No. 104: UTEP
By Paul Myerberg // May 17, 2011
In this new era of feel-good, everybody-gets-a-trophy bowl eligibility, it’s due to become more and more commonplace that a team like last season’s UTEP Miners squeeze into late December play. We don’t have to like it, but don’t blame UTEP: the Miners simply did what they had to do, win six games, namely, and thereby had the pleasure of a New Mexico Bowl date with B.Y.U. that ended in 52-24 infomercial for Jake Heaps and the fast-rising Cougars. So the six wins were terrible: New Mexico State, Memphis, New Mexico and Rice combined for eight wins and Arkansas-Pine Bluff went 5-6 in the SWAC, though that win over S.M.U. was good enough to write home about. Hey, all the bowl guidelines say is that a team must win at least six games, at least five of which come against the F.B.S. — the Miners got there, and there are 35 bowl games to fill. It’s not UTEP’s fault that the TicketCity Bowl wanted a seat at the table, you know.
Conference USA, West
El Paso, Tex.
11 (2 offense, 9 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
UTEP is perhaps the first team I’ve previewed thus far with a realistic shot at returning to bowl play. Why is UTEP capable of landing at least six wins? A good offense, even if the receiver corps lacks a definitive all-conference target and the offensive line faces a minor rebuilding process. As has been the case for the better part of Price’s tenure in El Paso, I’m concerned about the defense. The new scheme change may ultimately benefit this program, but UTEP will struggle — at least temporarily — in the transition; this is especially so up front, where the Miners lack the depth and talent to put forth a solid four-man line. I understand I’m waffling in my prediction, but I’m unconvinced that enough strides have been made to believe UTEP capable of landing one of Conference USA’s bowl tie-ins. It should be close, however, especially if the Miners can turn last season’s narrow setbacks in victories.
In a nutshell A bowl trip is always possible if a team feasts on the weaker opponents on its schedule. UTEP didn’t even do that all that well last fall, losing to U.A.B. and Tulane in consecutive weeks to open Conference USA. But the Miners did just enough, starting 5-1 against some atrocious teams and landing one more win the rest of the way to break a four-year absence from bowl play. So in that way, the season was a success. But there’s a losing streak to snap: six losses in seven games to end the year, perhaps none worse than the nationally-televised stinker against B.Y.U. in the New Mexico Bowl. That’s the lasting memory I have of UTEP in 2010, and for many, that’s the only memory they have of UTEP in 2010.
High point A 28-14 victory over S.M.U. was UTEP’s lone win of consequence on the season. The win also pushed the Miners into bowl eligibility, which made it doubly satisfying.
Low point Losses by a lot, losses by a little, losses to bad teams, losses to good teams. So the bad losses to bad teams are obviously the worst of the bunch: U.A.B. would qualify, using that standard.
Tidbit It had been five years since UTEP’s last bowl trip, but that’s far from the longest bowl-less streak in the program’s history. The Miners went 12 years from their first bowl appearance in 1937 to their second in 1949. After going to five bowls between 1949-57, UTEP had to wait another eight years to return to bowl action. The longest stretch came from 1967-88, between which time the Miners had all of one winning season, and there was another 17-year wait from 1988 until 2005, Mike Price’s debut season.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:
Mike Price, who is entering his 30th season as a college head coach, stands ninth among active F.B.S. coaches in career wins. He is the only one of the nine not to have won 11 games in a season on the F.B.S. level, though he won 10 games three times at Washington State. Here’s the two-part question: Name the one coach on the list — other than Price — to have not won more than 11 games in a season; and name the three coaches on this list who have won at least 13 games in a season on the F.B.S. level.
Teams already spoken for: Texas (Burnt Orange).
Former players in the N.F.L.
11 CB Cornelius Brown (Indianapolis), OT Oneil Cousins (Baltimore), S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith (Pittsburgh), S Quintin Demps (Houston), LS Jon Dorenbos (Philadelphia), C Robby Felix (New York Jets), WR Johnnie Lee Higgins (Oakland), LB Thomas Howard (Oakland), WR Jeff Moturi (Dallas), QB Jordan Palmer (Cincinnati), WR Joe West (St. Louis).
