2007 UTEP Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 24, 2007

Preview 2007 UTEP Miner Defense

UTEP Miners

Preview 2007 - Defense

2007 UTEP Preview | 2007 UTEP Offense Preview
2007 UTEP Depth Chart | 2006 CFN UTEP Preview 

What you need to know:
The Miners melted down over the second half of last season and needs to be far more productive with nine starters returning. Don't expect miracles, but unlike previous years, the D should be better as the season goes on. The defense was miserable last season despite getting a consistent pass rush from the front seven. Now the whole line needs to find replacements while the linebacking corps has to hope for Jeremy Jones to be healthy after a knee injury. The secondary should be a strength after a rough year with safeties Quintin Demps and Braxton Amy potential all-stars, while Josh Ferguson is a solid corner.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Quintin Demps, 67
Sacks: Jeremy Jones, 1
Interceptions: Quintin Demps, Joe Fleskoski, 3

Star of the defense: Senior FS Quintin Demps
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE Dane O'Neill
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore SS Braxton Amy
Best pro prospect: Demps
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Demps, 2) LB Jeremy Jones, 3) CB Josh Ferguson
Strength of the defense: Safety
Weakness of the defense:
Defensive line

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: After enjoying stability and continuity for the last three years, the UTEP defensive line will be enduring an extreme makeover in 2007 as four starters will be replaced.  The Miners were 87th nationally against the run last year.  How will they fare with a roster that includes seven of 11 linemen that have never played a Division I game? A lot depends on how quickly three junior college transfers will adapt to the speed of the game.  The veteran of the group is junior James Olalekan who’s played a fair amount of football in El Paso and is ready to be the unit’s leader.  He’s played in 23 games the last two years, making him, far and away, the program’s most experienced lineman.  Olalekan will be joined on the inside by sophomore Steve Riddick, a 5-11, 280-pound bowling ball that’ll use his leverage this fall to get penetration.  A part-time player in 2006, he secured the right tackle job with his motor and disruptive play throughout the spring.  For the time being, sophomore Dane O’Neill and redshirt freshman Robert Soleyjacks are the starting ends, but both will be vulnerable to any teammate that can pressure the quarterback.  Built like an outside linebacker, O’Neill will use his speed and quick first step to try and ignite the Miner pass rush.  A former running back in high school, Soleyjacks is a bigger end option at 255 pounds with the athleticism to develop into a playmaker.         

Projected Top Reserves: Because there are so many newcomers here, hope resides on the second unit.  JUCO transfer Charles Ofili, JaBoy Leomiti and Jason Boyce were all recruited with the express intent of playing right away and bolstering a line that was ravaged by graduations.  Quicker than he is fast, Ofili had 28 tackles and four sacks as New Mexico Military Institute’s top run-stuffing tackle in 2006.  Leomiti is a smaller, faster tackle who mostly played on the outside for Fullerton College and looked ready for a promotion in April.  A two-year starter at Mt. San Jacinto (Calif.) Community College, Boyce needs to show that last year’s 17 quarterback pressures, eight sacks and three forced fumbles were not just a product of his competition.  The opportunity is there to win a starting job, or at least be the first end off the bench.
Watch Out For… at least one of the junior college transfers to break into the starting at some point during the year.  The trio of linemen were not recruited to stand on the sidelines, and the current starters have hardly padlocked their spots on the depth chart.
Strength: 2008.  Although, it’s a reach finding a strength on this unit, it should be a whole lot more competitive next fall.  There’s not a senior in the mix, and the JUCOs and redshirt freshmen, such as Will Osolinsky and Elijah Goldtrap, will benefit tremendously from a year of work.
Weakness: Talent.  It’s sort of obvious, but this group is young, undersized and lacking proven players that can collapse a pocket or consistently clog up one of the running lanes.
Outlook: While it won’t surprise if one player steps up and has a borderline all-league year, that won’t be nearly enough to help a line that’s woefully short-handed for 2007.  UTEP opponents will get little resistance running on the Miners or controlling the line of scrimmage.               
Rating: 4.5


Projected Starters: The sting of losing leading tackler Troy Collavo to graduation is lessened by the return of senior Jeremy Jones, a Butkus Award candidate before breaking his leg last September.  A highly instinctive defender from the weakside, he rose to prominence in 2005 with 130 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.  The leader of this defense, Jones might also lead the nation in tackles considering how little help he’s going to get from the revamped defensive line.  UTEP’s penchant for attracting quality players from the Pac-10 continues in the form of new middle linebacker Adam Vincent.  When we last saw the junior, he was collecting six solo tackles in the Insight Bowl as a member of Arizona State.  A nice sized player at 6-3 and 245 pounds, Vincent will pay dividends right away in a less competitive conference.  Although he plays on the strongside, senior Emeri Spence is the fastest of the Miner linebackers.  At 6-0 and 225 pounds, he’s a hard-hitting converted safety who was sixth on the team last year with 58 tackles and five behind the line of scrimmage.   
Projected Top Reserves: Behind Jones at weakside will be Torrey Huckaby, another JUCO transfer who’s pining to make the most of his only year of eligibility with the Miners.  A terrific athlete coming off a fine spring, he’ll be used off the edge when UTEP looks to blitz the quarterback.  In the middle, sophomore Brian Wilkins is the team’s most experienced reserve.  As a freshman, he played in all 12 games, picking up 15 tackles, and will push for a starting job if Vincent disappoints.  

