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2007 UTEP Preview - Offense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jul 24, 2007


Preview 2007 UTEP Miner Offense

UTEP Miners

Preview 2007 - Miner Offense


- 2007 UTEP Preview | 2007 UTEP Defense Preview
-
2007 UTEP Depth Chart | 2006 CFN UTEP Preview 


What you need to know:
The offense continued to be one-sided finishing fifth in the nation in passing and 116th in rushing, and now things will make a shift back the other way, although not necessarily for the positive. A battle for the quarterback job will continue until the fall, but the running game should be set with Marcus Thomas ready to break out as one of Conference USA's best backs. However, he needs room to move behind a line that has to be night-and-day better than last year when it struggled to pound away.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Kyle Wright
6-9, 91 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Marcus Thomas
156 carries, 513 yds, 5 TD
Receiving: Marcus Thomas
39 catches, 242 yds, 1 TD

Star of the offense: Senior RB Marcus Thomas
Player that has to step up and become a star: Any of the five quarterback options
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore OT Mike Aguayo
Best pro prospect: Sophomore WR Fred Rouse
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Thomas, 2) C Robby Felix, 3) OT Tyler Ribitzki
Strength of the offense: Deep backfield, options at receiver and quarterback
Weakness of the offense:
Proven quarterback, offensive line

Quarterbacks

Projected Starter: The contest to replace all-time leading passer Jordan Palmer has an American Idol feel with nearly as many eager participants.  No fewer than five Miner quarterbacks got reps during the spring in a wide-open audition that won’t have a winner until sometime in August.  It’s an eclectic bunch that features youth and upperclassmen, pocket passers and dual-threats.  If there was a pecking order established in April, Mike Price wasn’t letting on what it looked like.  One thing that became increasingly obvious was that the coach loves the future of redshirt freshman Trevor Vittatoe who’s helped himself more than anyone in the off-season.  A confident kid that’s picked up the offense quickly, he has a strong arm and the quick feet to escape pressure.  If he can continue building on a strong year with the scout team, he’ll be handed the keys to the offense in time for the opener with New Mexico. 

Vittatoe’s stiffest competition is likely to come from senior Lorne Sam and sophomore Brandis Dew, a couple of polar opposites behind center.  A former Florida State transfer, Sam might be the team’s best all-around athlete.  At 6-3 and 215 pounds, he was a dangerous weapon running the zone draw last fall, however, his passing skills are still somewhat raw.  Purely in terms of size and arm strength, Dew is the second coming of JaMarcus Russell, but he’s been dogged by shoulder problems for years and needs to prove that the rifle is fully operational.                        

Projected Top Reserves: If Sam doesn’t win the quarterback job, he’ll move over to wide receiver where he’ll start.  The battle for the No. 2 spot will include sophomores Kyle Wright and James Thomas.  A former walk-on at the school, Wright plays with a lot of intensity and confidence, despite being only 6-1 and 195 pounds and not possessing a cannon.  Just 5-11 and 190 pounds, Thomas is very dangerous on the move, making him a strong candidate to relocate to one of the skill positions if he winds up being buried on the depth chart.

Watch Out For ... Vittatoe to do for UTEP what Justin Willis did for SMU as a freshman in 2006.  He’s got the composure and magnetic personality coaches look for in a quarterback which is why the Miners are quietly hoping he’ll pull away and evolve into one of the offensive leaders.
Strength: Versatility.  UTEP has a couple of pocket passers in Vittatoe and Dew and athletes, such as Sam and Thomas, that are capable of taking direct snaps and slicing through a defense.  There may be no Palmer, but there is a nice mix of talent which the staff will use to keep defenses off balance.
Weakness: Experience.  Five Miner quarterbacks have thrown just a handful of career passes between them.  Palmer was such a fixture the last four years, the program failed to get any relevant snaps for one of the backups which could backfire in 2007.
Outlook: Although you don’t get better by losing a four-year starter, UTEP still feels pretty good about its situation at quarterback.  It might even be an exciting year for Miner fans if a quarterback of the future emerges from the masses.
Rating: 6

