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2008 UTEP Preview - Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - UTEP Miner Defense
Preview 2008 - Defense
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What you need to know:
gutted for at least 45 points six different times in 2007,
closing the year in tatters for the third straight season. Price
shook up his staff in the offseason and signed some quick fixes
out of the junior college ranks, but there’s no easy solution
for a unit that was routinely pushed around. New coordinator
Osia Lewis brings from New Mexico a 3-3-5 set that uses three
hybrid safeties and attacks from different spots on the field.
The Miners have been especially repugnant in pass defense,
yielding more than 300 yards a game, but do have some building
blocks for Lewis to call a foundation. Safety Da’Mon Cromartie
Smith and CB Cornelius Brown earned honorable mention
All-Conference USA recognition as sophomores.
Anthony Morrow, 2
Interceptions: Cornelius Brown, 4
Star of the
Junior S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith
Player who has to step up and become a star:
Sophomore miner Anthony Morrow
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman LB
Best pro prospect: Senior LB Adam Vincent
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Cromartie-Smith,
2) Vincent, 3) Junior CB Cornelius Brown
Strength of the defense: The middle of the
Weakness of the defense: Getting pressure, pass defense
Projected Starters: UTEP was forced to rebuild the
entire defensive line last year. It showed. The front four was
virtually useless, doing little to stop the run or pressure the
passer. Now a front three in the new defensive scheme, the
results aren’t likely to be much better. At the nose will be
junior Steve Riddick, a 5-11, 275-pound fire hydrant who
logged seven starts a year ago. He had 29 tackles, three tackles
for loss, and 1.5 sacks, flashing the quickness and leverage to
be an effective run stuffer.
On the outside will be 6-2, 270-pound senior James Olalekan
and 6-2, 250-pound sophomore Robert Soleyjacks.
Olalekan is moving from tackle, where he started 11 games and
made 24 tackles. He’s never showed much of a knack for getting
to the quarterback, a trend that’ll have to change now that he’s
lining up at defensive end.
Soleyjacks started all 12 games as a freshman, making 16
tackles, two tackles for loss, and just a single sack. A running
back in high school, he has the requisite speed and athleticism
to be a factor, but needs to do a better job of fighting through
blocks and getting to the quarterback.
Projected Top Reserves: One of the more intriguing
reserves at defensive end is junior Brandis Dew, a former
quarterback who has beefed up to 6-5 and 290 pounds. His first
season on defense was a success, notching 13 tackles, four
tackles for loss, and a sack. He has the size and upper body
strength to be a force as a run stuffer from the outside.
Pushing Soleyjacks for a starting job is senior Ja-Boy
Leomiti, who started six games and had 16 tackles in his
first year out of Fullerton (Calif.) College. He’s 6-3 and 275
pounds, a tackle-sized end who’s capable of playing inside or
out on the line.
At 6-4 and 295 pounds, sophomore Craig Wood is a much
bigger, stronger option at the nose than Riddick, but that
wasn’t enough to win the job in the spring. Still, he has a
great future in El Paso after being one of just two true
freshmen to play in 2007, appearing in the final nine games and
making 12 stops and 2.5 tackles for loss.
Watch Out For… the line to get abused at the point
of attack for a second straight year. The cast is the same, so
why should the results be any different?
Strength: The nose. Riddick isn’t very big, but
he’s disruptive and his motor never stops. His caddy, Wood, will
be the headliner of this unit in another year or two.
Weakness: The pass rush. Few teams in the country
were more inept at getting to the passer than UTEP, which didn’t
have a single lineman produce more than a single sack. Unless
someone, like JUCO transfer Aaron King, suddenly morphs
into an edge rushing terror, opposing passers will have all day
to throw again in 2008.
Outlook: Although a bunch of lettermen return from
last year, that’s hardly cause for optimism. The Miners lack the
manpower up front to control the line of scrimmage or create
even a hint of pressure. The result is a need for more blitzes
and a secondary that’s incapable of handling too many one-on-one
Projected Starters: Now that Jeremy Jones has
graduated, the new leader at linebacker is 6-3, 240-pound senior
Adam Vincent, a solid run defender from the middle. In
his first season since transferring from Arizona State, he was
fourth on the team with 75 tackles, adding 4.5 tackles for loss,
and a sack. An honorable mention All-Conference USA selection,
he’ll have an opportunity for even bigger accolades in his final
At left outside linebacker will be 6-1, 225-pound senior
Nuuese Punimata, a former junior college transfer who played
in 12 games, accumulating 24 tackles, two tackles for loss, a
sack, and two interceptions. While not very big, he has
sideline-to-sideline range and is an asset in pass coverage.
The surprise of the unit has been 6-1, 210-pound redshirt
freshman Royzell Smith, who has soared up the depth chart
and exited spring with a tentative starting job. The fastest of
the linebackers and a former safety, he fits in well with a new
system that asks its linebackers to fly all over the field and
wreak havoc on the blitz.
Projected Top Reserves: Directly behind Smith on
the outside is 6-2, 235-pound junior Brian Wilkins, a
versatile and experienced defender with a letter in each of the
last two seasons. A former top quarterback in high school, he’s
grown into a salty run stopper without losing much of his
Sophomore Isaiah Carter will learn behind Vincent for one
more season before taking over in the middle in 2009. One of
just two freshmen to play a year ago, he appeared in all 12
games and had 13 tackles. An outstanding athlete at 6-2 and 210
pounds, he has an all-star ceiling once he adds more weight and
earns more playing time.
Watch Out For… Smith. He might not be a perfect
match for every school, but in El Paso, Smith has the skill set
to be an instant hit. He’s fast, aggressive, and capable of
making plays all over the field.
