2009 UTEP Preview - Defense
UTEP CB Cornelius Brown
CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - UTEP Miner Defense
Preview 2009 - Defense
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What you need to know:
Coordinator Osia Lewis
was lured over from New Mexico, where his 3-3-5 defense was a
smashing success. Apparently, it’s going to take some time
before this unique system, which employs three hybrid safeties
and attacks from all over the field, gains a foothold in El
Paso. The Miners allowed at least 40 points in half of their
2008 games, finishing 115th
nationally in total defense. Yeah, they created some pressure
and unforced errors, but it wasn’t enough to plug the gaping
holes in run and pass defense. On the bright side, it’s a
veteran-laden group that’s littered with returning starters and
gets back all-star-caliber S Braxton Amy from an ACL tear.
There’s hope the 3-3-5 will function better in Lewis’ second
season on campus. It has to, or else UTEP is staring down the
barrel of another disappointing campaign.
Star of the
Junior S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith
Anthony Morrow, 2
Interceptions: Cornelius Brown, 4
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: While
two-thirds of the starting front line are back, UTEP hardly feels content about
the situation. The Miners need more production up front than they’ve gotten in
recent years. Back at the nose is 5-11, 275-pound senior
Steve Riddick, a relentless worker in the middle, who has started
games in each of the last two seasons. Using a good first step and excellent
leverage, he bulled his way to 32 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and
four quarterback hurries.
The other returning starter is 6-2, 250-pound junior DE
Robert Soleyjacks, a third-year starter and former high school
running back. The best all-around athlete among the linemen, he has the right
amount of speed and agility, but needs to get better at finishing plays. As a
sophomore, he notched 28 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and four fumble
recoveries, but failed to register a sack.
Soleyjacks’ new partner on the outside figures to be 6-4, 250 senior
Aaron King. As an 11-game reserve in
his first season removed from Bakersfield College, he chipped in 23 tackles,
four tackles for loss, and two sacks. He showed an ability to fight through
blocks and get penetration, a welcome sight for this group.
Projected Top Reserves: When
Riddick needs a breather, 6-3, 290-pound senior
Tory Robinson will be summoned from the bench. A bigger and stronger
option in the middle of the line, he played in ten games in his debut year out
of Southwestern College, making a dozen tackles and contributing on special
The staff is excited about the future of 6-2, 235-pound
Bernard Obi, a sophomore with a great first step and good overall
speed. He got his first taste of action as a situational rusher a year ago,
making 15 stops, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. He’s about to get a bigger
role on a defense that needs more playmakers up front.
Watch Out For… this line’s
struggles against the run to continue. The Miners have a decent amount of
quickness, but lack the girth and power to stand up to opponents that commit to
running the ball right at them.
Strength: The nose. While
Riddick lacks prototypical size, he can be pretty disruptive and his motor never
quits. Behind him, Robinson is a veteran player with the size and experience to
step into the lineup and contribute right away.
Weakness: Stuffing the run. No,
it’s not all the line’s fault, but when you allow 200 yards a game on the
ground, it’s a given that the front wall is getting shoved around. UTEP needs to
do a better job at the point of attack, or else you can bank on more of the same
Outlook: Not only was the Miner
defensive line manhandled throughout 2008, but five key lettermem are no longer
around to provide depth. Sure, Soleyjacks, King, and Obi provide hope for an
improved pass rush, but UTEP is still going to lose more battles in the trenches
than it wins this fall.
Projected Starters: In two
years, UTEP has parted ways with Jeremy Jones and Adam Vincent, leaving it with
a lack of star power at linebacker. Vincent was first team All-Conference USA
and the team’s leading tackler in 2008. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious
successor to the throne. The closest thing to a sure-thing to be in the starting
lineup is 6-1, 215-pound sophomore Royzell Smith, who played in seven games and started four in his
first season. An outside linebacker with the speed and range of a safety, he
laid a foundation with 25 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.
At the other outside spot, 6-0, 215-pound sophomore
Greg Holleman is making an impressive push for the start for the
first time in his career. A year ago, he earned a letter, playing in nine games
on defense and special teams, making 17 tackles. While undersized, he has great
wheels and the lateral quickness to be an asset on blitzes and in pass coverage.
On a defense that covets speed over size, he’s a nice fit.
In the middle, the Miners will be leaning on one of their veterans, 6-2,
245-pound senior Brian Wilkins. While
no all-star candidate, he’s a steady run stopper, who had 22 tackles a year ago
and has lettered in all three of his seasons in El Paso. More steady than
spectacular, his experience and sure-tackling will mean a spike in production in
this final season of eligibility.
Projected Top Reserves: Junior
Anthony Morrow may be in jeopardy of
losing his starting job, but he’s sure to have some role on the 2009 defense. A
gifted all-around playmaker at 6-0 and 205 pounds, he moves like a safety, yet
still sticks like a linebacker. A starter in all 12 games last fall, he had 44
tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, and a pick.
Junior Isaiah Carter will provide
insurance for Smith at one of the outside spots. The 6-2, 215-pounder played
well as a reserve in 10 games last season, making 29 tackles and getting in the
mix on special teams. Another outstanding athlete at linebacker, he’ll be asked
to freelance and make plays wherever they’re occurring.
The program had high hopes for 6-1, 215-pound senior
Roddray Walker, but he wound up missing all of 2008 with a shoulder
injury. And then in the offseason, the coaches decided to shift him from safety,
so his physicality and toughness could be on display, especially on running
Watch Out For… transfer
Justin Hickman. Defensive coordinator
Osia Lewis remembers Hickman from his days at New Mexico, and is thrilled to be
coaching him in El Paso. A 6-3, 230-pound transfer from College of DuPage, he
has as much upside as any of the current Miners.
