ON THE GROUND
Senior DeCori Birmingham enters the year as the starter after making a mid-season move from wide receiver in 2003. He'll try to become Arkansas' third consecutive 1,000-yard rusher, joining former Hogs Fred Talley (1,119 yards in 2002) and Cedric Cobbs (1,320 yards in 2003).
But there's another logjam in the backfield, with De'Arrius Howard, Dedrick Poole, Kyle Dickerson and heralded true freshman Peyton Hillis fighting for carries. The Hogs also field quarterback Matt Jones, who is 367 yards shy of setting the Southeastern Conference career rushing record for quarterbacks (2,280 yards).
Last season's leading rusher, Eric Higgins, is gone, but the Aggies are confident sophomore tailback Tony Joseph can carry the load. The 5-foot-11, 198-pounder started five games in 2003, tallying 712 yards and a touchdown. Joseph carried 17 times for 112 yards against Arkansas last November.
Returning quarterbacks Buck Pierce and Paul Dombrowski are option threats, combining for 668 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Joseph, Pierce and Dombrowski totaled 322 carries, 1,380 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2003.
THROUGH THE AIR
The Hogs graduated starting receivers George Wilson and Richard Smith, but believe the new group is capable of bigger plays. Steven Harris and Carlos Ousley lead a rotation that includes Chris Baker, Cedric Washington, the 6-6 Marcus Monk and Cedric Logan.
Jones recorded career bests for passing yards (1,917), touchdowns (18) and completion percentage (57.4) in 2003 and was nearly flawless during preseason scrimmages. If Arkansas jumps out to a big lead, Nutt may try to get a long look at redshirt freshman Robert Johnson.
Seven of New Mexico State's top eight pass catchers from 2003 are gone, including receivers Ronshay Jenkins and Chris Duncan. Former walk-on Jared Quick (14 catches, 252 yards, 1 touchdown) is the Aggies' new leader and is joined by sophomore Tim Tolbert and senior Preston Williams.
Pierce and Dombrowski combined to pass for 2,331 yards with 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season. But Pierce was much more accurate, setting a school-record by completing 69.4 percent of his passes (118 of 170) and was 14th in the nation in passing efficiency (150.55).
IN THE TRENCHES
Arkansas' defensive line has become the unit's strength behind seniors Jeb Huckeba, Arrion Dixon, Titus Peebles and Elliott Harris. Defensive tackle Jeremy Harrell will start alongside Dixon. Defensive end Marcus Harrison will become the first true freshman to start the season opener under Nutt.
Arkansas' new offensive line makes its debut against the Aggies. Right tackle Zac Tubbs, left tackle Tony Ugoh and center Kyle Roper earned valuable experience in backup roles last season. But senior right guard Gene Perry and sophomore left tackle Stephen Parker have earned their first significant snaps.
New Mexico State's offensive line is led by a mammoth right side that consists of tackle Nick Cole (6-1, 348) and guard Steve Subia (6-1, 377), who is on the Outland Trophy Watch list. The rest of the line -- sophomore left tackle Kyle Smith, left guard Justin Schopbell and redshirt freshman center Mike Martinez -- has little experience.
Starters Aubrey Dorisme, Jared Naylor, Chase Spicer and Chris Sneed return to the Aggies' defensive line. They combined for 115 tackles and 10 sacks in 2003.
Birmingham also will handle punt and kickoff return duties today. He edged Washington and Ousley out for the kick and punt return jobs, respectively. Hillis will join Birmingham on kickoff returns, but the physical freshman likely will be used as a battering ram.
Junior Chris Balseiro returns as Arkansas' place-kicker with a stronger leg and the coaching staff expects the Miami, Fla., native to become more accurate from the 40- to 45-yard range. Jacob Skinner returns after averaging 39.9 yards a punt as a true freshman. He also landed 16 of 52 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
New Mexico State senior punter Steven Smith began the 2003 season as a backup, but started the final nine games and averaged 39.2 yards a punt. Redshirt freshman place-kicker Ryan Guardia, who was elected to the Mississippi High School Hall of Fame out of East Central (Miss.) High, replaces 2003's leading scorer, Dario Aguiniga.
Cornerback Gil Byrd averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns last season, including a season-best 52-yarder against Louisiana-Lafayette. Byrd also returned two punts for 10 yards and could share those duties with Tolbert this season.
New Mexico State has plenty of big-game experience, including last November's 48-20 loss in Razorback Stadium. In the past three seasons, the Aggies have traveled to Texas, Oregon State, South Carolina, Georgia and Kansas State.
It also helps that the 2004 Aggies' roster is loaded with veterans, as New Mexico State returns 10 defensive starters like linebackers Jimmy Cottrell and Richard Glover. Offensively, important ingredients like Pierce, Subia and Cole are prepared to make another run at the Hogs.
But Arkansas is undefeated in openers under Nutt (7-0) and his Hogs rarely have been tested, outscoring opponents by an average of 34-9. The Razorbacks also are 4-0 against New Mexico State, beating the Aggies by an average score of 47-14.
Even more, the Razorbacks have been perfect against nonconference opponents in the regular season, winning 20 consecutive games since Nutt arrived in Fayetteville before the 1998 season. Arkansas is 85-21-4 all-time in season openers. The last loss was a 23-10 defeat against Southern Methodist in 1996.
ARKANSAS 31, NEW MEXICO STATE 16
Season openers tend to be ugly affairs and Arkansas shouldn't expect a work of art with so many youngsters stepping on the field for the first time. It wouldn't be surprising if the Aggies hung around during the first half. They might even give the Razorbacks early fits.
New Mexico State kept pace with an experienced Arkansas team last November, pulling to within 21-17 with 8 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the third quarter. But Jones' 62-yard touchdown run ignited a third-quarter flurry that helped the Hogs grab a 42-17 lead.
The Aggies will key on Jones today, but the senior should find enough holes on the ground and through the air. An abundance of true freshmen will gain valuable experience and Arkansas should squeeze out a win behind veterans like Jones, Birmingham, Huckeba and Dixon.
THE KEY MATCHUP
QB Matt Jones (6-foot-6, 237 pounds senior) vs. LB Jimmy Cottrell (6-foot, 244 pounds junior)
Jones is the key to Arkansas' offense and his ability to elude defenders and make big plays will decide games all season. The senior ran for a career-high 132 yards and 3 touchdowns against New Mexico State last November.
Cottrell is a serious NFL prospect and New Mexico State's defensive leader will be in charge of chasing Jones to the best of his ability. He led the Aggies in tackles last season (83) and has 182 stops in his 24-game career.
Hogs Vs. New Mexico St. Head-To-Head
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