Strength: Range. Over the course of the last year,
UTEP has dramatically upgraded its linebacker speed, recruiting
and promoting the likes of Punimata, Smith, and Carter, who all
have outstanding range and lateral quickness.
Weakness: Star power. Jones had it by Miner
standards, but he’s out of eligibility. While Vincent is a
quality linebacker, he’s surrounded by a bunch of linebackers
who are young and very light on experience.
Outlook: The linebackers are serviceable for now,
but could be much better if Smith and Carter grow up quickly and
flourish in the new system. While they’re the future at the
position, Vincent should rack up 100 tackles and be one of the
new leaders on defense.
Projected Starters: Junior Braxton Amy led
the team in tackles and was going to be the star of the
secondary before tearing his ACL in the spring, a massive blow
to the defense. Replacing him at Miner, a safety-linebacker
hybrid, will be 6-0, 205-pound sophomore Anthony Morrow,
who had been a backup safety. A big hitter and a member of the
Conference USA All-Freshman team, he played extensively in his
first season, collecting 31 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and
two sacks. While he won’t be Amy, he’s shown enough toughness to
make stops for the Miners.
The other huge loss is the graduation of FS Quintin Demps, one
of the best defensive backs in the league. In his place steps
6-1, 210-pound senior Roddray Walker, a coveted transfer
from New Mexico Military Institute, who played sparingly in
eight games last year. A nice blend of thump and cover skills,
he needs to quickly turn all of his raw potential into
production on the field.
The third safety in this system will be 6-2, 205-pound junior
Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, a complete all-around defensive back
coming off a breakthrough season. He has the size to really pack
a punch, yet also has the hips and cover skills to be solid in
pass defense. In his first season as a starter, he produced 93
tackles, three tackles for loss, two picks, and seven pass
breakups. With Amy out for the year, he should become the focal
of the secondary.
UTEP welcomes senior CB Josh Ferguson, who missed all but
three games a year ago after suffering a shoulder injury. A
third-year starter with excellent speed, he received honorable
mention all-conference recognition in his last full season in El
Paso, making 58 tackles and breaking up six passes. Like most of
his teammates, he has too many lapses in coverage, and at 5-9
and 185 pounds is vulnerable against bigger receivers.
Junior CB Cornelius Brown entered the starting lineup in
Week 2 and never left. A 5-11, 200-pound playmaker with 4.4
speed, he had 46 tackles, three tackles for loss, four
interceptions, and a team-high nine breakups. In two years, he
already has four fumble recoveries, an indication of his knack
for big plays and nose for the ball.
Projected Top Reserves: Brown will be backed up at
cornerback by 5-10, 180-pound Melvin Stephenson, who
started the first three games of 2007, failing to keep the job.
The speedy junior still wound up being an important part of the
rotation, making 29 tackles and playing on special teams.
Redshirt freshman Austin Contreras was the one safety
that really made a move in the spring, rising into the two-deep
behind Cromartie-Smith. While only 5-10 and 190 pounds, the
former high school quarterback showed good range and a
willingness to press up and support the run.
Watch Out For… JUCO CB Clarence Ward. If
UTEP can get out of Ward what Florida State and Texas Tech
didn’t, it’ll have a sleeper at a need position. The talent is
there, but the clock is ticking for a player who has yet to even
approach his full potential.
Strength: Creating turnovers. Even without Demps
and Amy, the Miners will continue doing a nice job of batting
balls into the air and forcing fumbles. First and foremost,
they’re a bunch of good athletes who can make plays.
Weakness: Pass coverage. This has been a recurring
nightmare for years for the program. The Miners were 117th
nationally against the pass, yielding 29 touchdown passes and
more than 300 yards a game.
Outlook: The Miners were a sieve last year, when
Demps and Amy were available. Without them, or much help from
the pass rush, they’ll be picked apart again in a league
becoming increasingly reliant on wide-open passing attacks.
Projected Starters: Senior PK Jose Martinez
was a shining example of how junior college transfers have
bolstered the program over the years. In his first season of
action since leaving Bakersfield (Calif.) College, he shook off
ACL surgery to become an All-Conference USA first teamer and a
Groza Award finalist. Virtually automatic, he connected on
17-of-20 field goal attempts, including a 57-yard missile
The situation isn’t so secure at punter, however, where the
inconsistency of sophomore Kyle Petersen has opened the
door for junior Greg Hiett to mount a challenge in the
spring and summer. Peterson averaged just over 40 yards, dipping
much lower in league games.
Hiett appeared in three games last year, punting six times for a
42.8-yard average. He caught up with Peterson in the spring,
creating a dead heat heading into August. Both punters have the
size and the leg strength to turn this concern into a unit
Last year, the Miners had to replace elite return man Johnnie
Lee Higgins. This year’s task will be to find successors for
Quentin Demps and Fred Rouse. Senior Josh Ferguson and
junior Jeff Moturi are the primary candidates being
considered on kickoffs and punts, respectively.
Watch Out For… the battle at punter. The Miner
defense needs all the support it can get, so the competition
between Petersen and Hiett better bring out the best in both
Strength: Martinez. Had Martinez not delivered
last year, UTEP would have been forced to scour the student body
and soccer team for a placekicker. He delivered and then some,
blossoming into one of the nation’s top kickers and an asset on
Weakness: The return game. Higgins and Demps were
two of the best in the land the last two years, creating a large
void for Ferguson and Moturi to fill. Ferguson wasn’t even the
top choice for kickoffs until after Jason Williams was
lost for the year with an ankle injury.
Outlook: While Martinez is a fantastic starting
point, he’s going to need help for UTEP to claim it houses
Conference USA’s top special teams unit. The punters, in
particular, have to begin turning all of that size and leg pop
into consistent results on Saturday nights.