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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 108: UTEP

You’ve woken up, but 30 minutes before your alarm was set to go off. Awake, but not awake. You’re in a weird spot. Going back to sleep is an option, and an appealing one at that: another 30 minutes in the dark couldn’t hurt. So is waking up fully: the day has to begin at some point, so why not now, since your eyes are already open? One option that’s not on the table is standing somewhere in the middle, rolling around half-asleep, half-awake, while the minutes slowly tick down until the buzzer sounds. Either wake up entirely or go back to sleep, but you need to make a choice.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
El Paso, Tex.

Nickname
Miners

Returning starters
11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 104

2011 record
(5-7, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 95

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Oklahoma
  • Sept. 8
    at Mississippi
  • Sept. 15
    New Mexico St.
  • Sept. 22
    at Wisconsin
  • Sept. 29
    at E.C.U.
  • Oct. 6
    S.M.U.
  • Oct. 13
    at Tulsa
  • Oct. 20
    Tulane
  • Oct. 27
    at Houston
  • Nov. 10
    U.C.F.
  • Nov. 17
    at Southern Miss.
  • Nov. 24
    Rice

Last year’s prediction

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. Maybe the nine returning starters [on defense] 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell At face value, a five-win season. Digging deeper, you see one win against an F.C.S. foe — in overtime, no less — and four wins against teams that combined for 14 victories on the year. But then you see a team that played Houston tight, even if UTEP seems to always plays Houston tight. Then again, you see a team that lost to Rice and U.C.F., the latter in the season finale with a potential bowl berth on the line. This is UTEP today: no longer terrible, as was the case for years, but nowhere near a place where the program can play for the Conference USA championship. It’s a different sort of malaise from when the Miners were an afterthought’s afterthought, but plugging along the five-win range represents a sort of malaise nonetheless.

High point A 22-17 win over East Carolina on Nov. 12 moved UTEP back above .500, at 5-4, after a two-game losing streak. This doubled as UTEP’s lone victory over a team with more than four wins, though the Pirates barely topped that total.

Low point Rice and the Knights. A win in either game would have sent the Miners back into bowl play for the second straight season. It was the defense that collapsed against the Owls; the offense followed suit against U.C.F., waiting until the fourth quarter to get on the board in a 31-14 defeat.

Tidbit UTEP has won only one Conference USA road game in the month of November since joining the league in 2005. The lone win came on Nov. 10, 2006, when the Miners topped U.A.B., 36-17, in Birmingham. The Miners’ overall road record in Conference USA play during November stands at 1-13: 0-1 in 2005, 1-1 in 2006, 0-3 in 2007, 0-2 in 2008, 0-3 in 2009, 0-1 in 2010 and 0-2 last fall. The most aggressive offender is Rice, which beat UTEP in Houston in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

Former players in the N.F.L.

7 WR Kris Adams (Minnesota), OT Oniel Cousins (Cleveland), S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith (Pittsburgh), S Quintin Demps (Houston), LS Jon Dorenbos (Philadelphia), LB Thomas Howard (Cincinnati), QB Trevor Vittatoe (Indianapolis).

Arbitrary top five list

Best players in El Paso Diablos history
1. P Randy Johnson.
2. SS Gary Sheffield.
3. P Brandon Webb.
4. 3B Carney Lansford.
5. OF Tom Brunansky.

Coaching

Mike Price (Puget Sound ’69), 45-52 over eight seasons with the Miners. Even with his inability to consistently reach postseason play, Price’s 45 victories mark the best eight-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. Overall, 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 without a genuine past track record of success. Through his first two years, it seemed Price had done it again. Over the last six seasons, however, UTEP has started sliding back to its previous standard.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Price’s staff includes two new assistants. The first, offensive line coach Brian Natkin, replaces former line coach and co-offensive coordinator Bob Connelly, who left UTEP to join Todd Graham’s staff at Arizona State. Natkin, who spent the last three seasons at Midwestern State — a Division II program — is also one of the best players in program history: he’s one of UTEP’s two consensus all-Americans, earning those honors as a tight end in 2000. You might be familiar with new safeties coach Tom Williams, who replaced Colorado State-bound Al Simmons: Williams resigned as the head coach at Yale in December after the university discovered some discrepancies in Williams’ academic record — namely, that despite his assertion, Williams was never a Rhodes Scholar finalist when a senior at Stanford, let alone a candidate or applicant for the prestigious scholarship.

