2012 UTEP Preview – Defense

Posted Aug 11, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - UTEP Miner Defense

UTEP Miners

Preview 2012 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: The Miners defense has never had much bite under head coach Mike Price. It figures to be toothless again this fall. It's rare that NFL defenders make stops in El Paso, a city more accustomed to housing offensive playmakers during their college careers. With no star power back on campus, UTEP will be resigned to get its best athletes on the field, where they can hopefully create turnovers and other money plays. The staff does have high hopes for the interior of the line, which will include tackles Germard Reed and Marcus Bagley. Reed is the penetrator, while the 320-pound Bagley is more of a traditional space-eater in the middle of the line. The big news at linebacker surrounds the return of Jamie Irving, the program's second-leading tackler of 2010, who missed all of last year following shoulder surgeries. He and Josh Fely will bring senior leadership to the second level of the defense. The pass defense, which ranked 92nd in the country last fall, is going to sorely miss CB Antwon Blake and S Travaun Nixon. Veteran CB Drew Thomas did step up his play in the spring, lending a sliver of hope that the Miners can slow down some of the better quarterbacks on the schedule.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: DeShawn Grayson, 67
Sacks: Horace Miller, 5
Interceptions: Darren Woodard, DeShawn Grayson, 2

Star of the defense: Junior DE Horace Miller
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Darren Woodard
Unsung star on the rise: Junior NT Marcus Bagley
Best pro prospect: Senior S DeShawn Grayson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Miller, 2) Grayson, 3) Senior LB Jamie Irving
Strength of the defense: Athleticism, experience, generating pressure, red-zone D, the D-line
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, takeaways, third-down stops, coverage softness

Defensive Line

The Miners D-line will be an experienced crew that starts a quartet of upperclassmen. Setting the tone on the inside at 3-tech will be 6-1, 285-pound junior Germard Reed, a starter in nine of last year's 10 games. He plays the game hard, fast and with the necessary leverage to beat his man into the pocket. Very quick and tenacious, Reed contributed 31 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss and four sacks last season. Even more disruption will be expected from him in 2012.

Next to Reed at the nose is junior Marcus Bagley, another veteran of the trenches in El Paso. The returning starter is 6-1 and 320 pounding, possessing the ideal size and raw power needed to create traffic in the middle of the line. While he only had 21 tackles and three quarterback hurries, he's not the type of defensive lineman who can be judged by numbers alone. His value to the Miners transcends statistics.

On the outside, UTEP is confident about its returning pass rushers. At Buck, 6-1, 240-pound junior Horace Miller will be looking to build on a breakout year in El Paso. The former Louisville transfer started only six games, yet still racked up 36 tackles and team-highs with eight stops for loss, five sacks and seven quarterback hurries. He's explosive out of the gates, and plays with the heavy hands needed to battle bigger and stronger opponents.

At the other end is 6-5, 220-pound Greg Watkins. The fleet-footed, long-limbed edge rusher brings a level of athleticism to the line that's often too much for blockers to handle. While he can get caught up in traffic on running downs, he's valuable as a situational rusher. Last season, Watkins made 31 tackles, five tackles behind the line and three sacks.

The program's most seasoned backup on the outside will be 6-3, 240-pound junior James Davidson. The two-time letterwinner is coming off his best season, making 17 tackles, three stops for loss and two sacks.

