Aggies in search of starting quarterback and other takeaways from NMSU's spring game

Apr. 6—LAS CRUCES — Tony Sanchez's immediate impressions of New Mexico State's spring game?

"Little wind blowing today," the Aggies' head coach laughed, gesturing around Aggie Memorial Stadium.

Under the strain of nearly 20-mile-per-hour winds, NMSU closed its first practice session under Sanchez with a spring game on Saturday morning.

Sanchez takes over the Aggies program from Jerry Kill, who resigned in December after leading NMSU to a 17-10 record, back-to-back bowl games and unprecedented success over the last two seasons. Sanchez was the wide receivers coach under Kill.

Here's few takeaways from the Aggies' final scrimmage until August, with notes on the quarterback room, defense and a notable position change.

Still looking for a starting quarterback

No quarterbacks — among them, transfers Deuce Hogan, Brandon Nuñez, Parker Awad — were made available after NMSU's spring game. This was by design, because in the eyes of the coaching staff, nobody is ahead in a quarterback battle that's now set to carry over at least into fall camp.

All are looking to replace Diego Pavia, last season's Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year. Pavia entered the transfer portal after Kill's resignation. Both Kill and Pavia are now with Vanderbilt.

With no official stats, (mostly) even reps among Hogan, Nuñez and Awad and shifting personnel (Hogan received reps with the second-team offensive line, Nuñez with the third, etc.), Awad probably had the most productive day, throwing a pair of touchdowns against what looked to be the third-team defense. As with Hogan and Nuñez, some of his throws fell victim to unrelenting gusts that whipped in and out of Aggie Memorial Stadium.

Some of them fell victim to a defense that had finally hit its stride. More on that later.

Sanchez said the problems he's seeing the most are based in decision-making, never more evident than when he chewed out Hogan for hesitating, skipping ahead to his second read too quickly and missing a wide-open Eli Stowers on an over route.

"(It's) just them (needing to be) comfortable sticking with their reads, making sure they go through their progressions," Sanchez said. "There was some give and take there, some of it was good and some of it was bad. We just gotta get in the film room and really coach them up.

"That's the biggest thing for those guys when you come in and that's why it's so important to be a midyear transfer if you're gonna play the quarterback spot. Because you gotta come in in spring and make some mistakes and go through the learning curve."

As offensive coordinator Tyler Wright noted, in most years it's the quarterbacks helping the rest of the unit along, simply because they know more of it.

This year? "The exact opposite," Wright told the Journal.

NMSU returns nearly everybody on the offensive line (Shiyazh Pete, Canaan Yarro, AJ Vaipulu and Louie Canepa, with UTSA transfer Avery Morris getting reps at left guard), the bulk of a productive backfield in Star Thomas, Jamoni Jones and Ahmonte Watkins with wide receivers Kordell David and Trent Hudson back in the mix. Not much, from scheme to personnel, has changed.

Except for who's taking snaps under center. NMSU's search for a starter was a story line entering spring practice. It'll stay that way come August.

"We're not 100% where we need, you know, where we want to be going into the season," Sanchez added. "But we got a lot of time to do that."

Defense flips the script

By all accounts, this hadn't been the best couple of weeks for the defense.

Not that anybody would've faulted the unit for that either: installing a new scheme with an entirely new defensive staff and a bevy of new players against a well-seasoned offense isn't exactly a recipe for success. And as Sanchez noted, there might not be a better time to take your lumps than in the spring.

Then there was Saturday. NMSU's first-team defense kicked off the live session by bottling up running back Star Thomas for no gain. Second down, Hogan missed on a throw to wide receiver Kordell David in the flat; third down, he couldn't find Stowers on an over.

After that, the Aggies' second unit pulled out a stop against a corresponding offense — and so did its third unit. By the time Awad found wide receiver Donovan Faupel on a dig for the offense's first touchdown of the day, a handful of players and coaches had already expressed the same message to each other on the sidelines, in the huddle and right before a new unit took the field.

In so many words: Wake up.

"I feel like defense won today," safety Nick Session said. "You know, I can't talk too much about the offense. But yeah — I feel like we won today."

NMSU's first-team defense as of Saturday morning: defensive tackles Denver Warren and Naki Fahina; inside linebackers Sone Aupiu and Quincy Davis; outside linebackers (albeit working more as defensive ends) Buddha Peleti and Gabe Peterson; cornerbacks Keonte Glinton and Josiah Charles; with safeties Tayden Barnes, Dylan Early and Session rounding out the secondary. Only two transfers (Session by way of Oklahoma State and Fahina via UNLV) with plenty of returners, but not as deeply experienced as the Aggies had been on the back end.

At least on Saturday, it didn't make much of a difference. To new defensive coordinator Joe Morris, that's highly encouraging — especially given how much growth was needed to get to that point.

"There's a standard here in Las Cruces that these guys play to," Morris said. "They care about football and they care about each other. And it's just fun to go out and compete against a really good offense day in and day out ... When I was (the defensive coordinator at) Sam Houston State, I was extremely worried about this offense. So we get to go against them every single day, which in turn just makes us better."

Stowers settling in at TE

After spending much of last season listed as a backup quarterback, but seeing time at wide receiver and running back, Eli Stowers spent much of Saturday working with the first-team offense in his new role at tight end.

The Texas A&M transfer and son of former Aggie great Donald Stowers emphasized that it's been a transition, but his previous experience has only helped expedite that process.

"There's a lot of things I still have to work on because it's a new position — I played quarterback pretty much my whole life," he said. "Taking on that new role is something I've really embraced and I just thank God that I have the opportunity to be honest."