. UNLV, but otherwise the Lobos weren’t closer than two TDs vs. any opponent in their last eight games, with blowout scorelines such as 49-7 (Nevada), 69-0 (TCU), and 45-0 (Boise) dotting the remaining 2011 landscape.

With three consecutive 1-11 campaigns on the ledger, New Mexico can be thankful that it isn’t a European soccer team, subject to relegation and pitch invasions by disgruntled fans. Otherwise, thanks to Locksley, the Lobos might have been downgraded to the Big Sky Conference, with Albuquerque riot police summoned in extra numbers to deal with the angry and revolting fan base at home games.

But it’s no joking matter to Davie, who thus inherits a carcass of a program that has even prompted some more virulent members of the New Mexico faculty to wonder if maintaining a football team, and its related costs, is even worth it. But the school is still dreaming big, and plans are underway for another expansion of University Stadium (up to 44,000 seats) and further upgrading of the football facilities, which recently added a state-of-the-art indoor complex to the mix.

High-profile or not, Davie’s credentials as a head coach are a bit dubious, his South Bend tenure having run aground following the 2001 season after a Gerry Faust-like two losing records during his five years in charge, and losses in all three bowls in which his Irish teams qualified. A well-regarded d.c. earlier in his career on R.C. Slocum’s Texas A&M staff, Davie assumed the same position at Notre Dame in Lou Holtz’ final seasons and was a quick choice to succeed Lou after the 1996 campaign.

Davie can at least be expected to reinstall discipline, commitment, positive attitude, and a well-polished image to a program that has lacked all since Long’s departure a few years ago. But evidence is elusive as to whether Davie can actually forge a turnaround in Albuquerque.

Wisely, Davie has kept expectations low, but he really has no choice. Locksley’s systematic destruction of the program left Davie with a threadbare roster consisting of only 51 scholarship players (partly due to limitations based upon probationary sanctions). Davie hopes to fill some of those gaps with a late flurry of juco signees and walk-ons, but to say that the new coach is inheriting a bare cupboard would be an understatement.

Davie’s plan is to rebuild the Lobos to look much as they did during the Rocky Long years, with an emphasis on defense and the ground game. That sounds good on the surface, but there’s a long way to go after last year’s New Mexico completed a near-impossible parlay when almost becoming the first team in NCAA history to rank both last in scoring offense (which the Lobos did at a puny 12 ppg) and scoring defense (where UNM allowed 41.67 ppg in 2011, ranking above only Kansas).

And no, we’re not making up those numbers!

The first of many changes will come in offensive philosophy, where Davie installed a multiple-scheme, power-based infantry operating out the Nevada-like “Pistol” in spring to replace Locksley’s misfiring version of the spread option. Which also means a change in blocking schemes and assignments for a veteran OL that returns four starters but spent spring trying to learn the new system. Early evidence from March and April suggests the process still has a long way to go, and there are significant depth concerns up front with practically no experience in reserve. Mountain West sources nonetheless say to keep an eye on former juco LT Korian Chambers, who has lost almost 30 pounds (down to 320!) from his arrival weight in Albuquerque a year ago and will be an important piece in pocket protection.

After being under siege a year ago, sr. QB B.R. Holbrook (right) returns to the front line, expected to display a bit more running skill as required from QBs in the Pistol. Which presents another concern for Davie as Pistol QBs can be expected to take a pounding; Holbrook’s durability, already in question after missing the 2010 season with knee problems, will be tested. There is no experience behind Holbrook, either, although true frosh Cole Gautsche and jr. transfer David Vega (via New Mexico Military Institute) appear to own the sort of athleticism that better translates to the Pistol QB prototype. Davie would obviously not wish to throw either into the fire this fall.

New Mexico also hasn’t been able to run worth a lick since the Long years (and hasn’t featured a 100-yard rusher in any game since 2009), but there were some positive developments in spring featuring speedy jr. RB Kasey Carrier, who was a starter in 2010 before sitting out 2011 with knee issues. Another speedball, jr. Emmanuel Fatokun, was switched to RB from DB in the spring. The prospects are mildly encouraging at the receiver spots, too, although last year’s top pass catcher Deon Long (47 receptions in 2011) has transferred to Maryland to reunite with Locksley. Yet Davie and o.c. Bob DeBesse believe that former Ohio State transfer Lamarr Thomas and long-striding sr. Ty Kirk (with 121 receptions the past three years), if both beyond injuries that impeded their progress in 2011, can be productive, and expect big things from sr. TE Lucas Reed (left, last season vs. New Mexico State), who was an all-Mountain West pick in 2010 but was mostly schemed out of the flow by opposing defenses a year ago.

A newcomer to watch could be true frosh RB/WR Carlos Wiggins, a mini-weapon at only 5'8 and 165 pounds but a jackrabbit who could provide a big-play dimension. At the least, expect Wiggins to be featured on the kick return units.

Sources suggest, however, that the offensive burden really falls upon QB Holbrook, who has only tossed 7 TDP compared to 15 picks in his Lobo career, to quickly master the Pistol and stay healthy to give the Lobos their best shot at slowing the pace of games and keeping themselves somewhat competitive in the fall.

