2013 UTEP Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - UTEP Miner Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Scott Stoker has his hands full. What defensive coordinator at UTEP hasn't in recent history? The Miners have long struggled to make key stops, a trend likely to continue in 2013. Stoker plans to fit his scheme to his personnel, while attempting to weave in some 3-4 looks along with a standard 4-3 alignment. The staff's biggest concern, as if there's only one, will be pass defense. Not only are the defensive ends, Adam Ayala and James Davidson, somewhat toothless at getting after the quarterback, but two new cornerbacks will be broken in as well. Most of the heat will come from LB Horace Miller, who has 11 career sacks since transferring from Louisville. UTEP likes its mix of talent on the interior of the line and at safety, where Richard Spencer is making his way back from a knee injury. Before getting hurt, he was headed toward 100 tackles, a bunch of big plays and a spot on the All-Conference USA team.
Star of the defense: Senior DE Horace Miller
Tackles: A.J. Ropati, 58
Sacks: Horace Miller, 6
Interceptions: Richard Spencer, Wesley Miller, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE James Davidson
Unsung star on the rise: Senior LB A.J. Ropati
Best pro prospect: Senior SS Richard Spencer
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Miller, 2) Spencer, 3) Senior NT Marcus Bagley
Strength of the defense: Athleticism, interior linemen, safeties
Weakness of the defense: Edge pressure, cornerbacks, interceptions, run defense, third-down stops
UTEP has plenty of work that needs to be done on defense between now and the opener. It also has a hint of hope, thanks to the returns of two veteran starters up front. Versatile Germard Reed, a 6-1, 275-pound third-year is expected to line up at defensive tackle. The senior moves well enough to play a more athletic position, even some as a strongside complement on the outside to one of the ends. Disruptive in his moves and quick off the snap, he made 38 tackles, seven stops for loss and a couple of sacks last season. The hope is that Reed's seasoning and versatility will mean he contributes to the pass rush while also holding up against the run.
The rock in the middle of the Miners' line will once again be 6-1, 320-pound senior NT Marcus Bagley, an honorable mention All-Conference USA pick last season. No. 8 doesn't make a ton of noise in the stat line, notching 32 tackles, but he has a habit of occupying multiple blockers, which makes life easier for the rest of the front seven. Bagley plays low to the ground, with the strong base needed to maintain his position on running downs. He'll be a key factor, especially as UTEP attempts to mix in some 3-4 looks.
The ends will have a lot to prove this season. At strongside, 6-5, 280-pound senior Adam Ayala looks the part, but needs to deliver on his ideal size and strength. He's lettered in each of the last three seasons, even starting games occasionally, but he made just nine tackles in an uneventful junior year.
The Miners have gotten more production over the years from 6-3, 240-pound senior James Davidson, the starter at weakside. Another three-time letterwinner, he provided a spark off the bench with 36 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, 2.5 sacks and three hurries. He's quick and intense enough to be a consistent factor off the edge for the D.
Watch Out For .... the program to quickly burn the redshirt year of rookie NT Devante Richardson.The 6-3, 280-pound three-star recruit participated in spring drills, and has already impressed the coaching staff with his toughness and his college-ready frame.
Strength: The interior. Relatively speaking, the Miners are not worried about the inside of the line. Not only are Bagley and Reed a couple of seasoned and capable interior linemen, but Richardson has already worked his way into the rotation. After flirting with the idea of moving Reed outside, the staff wisely elected to keep him at tackle.
Weakness: Edge pressure. UTEP ranked 82nd nationally in sacks a year ago, and just might be worse this season. Davidson and Ayala have been around for a long time, but neither has shown the ability to stay on the field and consistently get after the quarterback. If the Miners are going to collapse the pocket, it might have to come from different spots on the field.
Outlook: Bagley aside, the Miners lack the size and the muscle to hold the line against some of the more physical opponents on the schedule. The key will be to parlay their small and quick frames into more momentum-building plays behind the line of scrimmage. UTEP can't be both undersized and passive, or else it'll be another long year in the trenches.
The Miners' best pass rusher, two years running, is senior Horace Miller who is making the move back from defensive end to strongside linebacker. The 6-1, 240-pound former Louisville Cardinal from Baltimore is capable of getting into the pocket either regardless of the position he plays. While not much help against the run in the past, Miller will use his burst and athleticism to school heavy-footed tackles. In 2012, he notched just 31 stops, but also led the squad with 7.5 tackles for loss and six sacks.
The program is hopeful that senior A.J. Ropati can lock down the opening in the middle in his second year out of Los Angeles Harbor (Calif.) Community College. The hard-hitting 6-0, 230-pounder was in and out of the starting lineup in his debut, finishing the year fifth on the team with 58 stops, two tackles for loss, a sack and two forced fumbles.
The youngest member of the starting lineup is expected to be junior Anthony Puente, a reserve and special teams performer over the last two seasons. He's just 5-11 and 215 pounds, but plays with the range and the closing speed of a safety. Ideally suited to play weakside, he'll be asked to drop back into coverage and occasionally on blitzes.
Behind Ropati in the middle is the program's best option off the bench, 6-1, 230-pound junior DeAndre Little, a letterwinner in each of his two seasons since arriving as a three-star recruit. He made 24 stops a year ago, showing the growth and maturity that has the staff believing he could start this year if needed.
