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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. 93: UTEP

These miners are going to work. Mike Price's Miners have work to do, and plenty of it.

Regardless of last season’s four-win finish, Mike Price’s 34 victories over his six-year tenure marks the most successful stretch of play in nearly 40 years of UTEP football. Not to say there aren’t concerns about whether Price can return the Miners to the upper echelon of Conference USA, where they stood for his first two seasons. The Miners have had four consecutive losing seasons since, largely because of the poor play of its defense: from 2004-5, UTEP gave up less than 26 points per game; over the last four, that number has risen to 31.2 in 2006, 37 in 2007-8 and 33.5 last fall.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
El Paso, Tex.

Nickname
Miners

Returning starters
11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 83

2009 record
(4-8, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 92

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Ark.-Pine Bluff
  • Sept. 10
    at Houston
  • Sept. 18
    New Mexico St.
  • Sept. 25
    Memphis
  • Oct. 2
    at New Mexico
  • Oct. 9
    Rice
  • Oct. 16
    at U.A.B.
  • Oct. 23
    Tulane
  • Oct. 30
    at Marshall
  • Nov. 6
    S.M.U.
  • Nov. 13
    at Arkansas
  • Nov. 20
    at Tulsa

Last year’s prediction

But to truly compete for the West division, this defense must truly take a step forward; allowing 37 points per game, despite how good the offense may be, will doom the team to another losing season. Over all, I predict UTEP to finish 7-5, 5-3 in conference play, with the final five games determining just where the Miners fall in the West. With this team and its returning talent, anything less than .500 should be viewed as a disappointment.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A better team than that record indicates. Just look at this four week span in Conference USA play: lose by five to U.A.B., a touchdown at Tulane, by four at S.M.U. and by one to Rice. UTEP held fourth quarter leads in each of the last three, with Tulane, for instance, winning in overtime after tying the game with a second remaining on the clock. Part of the problem, as the above scores indicate, was an inability to pull out close games; one explanation may lie in a poor rush defense, which left the defense tired late in games and susceptible to late-game collapses.

High point Clearly, a shocking 27-point win over undefeated and then-No. 12 Houston. The game was won early in the second half, when UTEP opened up a 17-17 halftime tie with a 20-3 third quarter edge.

Low point The Miners remained competitive in conference play with the exception of a 35-20 loss at Memphis on Oct. 10. As mentioned, UTEP’s four remaining conference losses came by a touchdown or less. Still, there is no escaping the fact that the Miners lost to Memphis, Tulane and Rice, three teams that combined to win seven games on the season.

Tidbit UTEP has fared marvelously offensively under Mike Price, scoring at least 30 points in 44 of the 72 games played under his watch; the 44 30-point games are the most under a single coach in school history. The Miners have also topped 40 points 19 times and 50 points six times, also school records. Price has also coached UTEP’s all-time leaders in passing yards, total offense, receiving yards and all-purpose yardage.

Tidbit (Harlem Globetrotters edition) UTEP has sent a quartet of former basketball players on to the Harlem Globetrotters: Willie Brown, David “Big Daddy” Lattin, Mark McCall and Lee Andrew Stoglin. The Globetrotters have lost only 345 games — winning roughly 22,000 — since their inception, with one loss coming against the Miners: UTEP earned a hard-fought 89-88 win on Nov.15, 2003, ending Harlem’s 288-game winning streak.

Former players in the N.F.L.

11 CB Cornelius Brown (Chicago), OT Oneil Cousins (Baltimore), S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith (Pittsburgh), S Quentin Demps (Philadelphia), C Jon Dorenbos (Philadelphia), C Robby Felix (New York Jets), WR Johnnie Lee Higgins (Oakland), LB Thomas Howard (Oakland), WR Jeff Moturi (Green Bay), QB Jordan Palmer (Cincinnati), CB Melvin Stephenson (Washington).

Arbitrary top five list

Best Sun Bowl games since 1975
1. 1984: Maryland 28, Tennessee 27.
2. 2006: Oregon State 39, Missouri 38.
3. 2003: Minnesota 31, Oregon 30.
4. 1994: Texas 35, North Carolina 31.
5. 2001: Washington State 33, Purdue 27.

Coaching

Mike Price (Puget Sound ’69), 34-38 over six seasons with the Miners. Even with his recent struggles, Price’s 34 victories mark the best six-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 needs to return to bowl play in order to rescue a rapidly-diminishing reputation.

