2008 UTEP Preview - Defense

Posted May 20, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - UTEP Miner Defense

UTEP Miners

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 UTEP Preview | 2008 UTEP Offense
2008 UTEP Defense | 2008 UTEP Depth Chart
- 2007 UTEP Preview | 2006 CFN UTEP Preview 

What you need to know:
UTEP was 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.      

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, 93
Sacks: Anthony Morrow, 2
Interceptions: Cornelius Brown, 4

Star of the defense: 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 Royzell Smith
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 defense, takeaways
Weakness of the defense: Getting pressure, pass defense

Defensive Line

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 situations.                
Rating: 4.5


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 season.

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 athleticism.

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.                           
Rating: 5


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.
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

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 against Houston.

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 strength.

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 punters.                   
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 kickoffs.       
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.        
Rating: 6.5