Arbitrary top five list
Actors with El Paso ties, with notable work
1. Anthony Quinn, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
2. F. Murray Abraham, “Amadeus.”
3. Debbie Reynolds, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
4. Gilbert Roland, “The Bad and the Beautiful.”
5. Sherman Hemsley, “The Jeffersons.”
Mike Price (Puget Sound ’69), 40-45 over seven seasons with the Miners. Even with his team’s struggles from 2006-9, Price’s 40 victories mark the best seven-year stretch in modern UTEP history. Price got off to a tremendous start with the Miners, winning eight games and reaching bowl play in each of his first two seasons. UTEP had gone 6-30 over the previous three seasons, making the rapid turnaround all the more impressive. Price has always been the architect of powerful offenses, dating to his days at Weber State (1981-88) and, most famously, at Washington State (1989-2002). He is arguably the best coach in Washington State history; with the Cougars, Price won at least eight games five times — the program had done that only four times before his arrival — and 10 games in three different seasons (1997, 2001-2). The Cougars twice won the Pac-10 (1997, 2001), earning the program two of its three Rose Bowl trips. Not surprisingly, the three highest-scoring teams in W.S.U. history were those three 10-win teams, paced by the 483 points scored by the Ryan Leaf-led 1997 team. Over all, Washington State went 83-78 under Price, making him one of only two W.S.U. coaches with more than five years’ experience to finish with a winning record. Because his short tenure at Alabama made Price “damaged goods,” for lack of a better phrase, in the coaching profession, UTEP had the opportunity to land an experienced coach, one who had proven an ability to win at places other couldn’t. Through his first two years, it seemed Price had done it again. He led the Miners back to bowl play last fall, but he yet to recapture those early heights.
Players to watch
UTEP has four quarterbacks to choose from in a competition that will resume in the fall, but a leader has been identified: Nick Lamaison was a must-have in the 2011 recruiting cycle, and that he was in for spring practice allowed him to gain valuable experience in this offense. He still trails the three remaining contenders when it comes to this experience, however, which is largely the reason why Lamaison hasn’t won the competition outright. The three other options – senior Tate Smith, sophomore Carson Merger and redshirt freshman Javia Hall – have the leg up in familiarity but don’t quite have Lamaison’s skill set. Replacing Trevor Vittatoe won’t be easy; he’s the school record holder in every meaningful passing category. Lamaison might be the answer, but it will be tough for UTEP to have the same success in the passing game.
Joe Banyard is just a gamer, pure and simple: whether on special teams or in the backfield, Banyard, a former T.C.U. transfer, is the type of glue guy teams need. Last fall, for example, Banyard came on strong down the stretch to lead UTEP in rushing yards (632) and scores (8) while still finding time to make 14 tackles on special teams – we’ve heard of lead backs factoring into the return game, but I’m not sure if any other leading rusher combined his backfield duties with excellent kickoff and punt coverage skills. More carries are on the way in 2011, meaning Banyard – especially with questions in the passing game – might be the centerpiece of this offense. Two other seniors, Vernon Frazier and Leilyon Myers, will help carry the load.
Five new starters up front? That’s a recipe for disaster even at the cookie-cutter power programs, who insert five-stars for five-stars lost to graduation; it’s potentially a season-defining issue for UTEP. Junior center Eloy Atkinson is the closest to a sure thing up front: he’s started in the past, including a handful of games in 2010, and will anchor the new-look line. It would be easy to think that the Miners will just promote last season’s understudies – like Paul Santillan, Nathan McCage, Brander Craighead and Wayne Frazier – into the starting lineup, but keep an eye on a pair of new JUCO arrivals in James Martin and James Robinson, the latter of whom was in El Paso for spring practice.
Sometimes, a JUCO transfer does come in and completely live up to expectations. Sometimes they don’t; often they don’t, it seems. Put cornerback Travaun Nixon firmly into the category of JUCO transfers who hit it big, as the much-anticipated addition stepped right into the role most expected him to fill as UTEP’s top cover cornerback. He ended the year with four interceptions, supplying a taste of the big play to a defense that has often struggled creating turnovers. Also back in the secondary: Antwon Blake, Nixon’s running mate at cornerback, and free safety DeShawn Grayson, though the Miners lost Winston Jeune at strong safety and a longtime producer in Braxton Amy, though he again was limited by injuries as a senior.
Sometimes, a defensive coordinator steps in and has an immediate impact. This seems to happen quite a bit, in fact. Put Andre Patterson in this category – kind of. Yes, the Miners took a step forward statistically; the Miners were still poor in several key areas, like stopping the run, getting to the quarterback and creating turnovers, so there’s work still to be done. If it progresses, a young defensive line could help in those first two categories.