Watch Out For .... Miller's adjustment to a new position. Sure, his primary objective will once again be to get after the quarterback, but he'll also need to be more aware in run defense. He'll have new assignments and more room to roam, which could also lead to additional opportunities for 2013 and beyond.
Strength: Lateral speed and quickness. Over the past few years, the former Miners' staff had upgraded the speed and overall athletic ability at this position, attracting and promoting the likes of Miller and Puente, who possess the sideline-to-sideline range and closing speed to become impact pass rushers and pass defenders.
Weakness: Impacting the run defense. No, the blame doesn't fall squarely on the shoulders of the linebackers, but there has to be an element of shared responsibility when a team yields almost five yards a carry. The unit gets a little bigger with the addition of Miller, but is still prone to getting bullied in the box.
Outlook: The Miners should be able to rush the passer from the second level, with Miller and Puente, but defending the run will be this group's Achilles heel. A second year with Ropati in the middle should help. However, UTEP lacks the stoppers from this area of the D to stand up opposing backs or trip them up behind the line.
Uh-oh. The Miners have lost three starters from the secondary. And the lone returner, 6-2, 200-pound senior SS Richard Spencer is making his way back from a serious ACL injury. It's a good thing that Spencer received an additional year from the NCAA, because he's one of the top all-around defenders on the squad. His combination of size and speed could project well to the NFL, provided he has no medical setbacks. The hard-hitting and rangy Spencer had a team-high 36 stops, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in only four games.
Free safety is likely to be manned by sophomore Demarcus Kizzie, a second-year Miner who earned a letter last year. He appeared in all but one game, making 13 tackles on defense and special teams. Active yet undersized at 5-9 and 180 pounds, he plays the game bigger than his diminutive frame.
Cornerback is liable to be a four-letter word around El Paso now that Drew Thomas and Darren Woodard have departed. Junior Nick Gathrite was added earlier this year from Riverside (Calif.) Community College, yet he's already climbed to the top of the depth chart. At only 5-9 and 170 pounds, he'll have to get stronger to handle the rigors of playing at a higher level of competition.
The veteran among the corners is going to be 5-11, 190-pound junior Adrian James. However, he hasn't played much on defense since arriving in 2010. He was, though, a special teams captain last fall before suffering an ankle injury and a concussion that limited him to two games. James got the year back from the NCAA and still has two years of eligibility left.
In an effort to beef up the team's depth at cornerback, 5-11, 185-pound sophomore Ishmael Harrison has changed sides of the line. In his debut, he was a wide receiver, catching four balls for 72 yards. This year, he'll be looking to prevent completions as the backup to James.
The program likes what5-9, 185-pound junior Wesley Miller brings from off the bench. He's a versatile and assertive defender currently backing up Spencer at strong safety. Despite starting just a couple of games when nickel packages were employed, he still managed to make 34 tackles, recover three fumbles and break up five throws.
Watch Out For .... the health of Spencer's knee. He's easily one of the most important Miners on this year's team, but he'll fall far short of his potential if he's less than 100%. When the senior is on, he's a dynamic all-around player whose fingerprints will be all over the opposing team.
Strength: Physicality. Now that Spencer is running again, UTEP expects to flood the secondary with feisty playmakers who jump routes and attempt to strip balls. One of the rare silver linings of being a Miner defensive back is that, like or not, you get plenty of chances to dish out punishment.
Weakness: Uncertainty at corner. The Miners ranked No. 77 in the country in pass efficiency D … when veterans were littered throughout the secondary. Now that three starters are gone, and a pair of untested cornerbacks are about to be broken in, the only direction is south for the rebuilding unit.
Outlook: After largely overachieving in pass defense in recent years, UTEP looks as if it'll be in reboot mode in 2013. The return of Spencer is huge. He's a cut above the rest of the defensive backs and a possible future pro. However, the drop-off after No.24 is steep, with a particular concern brewing at cornerback.
UTEP is facing a crisis situation on special teams that should not be underestimated. All-Conference USA P Ian Campbell has graduated, and PK Steven Valadez was dismissed from the program in April. The Miners will have no scholarship players at either position until August. It's a good thing that lightly-recruited Jay Mattox of Las Vegas was signed in February, because he'll be asked to contribute immediately to the kicking game.
The star of special teams will once again be 6-0, 190-pound speedster Autrey Golden who enjoyed an auspicious debut as a Miner. The exciting kick returner took a pair back for touchdowns, while ranking No. 11 nationally at a clip of more than 28 yards per attempt.
Watch Out For… the identity of a punter to surface. Might it be Mattox, who was recruited as a kicker, but has a leg strong enough to handle double-duty? No one knows for certain, a precarious situation with the season right around the corner.
Strength: Golden … and not just because he's surrounded by so much uncertainty. No, the sophomore is a dynamic playmaker in the open field, with the burst of speed to leave defenders hopelessly looking at the back of his jersey.
Weakness: Uncertainty. There's a cloud of ambiguity hanging over the head of the special teams unit, the natural byproduct of having neither a kicker nor a punter with any experience at this level. Mattox has yet to step foot on the Miners' practice field, yet he's already being counted on to be one of the fixtures of this group.
Outlook: UTEP is going to lose a game or two this fall simply because of the erratic nature of the special teams unit. Golden is an exciting playmaker who'll provide instant boosts of ideal field position to the offense. However, kicker and punter are vast unknown regions that are bound to be full of surprises once games start being played.
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