Running Backs

Projected Starters: Breaking in a new starting quarterback has the Miners thinking they’ll depend a little bit more on the run than in recent years.  They’ve got a nice stable of backs to lean on, but can the offensive line cooperate and open more holes? UTEP was 116th nationally in rushing a year ago, largely because of an interior that just wasn’t physical enough on running plays.  Back for his third year as a starter, Marcus Thomas has the ideal blend of size, speed and soft hands to explode in his senior, but only if he’s not absorbing first contact shortly after taking a handoff.  In 2006, the 6-1, 215-pound sprinter averaged just 3.3 yards a carry and 6.2 yards on 39 receptions, far below his potential as a feature back.        

Projected Top Reserves: Providing support and breathers to Thomas will be sophomore Donald Buckram and junior Terrell Jackson.  One of the prizes of the 2006 recruiting class, Buckram provides a complimentary burst of speed in a 5-10, 180-pound frame.  Also a member of the Miner track team, he ditched a redshirt last year, displaying his open field explosiveness on an 80-yard touchdown on a screen pass versus UAB. 

Jackson is an Oregon transfer that’s drawing comparisons to Tyler Ebell, another Pac-10 import that revived his career in El Paso.  While only 5-9 and 195 pounds, the former Prep All-America and premier recruit runs with surprising power and reads the hole instinctively well.

Watch Out For…: a more even distribution of carries this season.  Thomas is still the main man in the running game, but Buckram and Jackson are just too talented to be relegated to mop-up duty late in one-sided games.
Strength: Depth. This year’s Miner offense has three backs capable of carrying the load, a significant improvement in depth and quality compared to the last two seasons.
Weakness: Big-play ability.  It sure wasn’t all the backs’ fault, but UTEP’s longest run from scrimmage last year was just 42 yards…and that came from quarterback Jordan Palmer.  The Miners need to hit an occasional homerun in 2007 which is where Buckram and Jackson enter the business plan.
Outlook: For the first time in a long time, the backs have a chance to be the stars of this program.  While Thomas has 1,000-yard potential between the tackles, Buckram and Jackson will make plays in space as runners and pass-catchers. 
Rating: 6.5

Receivers

Projected Starters: Although three of last year’s top pass-catchers have graduated, including all-time great Johnnie Lee Higgins, there’s still a lot to like about the next wave of Miner receivers.  A nice complement to Higgins last year, senior Joe West must now evolve into the program’s go-to guy for whichever quarterback is behind center.  A physical, 6-2 and 210-pound receiver, he hauled in 27 balls in 2006 for 496 yards, three scores and a whopping average of more than 18 yards a catch. 

West will be joined by sophomore Jeff Moturi who blew up this spring to solidify a spot in the starting lineup.  A lightning quick athlete that catches everything near him, he’ll help soften the blow of losing last year’s No. 2 receiver, Daniel Robinson. 

If senior Lorne Sam doesn’t get the nod at quarterback, he’ll instantly become the third starter as an outside receiver, a testament to his overall athletic skill set.  At 6-3 and 215 pounds, with great leaping ability, he’ll give fits to opposing defensive backs provided he’s allowed to develop his route running and ball skills at the position. 

The return of senior Jake Sears helps give UTEP one of the league’s best collections of tight ends.  At 6-3 and 255 pounds, he’s a capable blocker at the point of attack who also pitched in with 17 catches for 173 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season.           

Projected Top Reserves: Two years ago, every major school from USC to Florida State wanted Fred Rouse.  Today, he’s a UTEP Miner with three years of eligibility remaining.  Yes, there were transgressions that got him exiled from Tallahassee, but the pure talent is well beyond what they’re used to in El Paso.  If Mike Price and his staff can extract all of the boundless ability out of this 6-3 dynamo with 4.4 speed, they could have a poor man’s Randy Moss and one of the recruiting steals of the century. 

Sophomore Tufick Shadrawy has the quickness and straight-ahead jets to give the offense a vertical dimension from the second unit.  Primarily a special teams player as a freshman, his role in the offense will increase markedly in 2007. 