Two freshmen, Germard Reed (31 tackles, 3.5 for loss) and Marcus Bagley (29 tackles), started at tackle, Bagley on the nose. A third returning starter, senior Bernard Obi, returns at end; UTEP needs more from him, especially now that Robert Soleyjacks has exhausted his eligibility. His replacement will be a third sophomore, Adam Ayala, who apprenticed last season as part of the end rotation. The line is better and deeper than in the past, but it’s not as if the Miners are loaded here: if the sophomores step up, on the other hand, UTEP should do a better job stopping the run. Getting to the quarterback? Let’s tackle one thing at a time.
The three starting linebackers are back, but will be pushed for time by a pair of JUCO additions in A.J. Ropati and Josh Fely. If that new pair doesn’t crack the starting lineup, they’ll provide much-needed depth. If the Miners opt for the status quo, the linebacker trio will fall into place thusly: Jamie Irving (79 tackles, 4.5 for loss) in the middle, flanked by Royzell Smith (72, 3 for loss) on the strong side and Isaiah Carter (75, 3 for loss) on the weak side.
The returning experience is nice, and it’s worth noting that UTEP did improve defensively in 2010. More – much more – improvement is needed, particularly in those categories listed above, if UTEP is going to put forth a defense worthy of being included in the top half of Conference USA, let alone one who can slow down offenses like those seen at Tulsa, S.M.U., Houston and Southern Mississippi.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver At least the Miners have identified a potential starter at quarterback, though the competition at that position is far from over. The situation at wide receiver is far more muddled, especially with Marlon McClure’s immediate future in doubt due to academic and Donavon Kemp still battling back from last season’s A.C.L. tear. If McClure has his off-field issues settled and Kemp returns to full strength, there are your two leading receivers; with neither a sure thing come the fall – though the wonders of modern medicine should have Kemp ready to go – the receiver corps is long on questions, short on answers. One receiver who seems locked in to a big role regardless of the above pair’s availability is Russell Carr, though he’s lacking in experience; likewise for Lavorick Williams, who spent time during the spring with the first team but made only two catches a year ago. The Miners are really banking on Kemp getting back to 100 percent, and there’s no reason to think McClure can’t get back on the field once he gets everything in order. If they’re back, perhaps the drop-off in terms of talent and depth at the position will be large but not insurmountable. If the Miners have to go with youngsters at receiver, the passing game is going to be in trouble.
Game(s) to watch
UTEP could start strong, with two winnable games in its first three, but the real key will be surviving a Conference USA schedule that provides little time for air. How the Miners fare on the road, with conference games at Tulane and Rice in particular, will decide the season.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell If you experience a slight sense of trepidation upon considering the idea that the UTEP defense might have to carry this team, don’t worry: you’re not alone. There are major issues on this offense nearly across the board, with the depth and talent at running back the lone grouping where the Miners can rest with confidence. Quarterback? A leader has emerged, but it will be difficult for Lamaison – or another contender – to replace Vittatoe’s production. The offensive line must break in five new starters; the receiver corps would be in trouble even if McClure and Kemp are in the starting lineup come September, and without that pair the Miners have dangerously little experience and depth. So you see why the defense might have to carry the load, and based on how this defense has fared for years, you can see why that’s a concern. Maybe the nine returning starters can take another step forward – that’s absolute mandatory if UTEP is to return to bowl play. I don’t see it happening: not with this offense, not even with experience on defense, and not with a schedule that’s not so dangerous but far more difficult than it was a year ago. If last year’s team barely sneaked into bowl play, I doubt this year’s group can repeat that feat.
Dream season Back-to-back bowl trips, and this time, UTEP does it in style: 9-3, 6-2 in conference play.
Nightmare season A slightly tougher schedule spells a deep slide for the Miners, who drop to 2-10, the program’s worst finish under Price.
In case you were wondering
Where do UTEP fans congregate? The best UTEP football chatter can be found at the Kyyotes Den, even if I still cannot find an explanation for its strange spelling. For recruiting news, check out Miner Digs and Miner Report. For more coverage, Joe Muench of the El Paso Times talks UTEP sports on his blog, while Miner Rush is the newest addition to UTEP’s blog footprint. And don’t forget about Miner Illustrated, which is another new option.
Through 17 teams 44,560.
Who is No. 103? Only two teams in the conference housing tomorrow’s program have a sub-.500 career record; tomorrow’s program has the worst lifetime record in the conference, touting a weak winning percentage of just a few points above 40 percent.
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