Watch Out For .... Miller to contend for all-league honors. Despite starting only half of last year's games, he still showed the big-play ability of a former Big East recruit. With a year in the vault and another offseason to prepare, Miller will be even more productive in Year 2 as a Miner.
Strength: Pressuring the pocket. Whether from the inside or the outside, the Miners play with the speed and the attacking mentality needed to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. After Miller, Reed and Watkins all produced at least five stops for minus yards, the trio is setting the bar at ten.
Weakness: Impacting the run. UTEP continues to have all kinds of problems stuffing the run, a recurring theme in these parts. The program simply doesn't get enough of a push on running downs, often getting bullied back on its heels. A year after yielding 4.8 yards a carry, the Miners allowed a whopping 5.2 yards, and stood No. 95 nationally in run defense.
Outlook: The Miners own the speed and the quickness to create problems up front, but now must toughen up in order to better defend the run. It's a tall order for a group that, Bagley aside, lacks the size, girth and muscle to hold up consistently at the point of attack. UTEP will be aggressive and tenacious up front, but will also over pursue at times, and be vulnerable to the ground game.
Rating: 5.5


The graduations of three valuable seniors will have the Miners retooling this fall on the second level of the defense. The good news centers on the return of senior Jamie Irving , who missed all of last season with shoulder problems. When last seen, the Miners' 6-0, 235-pound man in the middle was busy making 79 tackles and 4.5 stops behind the line. He's a heady, instinctive and rugged run defender who was sorely missed by this unit a year ago.

At weakside will be another of the team's linebackers with starting experience, senior Josh Fely. In his second year removed from San Diego Mesa (Calif.) College, he ranked third on the team with 61 tackles, adding 5.5 stops for loss and three sacks. Clearly undersized at 5-11 and 225 pounds, he'll again rely on his speed and range to make things happen.

The newcomer to the huddle will be 5-11, 225-pound senior Aubrey Alexius who is slated to start at strongside. The three-time letterwinner—and career reserve—chipped in with 18 tackles off the bench a season ago. Valuable from the second team and on special teams, he'll now aim to show he can handle a greatly expanded role.

The Miners hope that junior A.J. Ropati will be the successor to Irving in the middle in 2012. The 6-0, 235-pound transfer from Los Angeles Harbor (Calif.) Community College is a hard-hitting defender who moves well, but simply needs to earn more reps at this level before getting comfortable.

Watch Out For .... how well Irving's shoulders hold up. He's a vital piece of the defensive puzzle in El Paso who needs to remain healthy for the Miners in 2012. The senior stands to be the emotional and physical leader of the linebackers, but only if he's 100%.
Strength: Lateral speed and quickness. Over the past few years, UTEP has markedly upgraded its speed and athletic ability at this position, attracting and promoting the likes of Irving and Fely, who possess the sideline-to-sideline range and closing speed to become impact players.
Weakness: Size and strength. Although this ensemble is small and quick by design, it has a tendency to get swallowed up by physical opponents, especially when linemen drift to the second line of the D. After allowing five yards per carry for a second consecutive season, it's evident that the front seven lacks the physicality to hold up against bigger teams, and lets too many runners slip out of their grasp.
Outlook: The Miners have parted with a lot of defensive talent at linebacker since the end of last season, which will put them in somewhat of a rebuilding mode at the position. While the return of Irving certainly helps, and Fely is ready for a promotion, UTEP still might be at its weakest on the second level of the D this fall.
Rating: 5

Defensive Backs

The Miners played relatively well in the secondary last, yielding just 16 touchdown passes. They'll look to turn last year's success into a trend with the help of a veteran defensive backfield. Senior DeShawn Grayson is back to man one of the safety spots for a third consecutive year. The 6-0, 205-pounder is an explosive all-around athlete who can make his presence felt in a number of different areas. He was second on last year's team with 67 tackles, yet also picked off two passes and broke up five others to provide support for the cornerbacks.

The team's other starting safety will be 6-2, 210-pound senior Richard Spencer who'll be looking for his fourth letter as a Miner. He has consistently been a valuable member of this group, freely throwing his weight around, yet still needing to play with more discipline when the ball is in the air. Coming off the most active season of his career, he accounted for 47 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and two sacks as a key part of the rotation in 2011.

Behind Grayson, 5-9, 190-pound sophomore Wesley Miller will once again be a valuable reserve at safety. Part-corner and part-safety, he debuted impressively with 47 tackles and a couple of fumble recoveries in 2011.