The other half of the Miner tight end tandem is junior Jamar Hunt, the better pass catcher of the two.  At an imposing 6-7 and 250 pounds, he’s caught 48 passes the last two years, showing a knack for making tough grabs in traffic.                                    

Watch Out For…: more production from the tight ends as the young receivers develop within the offense.  Mike Price likes to use his big guys in the passing game, and has three, including redshirt freshman Jonny Moore, that can perform like oversized wideouts.
Strength: Athleticism.  From top to bottom, there’s not a possession receiver on this UTEP roster.  They’re all big, run well and can sky above defensive backs to pluck the ball out of the air.
Weakness: A proven game-breaker.  Higgins was such a threat to opposing defenses the last two years, he’d open things up for his teammates to make plays.  That caliber of weapon that can completely take a game over isn’t on this depth chart.
Outlook: If the new quarterback stumbles, it likely won’t have to do with his receivers.  This group has enormous upside, particularly if Sam is a part of it and Moturi and Rouse emerge as expected.
Rating: 6

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: If the Miner offense is going to click again in 2007, the offensive line absolutely, positively has to make a quantum leap, particularly in the ground game.  The unit was admittedly young a year ago, however, finishing 63rd nationally in sacks allowed and failing to have a 100-yard rusher for the first since 1992 are clear indictments of the line’s performance.  This year’s group will be built around junior center Robby Felix, a third-team all-Conference USA selection in 2006.  Very quick and heady at the pivot, he’s added 30 good pounds since becoming a Miner three years ago in order to handle the rigors of playing at this level. 

Junior tackle Tyler Ribitzki and senior guard James Riley bring experience to the right side of the line.  A nimble 6-5, 305-pound pass blocker, Ribitzki’s development in his second year as a starter was not lost on Conference USA coaches that recognized him as an honorable mention for all-league honors.  A veteran of 23 career starts and one of the line’s more physical blockers, Riley can also slide outside to tackle in an emergency.  He’s coming off ankle surgery, but should be ready cleared for contact when the Miners reconvene later this summer. 

The quarterback’s blind side will be protected this fall by sophomore Mike Aguayo who picked up four valuable starts as a freshman in 2006.  An athletic lineman with good hands, he still needs to get stronger and more physical as a run blocker. 

Sophomore Cameron Raschke had a tenuous hold on the left guard spot coming out of spring.  One of the line’s biggest members at 6-4 and 330 pounds, he’s still recovering from ACL surgery after injuring his knee in a game last October.

Projected Top Reserves: Because of a few injuries last year, the second unit has considerable experience to take into the upcoming season.  Senior tackle Oniel Cousins started eight games in 2006 and has the quick feet to wall off opposing edge rushers. 

On the left side, massive redshirt freshman tackle Alex Solot is really pushing Aguayo for the starting assignment.  Still somewhat raw, he has a 6-8, 330-pound frame that Miner coaches believe can eventually be molded into one of the league’s top lineman. 

At guard, the staff also feels pretty good about the futures of sophomores Colby Meek and Anthony McNac, both of whom will play prominent roles in the 2007 rotation.  While McNac earned four starts as a freshman last season, Meek got most of the snaps with the first unit this spring as Riley rested his ankle.

Watch Out For… plenty of rotation of the linemen in September as the staff tries to get the five best blockers on the field.  Felix aside, the gap between the first and second team is a narrow one, clearing the way for lots of healthy competition.
Strength: Pass blocking.  UTEP typically recruits finesse linemen with good feet and quickness to fit its pass-first offensive system.  Last year’s unit, which returns just about everyone, allowed just a sack every 18 passing attempts.
Weakness: Run blocking.  Over and over again last season, the Miner five got destroyed at the point of contact when the offense tried to establish a running game.  The line lacks strength and power, both of which need to be addressed in 2007.
 Outlook: Although the return of so many lettermen will help the development of the line, it’s still going to be a liability when the Miners look to establish a running attack.  Check back in 2008 when this group has a chance to be the best in the Mike Price era.                 
Rating: 5

 

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2007 UTEP Preview
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2007 UTEP Preview - Defense
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2007 UTEP Preview - Depth Chart
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