2011 UTEP Preview – Defense
UTEP DT Germard Reed
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - UTEP Miner Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Nine starters return on defense. In El Paso, though, that only means that there'll be no need for introductions in the summer. The play of the defense has plagued Mike Price ever since he arrived eight years ago, struggling to generate much pressure or many takeaways. The staff hopes that all of those familiar faces, a second year for coordinator Andre Patterson, and a strong offseason will lead to fewer breakdowns this fall. It's not as if the Miners are void of talent, such as last year's entire corps of linebackers and all-star S Travaun Nixon, but the unit will have problems as long as it fails to mount a pass rush. UTEP managed to get to the quarterback just 14 times in 13 games, putting far too much pressure on the back seven. It's imperative that the D-line does a better job of getting a push and moving the other team off the line.
Star of the defense: Senior SS Travaun Nixon
Tackles: Jamie Irving, 79
Sacks: Greg Watkins, 3
Interceptions: Travaun Nixon, 4
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Bernard Obi
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Germard Reed
Best pro prospect: Nixon
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Nixon, 2) Senior LB Isaiah Carter, 3) Senior LB Jamie Irving
Strength of the defense: Athleticism, the safeties, linebacker, limiting big plays in pass defense
Weakness of the defense: Creating pressure, run defense, softness in coverage, third down stops, red zone D, takeaways
State of the Unit: In stark contrast to the offensive line, just about everyone is back for the D-line. Now, DE Robert Soleyjacks was a nice player and a four-year starter, but he's one of just two graduating lettermen. And the nine letterwinners who are back should be able to offset his departure. Their task this fall will be to do a much better job of getting a push up front and creating more pressure.
While the numbers said otherwise in 2010, the Miners feel as if they have a quality pass rusher in 6-2, 255-pound senior Bernard Obi. He's added weight in order to better handle the run, yet still has a nice burst and good closing speed. A starter in 12 games a year ago, he had 27 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss, two sacks, and a team-high eight pressures. On the opposite end will be 6-5, 275-pound sophomore Adam Ayala, who worked his way into the rotation as a rookie. Providing more of a strongside presence up front, he started a game and had 22 tackles and a couple of stops behind the line. Providing a spark off the bench will be 6-5, 225-pound junior Greg Watkins . A speedy, long-limbed defender, he had 38 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss, and a team-high three sacks in a situational role.
UTEP is equally experienced on the inside. The program went with a couple of rookies a year ago, 6-0, 280-pound Germard Reed at tackle and 6-1, 330-pound Marcus Bagley at the nose. Now sophomores, the staff is expecting much more from the duo. Reed plays the game with leverage and loads of power, starting 11 times and making 31 tackles and 4.5 stops for loss. Bagley has prototypical size and strength for the nose, earning five starts and getting in on 28 tackles. Senior Jamie Fehoko, junior Ruben Munoz , and junior Isaac Tauaefa all lettered in 2010. Tauaefa, in fact, started five games before suffering a season-ending injury.
Watch Out For .... the maturation of Bagley and Reed. The staff opted for youth a year ago and it's going to pay off down the road. Bagley and Reed are a couple of rising interior linemen that UTEP can build around for the next few seasons. The Miners don't often birth all-star tackles, but these kids have a chance to buck that trend.
Strength: Experience. There's no substitute for reps, and UTEP has plenty of them up front. Eight returning defensive linemen started at least one game last season, giving the Miners uncommon experience and its deepest rotation in the trenches in years.
Weakness: Getting a push. The numbers don't lie. UTEP got shoved around at the line last season, yielding 4.8 yards a carry and bagging just 14 sacks in 13 games. This program needs to find a way to generate more pressure without necessarily turning loose the linebackers and safeties.
Outlook: The faces are the same. The Miners' goal is to make sure that the results are not. UTEP's defensive problems start up front, failing to beat the block and disrupt the other team's rhythm. With an extra year of experience, the hope is that last year's lettermen can become this year's playmakers, supporting the back seven of the D.