Players to watch

On paper, everything went according to plan. At this point two years ago, UTEP knew it had a very good starting quarterback in Trevor Vittatoe, the most prolific passer in school history. But Price and the Miners were far from sold on his understudies, the backups who would compete to replace Vittatoe heading into last season. So UTEP went looking for a quarterback who could step right in and grab the starting role; this quest lead Price to the JUCO ranks, as UTEP is not the sort of program that could land the sort of true freshman capable of stepping right into the starting lineup as a true freshman — step in and produce at an adequate level, to be more specific.

All roads led to Nick Lamaison, perhaps the most decorated JUCO quarterback then on the open market. Lamaison was available, for starters, and that he was a December graduate — that he would be on campus for spring ball — only heightened his appeal. So, at this point last year, all went according to plan. Things went off the script beginning in September.

Lamaison can be a strong starting quarterback in this league. However, he has not displayed an ability to stay healthy; you can’t necessarily blame Lamaison for his injuries, but UTEP needs him to remain healthy and upright for an entire season. While he threw for 1,718 yards and 12 scores last fall, Lamaison missed all of three games and most of another, forcing the Miners to turn to now-junior Carson Meger. Lamaison will be better; will stay healthy, hopefully; and will be the centerpiece of UTEP’s offense.

He’ll also have most of last season’s receiver corps to work with. Only two vital members of the rotation must be replaced, though the Miners must find a way to replicate Donavon Kemp’s big-play ability. While UTEP worked without senior Mike Edwards (team-best 50 receptions for 657 yards) during the spring, he’s expected to be fully recovered from his groin injury well before August. This is great news for the Miners, as Edwards clearly has a wonderful rapport with Lamaison, his former JUCO teammate.

His absence allowed freshman Felix Neboh to strut his stuff, likely pushing him into the rotation. Along with Edwards, the top group consists of sophomores Jordan Leslie (30 receptions for 430 yards), Malcolm Trail and Devin Patterson. This group is lost without Edwards, but the younger targets should form a nice compliment to his status as UTEP’s go-to receiver. UTEP is also very deep at tight end: it’s a four-man group led by junior Kevin Perry and sophomore Eric Tomlinson.

The offensive line was absolutely ravaged by injuries during the spring. In fact, injuries to both the offensive and defensive lines led UTEP to alter its typical spring game protocol: instead of going with a draft to select teams, Price simply played his offense against his defense. The only projected starter not to miss time in March and April was sophomore right guard Kyle Brown; the rest missed anywhere from one practice to the entire spring. This missing-in-action feel becomes doubly painful thanks to the coaching change, with Natkin replacing Connelly. When everyone returns, the Miners will start, from left to right: Brander Craighead, Jerel Watkins, Eloy Atkinson, Brown and James Nelson. This line needs a good amount of work — pass protection was abysmal last fall — so the missed time makes the position a significant concern.

One thing UTEP does not do particularly well on defense is get to the quarterback. Another thing that needs remedying is a porous run defense, one that ranked 96th last fall in yards allowed per game and 111th in average yards per carry allowed. A third area where UTEP struggles, while we’re putting the Miners’ cards on the table, is in getting consistent stops in the passing game. And finally, just so all bases are covered, UTEP is as bad as any team in the country in terms of limiting big plays.

Once again, third-year defensive coordinator Andre Patterson has his hands full. He loses seven starters off last year’s group, including five starters along the back seven and two defensive backs. While the Miners have a transition plan in place with each open spot, you wonder whether there’s anything Patterson can do to prevent UTEP from again ranking among the worst defenses in college football: since the start of the 2006 season, the Miners have allowed an average of 33.1 points per game.

