On the New Mexico State staff, three coaches — head coach Doug Martin and both coordinators — spent time as FBS head coaches. And that includes defensive coordinator David Elson, who spent seven years as the head coach at Western Kentucky, guiding the Hilltoppers from the FCS (making two playoff appearances in his five years there) to an FBS Independent, and eventually, the Sun Belt.
Elson served last year in the defensive coordinator role with the Aggies, and was retained when Martin took over the job. Elson runs a 3-4 multiple scheme, with a Joker end/linebacker who can help the Aggies switch back-and-forth to more of a 4-3 look. One of the interesting components of the Aggies' 3-4 is that the three defensive linemen are typically asked to be one-gap players, rather than two-gap players, allowing them to shoot gaps and use their quickness, rather than having to rely on their power to hold up blockers for the linebackers to flow to the ball.
Elson has said the Aggies will disguise more and blitz more and this season, something likely caused by a result of last year's defense which wasn't just ineffective, allowing 476.2 yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry to opposing running backs, but one that severely struggled to generate big plays. The 2012 Aggies had just 11 sacks and caused nine turnovers (four interceptions and five fumbles), numbers that Elson would no doubt like to improve, if not (at least) double. Aiding in that process will be the return of a pretty experienced defensive group that includes nine senior starters.
Like so many schools, New Mexico State will have a graduate transfer helping out up front. Right end Willie Mobley (6-2 282) was a former Ohio State signee and a four-star prospect rated as the No. 13 defensive tackle in the country per Scout.com. But he transferred to Orange Coast (Calif.) College before moving on to Arizona. He tore his ACL two years ago, and is now back in full health. He'll be joined by left end Nick Oliva (6-5 255), another former JUCO transfer, and nose tackle Kevin Laudermill (6-2 277), who had 11 starts a year ago, making 35 tackles and two tackles for loss.
Stephen Meredith (6-3 240) is listed on the roster as a defensive lineman, but he'll play the all-important Joker spot. Meredith missed last season after having knee surgery, but he certainly flashed the ability to get to the quarterback as a high school senior, making 15 sacks. Fellow outside linebacker Trashaun Nixon (6-1 235) might be the best overall defender on the team. The SAM 'backer, Nixon had 96 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss last year and three sacks. WILL linebacker Bryan Bonilla (6-1 240) started seven games last year, making 78 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack. And Clint Barnard (6-3 240) is an interesting player. Barnard certainly appears to have the talent of a scholarship player, but he walked on at New Mexico State after playing eight-man football at a tiny New Mexico high school.
Every one of the projected starters in the secondary has experience, with the two safeties leading the way. Strong safety Davis Cazares (6-0 203) is essentially another linebacker from what he brings. He led the WAC in tackles last year, making 116 stops, including three for loss and making second-team All-WAC. But he was conspicuously absent as a pass defender, making no interceptions and only breaking up one pass. Free safety George Callender (6-1 205) had 86 tackles last season, while leading the team with two picks. Cameron Fuller (5-11 175) started 10 games a year ago and made 38 tackles while breaking up six passes. He's fighting for his job with Frisco, Texas native Lewis Hill. The other starting spot will be occupied by Darien Johnson (5-9 185), who started six games last year.
Perhaps the best asset defensively for the Aggies is the punting game. Cayle Chapman-Brown (6-5 231) was a second-team All-WAC pick after averaging 44.3 yards per punt. But he's more than just a big leg — Chapman-Brown put 22 punts inside the 20, while only having four touchbacks.