State of the Unit: There's a glimmer of hope on the beleaguered UTEP defense, and its name is linebacker. The Miners return three starters, all seniors, to the second line of defense. Each member of the trio had at least 70 tackles, providing support to both the run D and the pass defense. Those three players will again set the tone in El Paso on this side of the line of scrimmage.
Of the returning starters, only 6-2, 220-pound senior Isaiah Carter earned honorable mention All-Conference USA. Despite starting only seven games and playing in 11, he was fourth on the team with 75 tackles and three stops for loss. The choice at weakside, he moves rapidly from sideline-to-sideline and will be used more liberally this fall on blitz packages.
Flanking Carter at strongside is 6-1, 230-pound senior Royzell Smith, a consistent stopper who's been starting since midway through his freshman year. He's bulked up since the bowl game, while maintaining his trademark quickness. A year after leading the Miners, he was fifth on the team with 72 tackles, three which were for minus yards.
Senior Jamie Irving gave a hint last fall of what he's capable of doing when completely healthy. A casualty in his first two seasons, he started every game, contributing 79 tackles and 4.5 stops for loss. A stout 6-0, 235-pounder, he plays with the right pad level and has the necessary instincts coaches look for in a middle linebacker.
On the B team, 6-3, 225-pound senior Jeremy Springer and 5-11, 215-pound junior Aubrey Alexius will be active parts of the rotation in the middle and at strongside, respectively. A former quarterback, Springer started 12 games in 2009 and made 25 stops as a backup last year. Alexius has lettered in his first two years, contributing on special teams and making 19 tackles in 2010.
Watch Out For .... Carter to pick up where he left off in 2010. It took a while for his career to get into high gear, but now that he finally has some success in the rear view mirror, he's going to feed off of it. A gifted all-around athlete, he simply needed a little confidence to get himself on the right track.
Strength: Lateral speed. Over the last few years, UTEP has markedly upgraded its speed and athletic ability at this position, attracting and promoting the likes of Smith, Irving, and Carter, who all have good sideline-to-sideline range and closing speed.
Weakness: Size and strength. Although this unit is small and quick by design, it has a tendency to get swallowed up by physical players, especially when opposing linemen drift to the second line of the D. After allowing almost five yards a carry in 2010, it's clear that the front seven lacks the physicality to hold up against bigger teams and lets too many runners slip out of their grasp.
Outlook: Relative to the rest of the defense, the linebackers belong on the UTEP refrigerator. While unlikely to produce next-level players, the Miners are experienced and play the game at a frenetic pace. Collaboratively, the starters should be good for about 250 tackles, some postseason recognition, and enough confidence to boost the morale of the teammates around them.
State of the Unit: With absolutely no help from the pass rush, the program continued to have problems defending the pass, allowing twice as many touchdown passes as picks made. That said, progress was achieved in 2010, as the Miners overcame the lack of support to rank fifth in Conference USA pass defense and pass efficiency defense. While hardly a reason to exhale, the school returns three starters from that group, and is optimistic about its chances of furthering the positive trend.
Senior SS Travaun Nixon was a major find for UTEP, which plucked him out of Ventura (Calif.) College a year earlier. The versatile 6-0, 195-pounder spent his first year in El Paso showing why he was coveted by so many programs, making 75 tackles, four stops for loss, and four interceptions. A bona fide ball-hawk, who breaks nicely on throws and is explosive with the ball in his hands, he was named second team All-Conference USA.
At free safety, the Miners have another quality defensive back in 6-0, 205-pound junior DeShawn Grayson . An explosive athlete, he got some honorable mention All-Conference USA recognition by making 69 tackles and breaking up five passes. He has a lot of pop in the open field, but needs to improve in coverage. Sophomore Chad Moncure made eight tackles last season and will back him up, with little hope of cracking the lineup.