The team's leader at cornerback will be 5-10, 180-pound senior Drew Thomas, a third-year starter in the secondary. Hard-working and athletic, he had 49 tackles, and ranked second on the team with six pass breakups. However, this year he needs to start turning more of those tipped balls into turnovers after failing to intercept a pass in 2011.

Sliding into the lineup at left corner will be 5-11, 170-pound senior Darren Woodard. He showed some flashes in nine games of his debut out of Kilgore (Tex.) Junior College, making 12 stops and a couple of interceptions. The staff believes that he has the hips and the speed to hold up well as a member of the starting unit.

Watch Out For .... Spencer to make the most of his opportunity for more reps. He has the requisite experience and size to really flourish in a strong safety-type role for the Miners. He'll emulate one of the linebackers at times, and rank among the team's leaders in tackles.
Strength: Keeping the ball in front of them. For the second straight year, the Miners excelled at preventing the big play, yielding just 16 touchdowns in a dozen games. UTEP will be in the enviable position of starting four seniors in the defensive backfield, a luxury when playing in a league that relies so heavily on the pass.
Weakness: Interceptions. For three years running now, the Miners have been unable to pick off more than a dozen passes in a season. Considering how often the defensive backs get targeted by opposing quarterbacks, UTEP should be able to turn a few more of those passes into the kinds of game-changing picks that quickly get the ball back in the hands of the offense.
Outlook: After overachieving in recent years, UTEP will attempt to keep the trend going in 2012. Yeah, the Miners will be vulnerable against the better passing teams, but will also be experienced and feisty against the run and the pass. Grayson and Thomas will be the cornerstones, but Woodard and Spencer appear ready to be more than just serviceable first-time starters. Both players have been pining for this opportunity to shine on an every-down basis.
Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

One of the signature players of this program happens to reside on special teams, All-Conference USA P Ian Campbell. One of the ten semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award in 2011 ranked third nationally with an average of 46.1 yards. The senior produced as many fair catches—six—as touchbacks, laying the groundwork for being one of the country's top punters entering the new season.

The staff will use the month of August to decide between its two competing placekickers, sophomore Steven Valadez and senior Dakota Warren. Valadez showcased a strong leg in 2011, averaging 65.5 yards on kickoffs, while producing 21 touchbacks. However, he only attempted a pair of field goals, one of which was true. Warren has a lot more experience, but also more failings. He's another boomer, yet converted just 13-of-22 field goals a year after going 12-of-20.

It looks as if the return game will be handed over to sophomore Nathan Jeffery and senior Michael Edwards on kickoffs and punts, respectively. Jeffery averaged 22.6 yards in 2011, while Edwards normed a respectable 10.2 yards when he got the ball in his hands.

Watch Out For… the battle at placekicker to rage on deep into the summer. Both Valadez and Warren can put a charge into the ball with their feet, but the Miners are looking to anoint the man who can kick with more consistency than the program has experienced in recent seasons.
Strength: Campbell. The punter has been a gem for the Miners, supporting the defense and the special teams with his booming leg. UTEP was No. 6 nationally in net punting last season, creating a much-needed edge in field position for a D that needed all of the outside support that it could get.
Weakness: The coverage teams. This has been an incessant problem in El Paso for the past few seasons. The Miners were once again leaky, especially on kickoffs, yielding an average of 23.5 yards to rank 95th in the country. The team did tighten up a bit on punt returns, but just a year earlier allowed a whopping 14.1 yards an attempt.
Outlook: UTEP will once again be a mixed bag of results on special teams. Campbell is the cover boy, a dynamite punter with game-changing tendencies. However, after the all-star, the Miners become sketchy in a hurry; there's uncertainty in the kicking game, and new return men looking to make a mark on punts and kickoffs.
Rating: 6
- 2012 UTEP Preview | 2012 UTEP Offense
- 2012 UTEP Defense | 2012 UTEP Depth Chart
- UTEP Previews 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006