LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KTSM) – Following a 7-6 record and a Quick Lane Bowl victory in Jerry Kill’s first season at New Mexico State, outside expectations are high for the Aggies as they enter the 2023 season.

For NMSU, it’s a change from how the program has been seen in previous years when the Aggies were a college football doormat. Kill has changed both the internal and external expectations for NMSU in just over one year with the program.

As the Aggies prepare for their season opener on Saturday at home vs. UMass, NMSU knows there’s a target on its back that wasn’t necessarily there a year ago.

“My first year at Northern Illinois, we took over a team that was 1-10 or 2-10 and we went to a bowl game (Northern Illinois was 6-7 in Kill’s first year in 2008) that year so the expectations were higher after that,” Kill said. “We talk about the same principles we had last year. I think they are all smart enough to know the expectations are higher.”

NMSU will host UMass as an eight-point favorite at 5 p.m. on Saturday evening at Aggie Memorial Stadium. The game will air on ESPN, the first time since 2006 that an NMSU home game has aired on the network’s mothership.

A win would give the Aggies their first win in a season opener since 2014, when NMSU started 2-0, before finishing 2-10. A 2-0 start is on the table again this year and with a massive nationally televised audience ready to watch, it’s a big opportunity for the Aggies.

“You can go back in history, but for us to be able to play on ESPN for the last game (last year) and then play on ESPN for this game, I don’t know when the last time that happened, I imagine never,” Kill said. “That is something that is exciting. Anytime you can be on national TV helps our whole state, our university and it helps our football team.”

NMSU also released its depth chart for the 2023 season opener vs. UMass, a team the Aggies beat on the road during the 2022 season.

There were few surprises on offense; incumbent Diego Pavia gets the nod at quarterback, while former four-star Texas A&M quarterback Eli Stowers will be his backup. Jamoni Jones, Star Thomas and Ahmonte Watkins are 1-2-3 at the running back position; Chris Bellamy, Kordell David and Jonathan Brady will man the wide receiver spots.

Kill’s expectation is that the offense could pick up right where it left off the 2022 season, when Pavia was rolling and the Aggies won four of the final five games. Kill said that Pavia was 18-21 passing in NMSU’s last scrimmage and the Aggies will vary their looks in terms of how much they utilize him in the quarterback run game.

On defense, the Aggies must rebuild a unit that lost nine starters from a season ago. Despite the lack of experience, Kill said he was excited about the potential of the defense, which was a top-30 unit in college football a year ago under defensive coordinator Nate Dreiling.

Kill said to expect a wide rotation of defensive players. Gabe Peterson, Sterling Webb, Arizona transfer Dion Wilson and Nikhil Webb-Walker will man the defensive line, with Izaiah Reed and Noah Arinze figuring to factor in. At the linebacker position, Sone Aupiu and Keyshawn Elliott will start, but Kill spoke glowingly of Bryant Jackson and Tyler Martinez.

In the secondary, Andre Seldon returns as a starting cornerback, but that unit will need to come together with the likes of BJ Sculark, Mehki Miller, Dylan Early and John Huggins moving into new roles. JJ Dervil, Reggie Akles and former four-star recruit Myles Rowser could play a lot too, as could Wyoming transfer Keonte Glinton.

Kill said the defense has the talent to be as good or better than it was a season ago; time will tell if they can get it done. If they are, NMSU could be as good as the outsiders expect them to be.