Bronco Mendenhall to New Mexico: How Longtime CFB Head Coach Can Turn Lobos Around

Is Bronco Mendenhall the right fit for New Mexico? Breaking down the hire including operating in the portal and if he can get the Lobos in the MWC title mix.

Bronco Mendenhall was given a splashy photo edit in his re-welcome to the “ABQ.” He was clad in a University of New Mexico red hoodie sweater, and the state flag behind him.

The latter part seems fitting for the veteran head coach. He now gets a chance to put the entire state on his back in an attempt to galvanize a struggling football program — one that went 11-32 in four seasons with alumnus Danny Gonzalez.

The Lobos are turning to the man who once ran the defense at the Albuquerque campus from 1998 to 2002. They’re re-pivoting to a coaching veteran with a 135-81 overall record with past stops at Brigham Young University and Virginia.

There’s a litany of things that will likely be on Mendenhall’s itinerary after his first press conference, including re-introducing himself to the “ABQ” community. But here are the ones that are of high importance as he sets his feet inside the more-than-25,000-student campus again.

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How Can Bronco Mendenhall Build His Roster? Even in the Portal Era?

As of Wednesday, December 6, CFN has tallied approximately 1,500 players in the transfer portal. A whopping 16 played for Gonzalez’s 2023 UNM team.

Some coaches prefer old-school recruiting methods and would like to pluck from high schools and junior colleges. Mendenhall was operating without the portal at BYU and briefly in Charlottesville. But with that high of a number for this cycle, Mendenhall has an opportunity to build his team the new way.

Even more enticing is the number of names in the portal who were Mountain West Conference stars at quarterback or played for championship-caliber teams.

QB Taylen Green, who recently guided Boise State to the MWC title, is open to a new collegiate home. QB Jayden Maiava, also on the same field with Green with the conference championship on the line, is testing the portal waters by announcing his intentions to leave UNLV. Then, as of Wednesday, Hawaii QB Brayden Schrager is a portal entry, following his 3,542-yard season for the Warriors. Even QB Logan Fife, who had to take over for Jake Haener and Mikey Keene for two bowl teams at Fresno State, is available.

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Considering UNM’s current state of being in a rebuild, Mendenhall has a chance to tap into one of these four quarterbacks and build from there. With the head coach having his area of expertise in defense, he can turn to a familiar place to continue his build-up for his first UNM roster.

Of the 10 Cavaliers in the portal, half represent the Virginia defense. LB Langston Long was a pre-COVID signing through Mendenhall. Towering 6’2″ CB Williams Simpkins III was one of his other final recruits for the 2021 class, who’s now seeking a new place.

Even one of his last, prized, in-state signings during his Cavs days is in the portal. OL Jestus Johnson, once the state of Virginia’s No. 11 ranked prospect for 2020, is looking for a new residence.

With any coaching change, the new guy will want players who know his style and ways. It shouldn’t be a surprise if there’s past UVA representation in the ABQ.

Mendenhall Can Hit Albuquerque on Recruiting Trail, But Other Nearby Sites Appeal

Gonzalez’s last recruiting class of 2023 saw four in-state signings. He doubled the amount from California with eight recruits.

The university will more than likely want to see a reverse of that with Mendenhall. UNM is likely hoping he and his future staff can rebuild a rapport with area high school coaches in the region and statewide.

The ABQ and New Mexico, however, aren’t considered to have the deepest pool of prep talent to pluck from. Fortunately for the Lobos, other regions are fast growing and in the corridor of UNM.

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Scottsdale, Arizona is 406 miles east and has been a hotbed for college football coaches in recent years. Then there’s Denver and Salt Lake City if Mendenhall wants some mountain talent. He’s familiar with the latter city from his BYU and Snow College days. Even Las Vegas has seen an uptick in prep talent. Lastly, there’s the West Texas region for Mendenhall and UNM.

Not to say Mendenhall should ignore California or Hawaii — two other places with a deep lineup of prep stars. Regarding the former, though, the Golden State has the high desert (Palmdale to Barstow), Inland Empire (Upland to Moreno Valley), the Central Coast, and the Central Valley flooded with untapped talent. The latter state has seen Power Five coaches head there for talent, signaling how deep football runs on the island.

At UVA, Mendenhall spent most of his time on the East Coast in pilfering talent from the DMV (D.C. to Virginia) and Florida. He doesn’t have to drift very far at his new post and can stay between the Hawaii-Aleutian and Central time zones.

Will His Scheme Fit UNM Once Again?

New Mexico goes from one defensive whiz to another in hiring Mendenhall.

However, he is taking over the conference’s worst defense. The Lobos allowed an astonishing 35.1 points per game and only forced 0.7 turnovers per contest.

Can Lobo fans expect a complete scrap of the 3-3-5 system Gonzalez implemented?

Mendenhall does come from the Rocky Long School of Defense, which was the aforementioned scheme. Even UNM legend Brian Urlacher played in that style of attack.

Regardless, Mendenhall will have to reignite the pass rush. New Mexico didn’t have a single defender surpassing four sacks and collected just 15 total. He’ll have to do a deep evaluation of the defensive line and see if it’s best to line up with four across the line. He needs an improved set of QB attackers to elevate the takeaway numbers for the Lobos.

But this stat should convince UNM fans who want to see a defensive turnaround — none of Mendenhall’s defenses at BYU allowed an average of 30 points per game. Only two of his UVA defenses allowed that average — his first and final Cavs teams.

Can Mendenhall get UNM to Compete in Loaded Mountain West?

This is where we finally understand the deeper reasoning behind UNM luring back Mendenhall.

The MWC witnessed its deepest season yet with seven bowl-eligible teams. Seven happens to also represent the number of losing campaigns UNM has had in a row.

The conference witnessed two stunning turnarounds this season — San Jose State going from 1-5 to the Hawaii Bowl by winning six in a row and UNLV going from traditional MWC doormat to playing for its first MWC title.

The Mountain Division has long been the most competitive part of the MWC. Sure enough, four of the six teams in that division clinched a bowl spot. But, the best team ended up being an eight-win Boise State Broncos team.

BSU needs to reevaluate QB options with Green in the portal. Also, Craig Bohl announced his retirement at Wyoming, while Colorado State is soon set to lose its best player, WR Tory Horton, to the NFL Draft.

For UNM to pursue any hope of being the next program on the rise, the Lobos needed someone who was a part of their best years. They needed a proven winner with 14 bowl appearances on his resume. Mendenhall is walking back into the MWC at a prime time with the conference at its most competitive, yet a conference with sudden coaching changes at past MWC powers like Nevada and San Diego State.

The Lobos will soon see in-state rival New Mexico State represent the Land of Enchantment on Dec. 16 against Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. But Mendenhall gets his chance to get state residents waving the state flag proudly in the future, by making his attempt to resuscitate Lobos football.

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