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Aggie football on fast track at camp’s midway point

Wide receiver Tony Nicholson, a graduate transfer from Baylor, has impressed New Mexico State’s coaching staff. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Midway through preparations for his team’s season-opener, New Mexico State football coach Doug Martin likes what he sees.

The Aggies have two weeks of fall camp behind them and will switch to a normal regular-season practice schedule Wednesday when classes begin. This week NMSU will turn its full attention to week-one opponent Washington State, but when asked to grade his team’s first two weeks of preparation, Martin handed out an A.

“I don’t think things could have gone much better,” Martin said. “We hit on the guys we recruited and brought in and we’re much more athletic on defense. So far I’m really encouraged.”

NMSU’s defense had considerable room for improvement after allowing 41.3 points and 475.9 yards per game in 2018. But the Aggies have a few key pieces returning and enough new talent to feel optimistic.

Martin has been particularly impressed with linebacker Rashie Hodge, a 6-foot, 235-pound junior college transfer from Arizona’s Glendale Community College.

“He’s been special,” Martin said. “Rashie’s one of those guys who just seems to make something big happen on defense every day. We haven’t seen that in a while around here.”

On offense two senior players have had standout camps for the Aggies, Martin said. Running back Jason Huntley appears ready to justify his inclusion on several national awards watch lists, while transfer wideout Tony Nicholson arrived from Baylor with a penchant for making plays.

“Huntley’s had a phenomenal camp,” Martin said. “He’s always had speed but he seems to have taken everything else up a level.

“Nicholson showed us he was good in the spring but he’s even better now. He’s playing like he’s got something to prove and is making a ton of plays.”

Martin said his team has focused on general preparation rather than specific game-planning — with one exception.

“We’ve been harping on taking care of the ball,” Martin said, “partly because we didn’t do a good job last year and partly because Washington State does a great job forcing turnovers.”

The Cougars were a plus-8 in turnover margin in 2018 with 12 interceptions and 11 fumbles recovered. NMSU was minus-8 in turnover margin.

“I feel like our offense will be hard to handle,” Martin said, “if we avoid turnovers.”

ROSTER SHIFT: New Mexico State does not have a tight end listed on its roster this season and Martin says it’s by design. The Aggies generally prefer to keep an extra wideout on the field to capitalize on their speed and have rarely thrown the ball to tight ends in recent seasons.

“We’ve kind of gravitated away from tight ends,” Martin said. “Our offense is really built more to spread things out and that’s the way a lot of high school offenses are going these days. Good tight ends are hard to find.”

Junior Xander Yarberough (6-6, 252) played tight end for NMSU last season but has been shifted to defensive line. Both Yarberough and junior linebacker Eric Marsh (6-1, 270) could see some snaps on offense, Martin said.

“When we’re in short-yardage situations or inside the (opponent’s) 10-yard line we’ll use a tight end,” Martin said. “We just won’t call them tight ends.”

INJURY UPDATE: The Aggies have remained relatively healthy thus far but offensive line is an exception. Evan Tafoya-Vallo, a redshirt freshman from Rio Rancho High School, suffered a torn ACL during non-contact drills and will miss the 2019 season. Blake Walker, a junior transfer from California’s Ventura College, also suffered a knee injury and will miss significant time but not necessarily the entire season.

“It’s odd that our only two real injuries both came at offensive tackle,” Martin said. “It’s a shame for Evan because he was really doing well and would have played for us this year.”

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