Watch Out For… a smooth rebound from Jones after missing ten games in 2006.  He’s healthy, motivated and poised for a monumental final season as the main man cleaning up messes on a rebuilt Miner D.
Strength: Tackling.  With Jones as the catalyst and Vincent ready to follow his example, the Miners aren’t going to miss many tackle opportunities that get past the first line of defense.
: Speed.  Spence has good straight line speed, but this is not a collection of blazers which could cause match up problems when it’s forced to defend in pass coverage.
Outlook: If, as expected, Vincent quickly assimilates to his new surroundings, this group has the potential to be the most prolific on either side of the ball.  The key will be to stay healthy because there’s a considerable drop-off on the B team.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: The Miners were 106th in the country in pass defense last year so losing three players with starting experience may not hurt that bad.  One player that is back, however, is senior free safety Quintin Demps, an All-America candidate and one of the best kept defensive secrets outside the major conferences.  A terrific playmaker that reads quarterbacks extremely well, he had 67 tackles in 2006 and led Conference USA with seven interceptions.  Demps will be joined in the secondary by sophomore Braxton Amy, who’s returning to his familiar strong safety spot after earning Freshman All-America honors last year playing weakside linebacker.  A vicious hitter in run support, he now needs to prove he can cover receivers equally well.  Manning the corners will be a couple of seniors, Josh Ferguson and Tim McCullough.  Undersized at 5-9 and 180 pounds, Ferguson isn’t afraid to support in run defense and will be entering his third season as a starter.  McCullough is a little bigger and a little stronger after red shirting last season.  As a junior in 2005, the ball hawk played in 12 games, predominantly on special teams.  

Projected Top Reserves: McCullough is going to be pushed hard at one corner by sophomore Cornelius Brown who impressed as a true freshman, playing in 12 games and leading the team with three fumble recoveries.  Like Brown, Melvin Stephenson lettered as a true freshman and will challenge for more playing time when practice resumes this summer.  After doing all of his work on special teams in 2006, he’ll play a much more prominent role in the secondary in 2007.  Sophomore strong safety Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith is a big hitter at 6-2 and 205 pounds who collected 21 tackles in his first action with the Miners.  A lot is expected of junior free safety Roddray Walker, a coveted transfer from New Mexico Military Institute.  He’s a 6-1, 210-pound thumper with the ball skills of a seasoned cornerback.    
Watch Out For… more ugly defensive statistics, even if the secondary makes collective strides in 2007.  Without any help from the pass rush, this group will get picked apart by some of the league’s better downfield passers.
Strength: Ball skills.  Led by Demps, the Miner secondary does a great job of getting to the ball, tipping it in the air and pulling it down like a receiver for a turnover.
Weakness: Pass coverage.  Regardless of how much support they get, it’s no accident when a defense allows 18 touchdown passes and more than 240 yards a game through the air.  If nothing else, the Miners must limit the number of long balls it gives up in 2007 for the rest of the defense to stand a chance.
Outlook: Demps is a star, but the rest of his defensive mates won’t hold up well in the face of constant pressure and quarterbacks that routinely have five or six seconds to locate an open man.             
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The Miners plan to spend more time preparing their special teams unit this off-season after a miserable year.  The group was a below average, and now must replace its kicker, punter and top return man, Johnnie Lee Higgins.  Filling Reagan Schneider’s shoes at placekicker will be Jose Martinez, a junior that last kicked at Bakersfield (Calif.) College two years and is recovering from February ACL surgery.  In junior college, he displayed good accuracy and a powerful leg on kickoffs.  At punter, the only direction is up after Ryan Hotchkiss averaged just over 36 yards a punt last year.  The wraps will come off redshirt freshman Kyle Peterson who was one of the West Coast’s premier punters in 2006.  In his first spring with the Miners, he showed off a huge leg and good hang time to win the starting job.  The graduation of Higgins leaves a gaping hole in the return game, especially on the punt team where he was a game-breaker.  Seniors Quintin Demps and Josh Ferguson will step in to pick up some of the special teams slack.  Both actually had higher averages than Higgins on kickoffs in 2006, with Demps taking one back 91 yards for a touchdown.                                                       

Projected Top Reserves: Unless Peterson proves he can effectively kick as well as punt, Martinez will run unopposed this fall so he has to be healthy and consistent.  Peterson’s competition will come from 6-5 sophomore Greg Hiett who struggled in the spring with his distance.              

Watch Out For…: the situation at kicker.  If Martinez is slow to recover from recover from his knee surgery, the Miners will be soliciting the student body for former soccer players and high school placekickers.
Strength: Peterson.  He hasn’t punted a single ball at this level, yet Peterson has the 6-4 frame and explosive leg to really assist a Miner D that needs all the field position help it can get.
Weakness: Kick coverage and returns.  After averaging only 18.6 yards a return in 2006 and allowing 22.6, this area of special teams has been a major point of emphasis for coordinator Derrick Roche.
Outlook: If Martinez and Peterson fulfill their potential, the Miner special teams has a chance to be better than average.  If not, there’ll be added pressure put on an offense and defense that already have enough hurdles to overcome.       
Rating: 5


Related Stories
2007 UTEP Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 24, 2007
2007 UTEP Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 24, 2007
2007 UTEP Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 24, 2007

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