Players to watch

A good mix of returning talent on each level of the offense. In fact, UTEP has a potential all-American returning at running back: senior Donald Buckram’s 2009 campaign saw him fly in well under the radar despite setting new school records in several categories. If you don’t know Buckram, you should. After accounting for 488 yards rushing over his first three seasons — 2007 ended up serving as a redshirt year — Buckram broke a 60-year-old school record by rushing for 1,594 yards a season ago. Among his other records: most 100-yard games (nine) and most 200-yard games (three), helping the senior become the first player in UTEP annals to lead the conference in rushing. Quick, shifty, surprisingly strong and a wonderful asset in the passing game, Buckram should again be in the running for this year’s Doak Walker Award. He won’t get it, but he should be considered.

Trevor Vittatoe’s junior season was a disappointment, even if he landed honorable mention all-Conference USA honors. His off-season has been equally disappointing, as a violation of team rules landed the senior-to-be on the sidelines for the first half or spring practice. Trevor, you’re a senior, you’re the starting quarterback: let’s go. As for 2010, Vittatoe must address last fall’s troubling penchant for turnovers — up to 13, compared to 16 combined over his first two seasons in the starting lineup. In his defense, most of Vittatoe’s interceptions came over a five-week span: four against Texas and two each against Memphis, Tulsa and U.A.B. in successive weeks. When he’s on — which is often — Vittatoe can pitch it with the best in the conference, including Houston’s Case Keenum. When he’s off, he can be a detriment.

It will be the job of the offensive line to keep Vittatoe comfortable in the pocket, not to mention continue to open up holes in the ground game for Buckram. One half of the line is in good shape: right tackle Alex Solot and right guard Rod Huntley grant UTEP a formidable pair on the strong side. Huntley’s the star of this offensive line, an 18-game starter who will assume a larger leadership role following the graduation of Mike Aguayo and Cameron Raschke. That pair’s departure opens up the left side of the line; this bears watching. There is some good news, however, as the probable starter at left tackle, senior Will Osolinsky, has starting experience: 12 games, including four a season ago. The headliner at left guard, senior Anthony McNac, has five career starters under his belt. It isn’t that Osolinsky nor McNac can’t play: they’re just stepping into some rather large shoes.

The Miners will miss receiver Jeff Moturi, who departed as one of the leading pass-catchers in school history, but will welcome back senior Kris Adams, who has the potential to duplicate Moturi’s senior numbers. Adams took a step back statistically last fall, making 42 grabs for 580 yards, but his 2008 campaign showed what Adams is capable of achieving: 50 catches for 980 yards and 14 scores. Adams will be the main target at receiver in 2010, but UTEP returns a handful of contributors capable of making their mark: junior Donavon Kemp, senior Evan Davis and junior Russell Carr. Senior tight end Jonny Moore is capable of adding 20 receptions.

Two years was enough. The Miners bid farewell to defensive coordinator Osia Lewis after two miserable seasons under the former New Mexico assistant, years where one could say that yes, it was only this horrific defense that prevented the Miners from bowl eligibility. So Lewis is gone; so is the 3-3-5 defense that never clicked in El Paso. The Miners will return to the prototypical 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, one of the more highly-regarded defensive line coaches in the country. He’ll have plenty of speed to work with at linebacker, beginning with junior Royzell Smith, who will man the strong side. Smith played well last fall, his first in the starting lineup, making 68 stops — third on the team — and a pair of interceptions. Jeremy Springer returns in the middle after making 66 stops a year ago, though Jaime  Irving, a junior, might steal some snaps. Senior Anthony Morrow, a former safety, should excel on the outside in Patterson’s new defense. Morrow made the initial move to linebacker a year ago, making six starts.