Barring an unforeseeable turnaround, the onus will again fall on the offense to simply outscore enough teams to sneak into a third-tier bowl game. If the Miners are going to step up on defense, it’ll take a reversal of fortunes in each of the above deficiencies: the pass rush, the run defense, the pass defense and in limiting the big play. It’ll all start up front, as it usually does, with a defensive line that must replace two starters.

The play of two linemen in particular will be key to UTEP’s success. One is junior end Horace Miller (36 tackles, 5.0 sacks), the only down linemen in last year’s rotation capable of getting to the quarterback with any degree of consistency. The second is junior Marcus Bagley (21 tackles), the projected replacement for Jamie Fehoko at nose tackle.

Miller is the Miners’ best hope at an all-conference pass rusher. Bagley, who weighs at least 325 pounds, is a potential anchor in the middle of the line; with his size, Bagley could do a nice job occupying blockers. Miller’s partner at will be senior Greg Watkins (31 tackles), a part-time starter last fall, while juniors Germard Byrd and Adam Ayala will join Bagley inside.

Three departed seniors started the vast majority of games at linebacker last fall, including every game in the middle and on the strong side. But don’t worry: UTEP has a plan. Start on the weak side, where the Miners will move Josh Fely (61 tackles, 5.5 for loss) into a full-time starting role. He made four starts last fall, sharing time with Isaiah Carter, and showed an ability to get pressure in the backfield; along with Miller, Fely’s presence in the starting lineup could beef up UTEP’s pass rush. Last year’s backup on the strong side, Aubrey Alexius, will also move into the starting lineup, though he lacks his predecessor’s prototypical size — Royzell Smith wasn’t fleet afoot, but he was big enough to take on blockers.

The biggest news at linebacker is the healthy return of senior Jamie Irving, the Miners’ second-leading tackler in 2010. Irving took a redshirt last fall after offseason shoulder surgery: while he may have been able to return to action later in the year, UTEP was wise to sideline Irving and get a full, healthy season out of him in 2012. His return greatly improves UTEP’s linebacker corps, which needs Irving’s solid presence in the middle. The Miners also have former JUCO transfer A.J. Ropati in the middle, though part of me wonders if Ropati, who had a nice spring game, could move out to the strong side if needed.

Four seniors are set to start in the secondary. Two, cornerback Drew Thomas (49 tackles) and safety DeShawn Grayson (67 tackles, 2 interceptions), are returning starters. A third, cornerback Drew Woodard, made plays last fall — including a huge interception in the win over E.C.U. — when given the opportunity. At the second safety spot, the Miners are looking at both Richard Spencer and Derrick Morgan. Senior, senior, senior, senior, senior. If — or when — the Miners give up yards in the bunches in the air, inexperience won’t be an excuse.

The secondary will need to find a way to force turnovers without strong safety Travaun Nixon, the former JUCO transfer who made interceptions over his two seasons with the program. In addition, this group needs to hit the ground running: UTEP takes on three B.C.S. conference teams, E.C.U., S.M.U. and Tulsa over the first seven games of the season. The schedule as a whole again features more high-octane passing teams than not, so there’s really no reason to think that the Miners will rank significantly higher against the pass than they did a season ago — 92nd nationally, allowing 252.4 yards per game. Landry Jones and Oklahoma, UTEP’s opponent in the season opener, should throw for 400 yards with ease.

Position to watch

Running back UTEP had three running backs gain at least 368 yards on the ground last fall, led by Joe Banyard’s team-best 832 yards. All three of those running backs have since exhausted their eligibility, leaving the Miners in a spot where an untested, youthful back needs to step up and fill the void. It seems as if UTEP has found its man. That would be Nathan Jeffery (166 yards), the only other back to serve in any major role last fall: Jeffery took advantage of the opportunity for playing time, likely sealing the starting role with a strong performance during the spring game.