Davie’s defensive acumen will certainly be put to the test when trying to squeeze something out of a Lobo stop unit that was routinely overrun in the Locksley years. Not only did New Mexico rank only above Kansas in scoring defense a year ago, it placed 119th (above only Texas Tech) in rush defense, and ranked dead last in pass efficiency defense. Moreover, Davie had to make some quick staff adjustments in spring, when just-named d.c. Ron West abruptly left for Todd Graham’s new staff at Arizona State. Davie thus promoted safeties coach Jeff Mills to the d.c. position while filling the gap on staff with veteran aide Kevin Cosgrove, most-recently the d.c. at Akron but previously holding the same positions at Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

The Lobo “D” that Davie inherits is a far cry from his old “Wrecking Crew” stop units from Texas A&M days. Immediately, Davie junked the four-man fronts that never worked in the Locksley regime, returning New Mexico to the three-man fronts familiar from the Rocky Long days. Unlike Long’s unorthodox 3-3-5, however, Davie’s “D” will align in 3-4 looks as did his old Aggie platoons in the early ‘90s, which, much like Long’s defense, similarly allows the LBs and DBs a bit more latitude and freeing them to make plays, mostly removing the linemen (who will be expected to tie up the blockers) from that burden.

One player Davie might miss on defense is graduated MLB Carmen Messina, a productive workhorse who amassed an astounding 454 tackles in his Lobo career and is spending this summer in the Detroit Lions camp.

Davie’s new “D” will have an upperclass look to it, with all but one projected starter being a junior or senior. Five starters return from last year’s much-trampled platoon, although Mountain West sources suspect that Davie’s scheming sense alone (if not too rusty from a decade behind the microphone) should help the stop unit improve upon last year’s horrid numbers.

Davie and Mills spent spring evaluating available talent and making positions switches as necessary, which included moving one of last year’s starting DTs, former Illinois transfer Ugo Uzodinma, to DE in the new-look 3-4. Davie will be hoping that 285-lb. sr. Reggie Ellis, who has played with some flair in the past, can provide something of an anchor in the middle as he adjusts to the NT position.

Davie is said to like the speed of his new-look LB corps, an important asset as the Davie defensive model stresses an attack-minded mode. Junior Dallas Bollema (right, involved in a pile on a Colorado State runner last September) moves to one of the ILB spots after playing on the weakside next to Messina a year ago. Davie and Mills also suspect that fleet OLB Javarie Johnson, a former Maryland transfer who tore an ACL on the first play of the 2011 campaign, could emerge as a playmker on the edge, as might undersized but quick-footed 190-lb. Tevin Newman, the only non-upperclassman (he’s a soph) slated as first-string on the post-spring depth chart.

The ability to unleash a viable pass rush, which was a Davie specialty during his A&M days, is sorely needed in Albuquerque, too, as Locksley and Barlow’s defense (which generated only 10 measly sacks all of 2011, ranking above only UAB nationally) consistently left the secondary vulnerable when unable to generate much pressure on opposing QBs. If nothing else, sorts such as LBs Johnson & Newman can be expected to supply that sort of needed pressure from the edge which could help the somewhat slow-footed DBs. Although three starters (CB Destry Berry, shown at left, and safeties Freddy Young and Dante Caro) return in the secondary, Davie and Mills opened up the competition to all comers in the spring. Senior CB DeShawn Mills, who missed most of last season with injury, appeared to reclaim his starting role, while Berry was fighting off challenges from soph Devonta Tabannah (one of Locksley’s few viable D.C. area recruits) and smallish soph Tim Foley (all 5'7 of him) on the left side.

It’s also worth noting that Davie’s Notre Dame teams were certainly no pointspread overacheivers, as only once in his five years at South Bend did the Irish post a winning mark vs. the number. Notre Dame was also just 14-23 as chalk during Davie’s tenure, although we don’t think we have to worry about New Mexico being favored too often this fall. There was a curious and recurring spread pattern in the Locksley years, as the Lobos were routinely overrun in their early-season games, standing a woeful 2-13 vs. the number in the first five board games each of the past three years, before offering better value in the second half of the season as spreads predictably overadjusted, such as a year ago when New Mexico covered its last four under interim HC Barlow while being deeply discounted by the oddsmakers.

Summary...No one is holding their breath for the Lobos to quickly re-emerge as a force in the Mountain West just because Bob Davie has shown up on the sidelines. Indeed, many regional insiders are puzzled by not only New Mexico’s decision, but Davie’s desire to inherit such a complete rebuild job that must begin from scratch this fall. No matter, we would still be very surprised if the Davie Lobos are as non-competitive as Locksley’s editions, and we suspect the switches to the Pistol offense and the 3-4 defense will prove upgrades from the past three years. But manpower is negligible, and the evaluation phase will likely continue throughout the 2012 season (any projected pre-fall 2-deeps ought to be filled out in pencil as well). Other than what should be another neat-looking set of cherry and silver uniforms, about all the hope we can provide for Lobo backers is that it would be hard for Davie’s UNM to be as bad as the Locksley teams. That’s not much encouragement, but at least it’s a start.


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