Two-time all-conference pick Braxton Amy made a triumphant return to the back end of the UTEP secondary last fall, making a team-best five interceptions after missing all of 2008 due to a knee injury. Amy’s five picks came in only nine games; he missed a handful of games while continuing his recovery from that troubling injury. In 2007, Amy led UTEP with 112 stops and 4 picks. Sophomore Deshawn Grayson will join Amy at safety after a commendable rookie season, one that earned him Conference USA all-Freshman honors. If there’s one name to watch in the secondary — if there’s one guy who can alter the entire face of this defense — is cornerback Travaun Nixon, a JUCO transfer who has the potential to be a stopper on the outside. Obviously, you can’t discount the importance of a top-flight cover corner; Nixon might be that guy. The biggest story with the defensive backfield, as with the rest of the defense, is the change in scheme: after struggling mightily last fall, perhaps the UTEP secondary will fare better in a zone-heavy defense, as compared to man-based attack of a year ago.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line Patterson’s deft touch on the defensive line will be tested in 2010; not only must UTEP replace a pair of starters, including nose tackle Steve Riddick, but depth up front will be tested by the move to the 4-3. Only one player with starting experience returns on the line: end Robert Soleyjacks — a 33-game starter — is by far the most game-ready returning lineman. Teaming with Soleyjacks at end is junior Bernard Obi, who made 28 tackles and 2 sacks as the top reserve a season ago. Not a bad pair at end, though Soleyjacks struggled through a disappointing 2009. The rest of the group is unproven. Take for instance, redshirt freshman Gernard Reed: he took first-team snaps throughout the fall, and is a favorite to earn significant time — perhaps even as a starter — come September. Junior Isaac Tauaefa is another option at tackle, as is fellow third-year player Jamie Fehoko. The latter has the size to replace Riddick as a run-stuffing tackle on the interior of the line. In an effort to beef up the depth up front, Price inked five defensive linemen in this year’s recruiting cycle; however, it will be this year’s redshirt freshman — like end Adam Ayala — who will be counted upon for immediate improvement.

Game(s) to watch

Keep an eye on how well UTEP plays from Sept. 18 through Oct. 30. UTEP can play with, and beat, all seven opponents during that stretch. The Miners should aim to win all four games played at home (New Mexico State, Memphis, Rice and Tulane) during this period.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell UTEP is perhaps the first team I’ve previewed thus far with a realistic shot at returning to bowl play. Not to say I think that’s going to occur in 2010. 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. Much will depend on Vittatoe: can the senior revert back to his freshman and sophomore form, avoiding the turnovers that defined his junior campaign? If he can, UTEP’s strong ground game — led by Donald Buckram — will continue to flourish. 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.

Dream season A five-win improvement to 9-3, which would set a new high under Price and represent a program-best since 1989.

Nightmare season More defensive struggles, more questions about the future of this program under Price. The Miners go 3-9, their work mark to date in his seven seasons with the program.

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, where Chris Avila, Danny Levario and Carlos Silva, Jr., do their thing.

Tidbit (reminder edition) A couple notes, none specifically related to UTEP football. First, I’ll be writing quick weekly capsules on The Quad in preparation for July, when heavily abbreviated Countdown posts will run beginning with team No. 50. Yesterday’s post was a quick rundown of teams No. 100-94; nothing new for you, I’m sure. Two, don’t forget that you can email me — audible@presnapread.com — with you favorite blogs, message boards and local beat reporters for inclusion in the above section. Three, you can also follow Pre-Snap Read on Twitter, if you’re interested.

Up Next

Who is No. 92? Our next university is one of only six schools to play football on the F.B.S. level to have the F.A.A. stamp of approval for its College of Aviation program; one of three schools to receive that designation to play football outside the B.C.S. conferences; and the only one of that trio to win fewer games in 2009 than in 2008.

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Comments

  1. Wyatt says:

    Western Michigan?

  2. Alan says:

    Excellent work on this preview.

    I agree that the offensive line has a job replacing Aguayo and Rashchke, two excellent linemen. The left side of the line will have a new look for 2010.

    You mention four worthy lineman in your piece, but overlook seniors Tanner Cullumber and Lance Evbuomwan and sophomore Eloy Atkinson. Cullumber was the starting center all last year and brings plenty of experience. He was the left guard in 2010 spring ball while Atkinson was center. Evbuomwan, a former tight end, is a JC transfer in his 2nd year at UTEP. Atkinson is a very good player likely to develop into a great college lineman.

    UTEP will have six seniors available to play on its offensive line this season.

    (also, it’s JAMIE Irving.)

  3. Jay says:

    Western Michigan looks like a winner.

  4. JoJo says:

    Ummm, no Jake Locker on your Heisman list? Big oversight there.

  5. Alan says:

    Have you read “Last Night in Twisted River”?

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