The question with Jeffery, a 5’11, 195-pound sophomore, is whether he can handled 150-plus carries. That’s the total he’s looking at as the Miners’ starter, especially with no other back on the roster with any meaningful game experience. If he turns into a 18-carry-per-game runner, Jeffery would take a huge weight off of Lamaison’s shoulders. Another issue for UTEP is finding a replacement for Leliyon Myers, last year’s short-yardage and goal line back. For now, that role will go to sophomore Josh Bell. He looks the part — a solidly built 215 pounds — but Bell, like every back outside Jeffery, lacks any experience. Beyond wondering whether Jeffery can carry his strong spring over to September, the Miners have no clear substitute in mind should he miss any extended period of time due to injury.

Game(s) to watch

Beating New Mexico State is mandatory, seeing as the Aggies are sandwiched between Oklahoma, Mississippi and Wisconsin. UTEP rounds out the first half of the season with road games against E.C.U. and S.M.U. before taking on Tulsa at home, so an 0-4 start could rapidly turn into a lost season.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The Miners are stuck in neutral. This is better than reverse, or being stuck in park, but still: UTEP has tasted some success under Price, shuffling in and out of the Conference USA conversation, which makes the mediocre play over the last half-decade tougher for the university and its fan base to swallow. To break out of this malaise, UTEP needs a breakout season from one or two players on each side of the ball. Nick Lamaison is one of those players; the Miners need him healthy, for starters, but they also need Lamaison to grow more comfortable in Price’s system. UTEP also needs Nathan Jeffery to shoulder the load in the running game. On defense, the Miners simply need to do a better job getting to the quarterback: that makes Horace Miller a vital cog in the machine. As with Miller getting to the quarterback, UTEP needs Marcus Bagley to occupy blockers in the middle; Irving, one year after shoulder surgery, to recapture his prior form; and the secondary as a whole to limit the number of big plays. In short, UTEP needs quite a bit to go its way in order to crack through the ceiling and reach bowl eligibility. The year could get out of control before it begins, thanks to a tough early stretch, and the Miners also get Houston and Southern Mississippi on the road over the final four games of the year. If UTEP wins three or four games, does the program make a coaching change? If the school wants to snap out of this funk, it might have no choice.

Dream season Thanks in large part to Lamaison’s ability to stay healthy, the offense rebounds to finish in the top four in Conference USA in scoring, passing and total offense. The defense isn’t great, but the Miners outscore enough teams to win eight games for the first time since 2005.

Nightmare season After nine years, UTEP makes a coaching change. The final straw comes in a 2-10 season, the program’s first double-digit loss season since 2003, the year prior to Price’s arrival.

In case you were wondering

Where do UTEP fans congregate? The best UTEP football chatter can be found at the Kyyotes Den. Better yet, I’ve finally discovered the reason behind the site’s strange spelling. As relayed to me by Craig Evans, the founder of Kyyote’s Den:

The name Kyyote came about from my years of coyote hunting in the desert outside of El Paso. Kyyote’s Den was supposed to be the name of my Mine in the Franklin Mountains of El Paso. It is spelled the way it is because of the way I wanted it to be pronounced. On the border, “coyote” is very often pronounced as koy-yo-tay. Even ky-yote-ee, which is not how I wanted it to be pronounced. It is pronounced ky-yote, which is how I always pronounced the word before I moved to El Paso.

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.

UTEP’s all-name nominee OT Brander Craighead.

Word Count

Through 17 teams 55,529.

Up Next

Who is No. 107? Sixty-nine percent of the head coaches in the history of tomorrow’s program never served as a head coach at any other college program: only at this school, never anywhere else.

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Comments

  1. adam says:

    Western Kentucky is my guess

  2. Matt Rob says:

    Army?

  3. SB says:

    UL-Lafayette is my guess.

  4. Eksynyt says:

    Louisiana-Monroe

  5. jobu says:

    Great report. Incredible depth!

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