The leader among the cornerbacks is 5-10, 195-pound senior Antwon Blake , who has earned three letters and started all 13 games a season ago. There were lapses in man coverage, but he showed improvement, making 60 stops and breaking up a team-high 11 passes. The competition pitting 5-10, 185-pound junior Drew Thomas versus 5-11, 165-pound junior Darren Woodard on the other side is a close one. While Thomas has the edge in experience, starting four games and making 42 tackles in 2010, Woodard has come on strong. A newcomer from Kilgore (Tex.) Junior College, he has good hips and the speed to step right in and contribute in his first year.
Watch Out For .... more picks. After having just 11 a year, or one every 40 passing attempts, the Miners will be after more takeaways this fall. You can pencil in Nixon for at least three interceptions, but with opposing passers trying to avoid him, it'll be up to the other defensive backs to make things happen.
Strength: Preventing the big play. More than any other area, UTEP improved at keeping the ball in front of it in 2010. The Miners allowed just 10.8 yards per completion, which led Conference USA and ranked a respectable No. 22 in the country.
Weakness: Coverage softness. While the secondary doesn't yield a lot of long gainers, it still needs to improve at the basics of pass defense, such as batting down balls and clamping down in the red zone. Last year's group, despite the gains, still allowed the other team to complete 62% of its passes and produce two dozen touchdown passes.
Outlook: The Miner secondary is better, but still not where the staff needs it to be. The hope is that the divide can be bridged prior to the opener. The promising news is that three starters return, including one, Nixon, who could be playing on Sundays when he's done in El Paso. A high-risk, high-reward unit, UTEP will incite its share of exciting moments this season.
State of the Unit: A traditionally weak area for the Miners, this season's special teams unit actually has a foundation to build upon. With just about everyone of significance back for another year, including the holder and snapper, there's hope that the recent trend of futility can gradually be reversed.
One of the pleasant surprises in 2010 was P Ian Campbell , an honorable mention All-Conference-USA choice in his debut out of Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) College. Ranking No. 11 nationally, he averaged more than 45 yards a punt, showing excellent drive through.
UTEP welcomes back its starting placekicker as well, but with far less assurance. While no one doubts the leg strength of junior Dakota Warren, a Ventura (Calif.) College transfer, his accuracy was a problem. An enigma, he nailed 3-of-5 kicks from beyond 50 yards, including a 57-yarder, but was just 1-of-5 between 40-49 and only 12-of-20 overall. He also had three kicks blocked, underscoring his inconsistency.
The Miners need junior Marlon McClure to get his act together in the classroom because he's one of the most exciting return men in America. A casualty in the spring, he was No. 4 nationally in kick returns, taking two back for touchdowns, and averaged more than 13 yards on punt returns. He's a difference-maker on special teams, but only if he's eligible.
Watch Out For… Warren's development on field goals. He has the kind of leg that might attract pro scouts in a couple of years, but not if he can't straighten out his kicks. An asset on kickoffs and a threat from as far out as 60 yards, the Miners would be content if he can simply improve on the more pedestrian kicks.
Strength: McClure. Again, assuming he's available to the program in the fall, he's a game-breaker and an important weapon for the offense. The kind of special teamer who can impact field position at any given moment, he makes the opposition rethink how it's going to kick the ball.
Weakness: The coverage teams. This has become an ongoing problem in El Paso. For the consecutive year, the Miners were leaky on kickoffs and punts, yielding and average of 22.5 and 14.1 yards, respectively. Neither figure ranked the program in the top 85 on a national level.
Outlook: There are hints of potential from individuals, such as Campbell, Warren, and McClure. Yet, there are also weak links that need to be addressed. The coverage units and getting so many kicks blocked, for instance. A hodge-podge of results, the Miners are looking for more consistency to go along with the flashes of brilliance.
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2011 UTEP Defense |
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