Strength: Range. Over the
last couple of years, UTEP has dramatically upgraded its linebacker speed,
recruiting and promoting the likes of Smith, Holleman, and Carter, who all have
outstanding range and lateral quickness.
Weakness: Size. While this
group is small and quick by design, it has a tendency to get swallowed up by
physical players, especially when opposing linemen drift to the second line of
defense. In run defense, they lack the physicality to hold up against bigger
Outlook: If you’re going to opt
for speed over size at the position, the linebackers have to make more
game-changing plays, like sacks and takeaways, than they did a year ago. At the
very least, the unit had a leading man, like Jones and Vincent, the last two
seasons, respectively. Unless Hickman winds up being that guy in his first
debut, UTEP won’t have such a player in 2009.
Projected Starters: Although
the secondary is flush with veterans and returning starters, the staff remains
very concerned this unit. And for good reason. The pass defense has been a sieve
for years. The defensive backfield wasn’t done any favors when 6-0, 210-pound
junior S Braxton Amy tore his ACL
before the start of the season. A year earlier, he was one of the Miners’ most
impressive and versatile defenders, making a team-high 112 tackles, 3.5 tackles
for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, and five pass breakups. If he can
recapture that 2007 form, the last line of defense is already stronger than it
was last year.
At the all-important miner, a safety-linebacker hybrid, UTEP gets back 6-2,
210-pound senior Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith,
a real thumper with improving coverage skills. A member of the starting lineup
the last two seasons, he was second on the team with 77 tackles in 2008, adding
a couple of tackles for loss and a pair of picks. He thrives on contact, and
should be in a position to create more turnovers in his final season on campus.
The team’s top corner is 6-0, 200-pound senior
Cornelius Brown, a playmaker with 4.4 speed and two years of
experience as a starter. Named honorable mention All-Conference USA the last two
years, he had 29 tackles, a team-high three interceptions, and seven pass
breakups in 2008. Sure, he’s prone to getting burned at times, but he’ll
compensate by creating a takeaway or batting away a pass on third-and-long.
The other cornerback will be 5-10, 185-pound senior
Melvin Stephenson, who started three games in 2007 and seven in
2008, struggling to keep his job. He has good speed, but is vulnerable when the
ball is in the air, something that hasn’t been lost on opposing quarterbacks. He
had a career-high 38 tackles and five pass breakups as a junior.
The young upstart of the group is 6-0, 190-pound true freshman
DeShawn Grayson, who wasn’t eligible
a year ago, but has skyrocketed up the depth chart at safety. A terrific
all-around athlete and big hitter, he’s expected to have a considerable impact
in his first season of availability. If nothing else, he has a bright future
with the program.
Projected Top Reserves: It’s
taken a lot of time and plenty of frequent flyer miles, but 6-0, 190-pound
senior S Clarence Ward has finally
found a home at UTEP, where he’ll serve as a key backup. After stops at Florida
State, Texas Tech, and Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, he settled down in El
Paso, starting five games and making 31 tackles and two picks.
Until Amy shows he’s completely healthy, 6-0, 200-pound sophomore
Nick Sampson will get reps with the
first team. A terrific all-around athlete and one of the headliners of the 2008
recruiting class, he has the size and the speed that the program looks for in
its safeties. As a rookie last season, he played in nine games and made 19
Watch Out For… Amy’s progress.
If UTEP has any chance of being stingier in 2009, it needs a full complement of
bodies on the last line of defense. And that obviously includes Amy, who was on
his way to a monster season before getting hurt. The Miners want to see what the
secondary looks like when all of its best players are available.
Unfortunately, the defensive backfield gets plenty of experience making stops,
as too many plays get beyond the first two lines of defense. Actually, the
Miners are big and tough in the secondary, boasting a bunch of 200-pounders, who
can dish out the punishment.
Weakness: Coverage skills. New
year. Same old story. The Miners are plain awful when the ball is in the air,
finishing 114th in pass efficiency defense and allowing 34 touchdown
passes a year ago. Brown can cover, but as a group, these guys are going to lose
more battles than they win when it comes to pass defense.
Outlook: The Miner defensive
backs hit like linebackers. Unfortunately, they cover like them, too. If
everyone is healthy, there’s hope for improvement here, but a complete
turnaround is highly unlikely, especially when it comes to defending the pass.
Projected Starters: The Miners’
biggest special teams concern will be to find a replacement for all-star PK Jose
Martinez and his booming leg. The favorite coming out of spring was redshirt
freshman Logan Barrett, who was
heavily recruited coming out of high school. He was unavailable during the
spring, but will begin his quest to hold off sophomore
Mike Scott and redshirt freshman
Kevin Lopez when summer camp opens in
The battle at punter involving senior
Greg Hiett and junior Kyle Peterson
is even more intriguing. Both players are experienced, linebacker-sized, and
capable of handling the role. In fact, Peterson earned honorable mention
all-conference honors a year ago, averaging 43 yards a punt. However, his
consistency, or lack thereof, has allowed Hiett to draw even, pending summer
drills. Stay tuned.
Senior Jeff Moturi is likely to
handle both kickoff and punt returns, roles he handled with mixed results last
season. The Miners were 82nd and 87th, respectively, in
the two categories last year, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Watch Out For… the battle at
punter. The UTEP D needs all of the help it can muster, so the competition
between Petersen and Hiett better bring out the best in both punters. Sure,
Peterson averaged 43 yards a boot, but the Miners were still just seventh in the
league in net punting.
Strength: The long game.
Peterson and Hiett may be sporadic, but at an average of 6-4 and 235 pounds,
both can really put a dent in the ball. Barrett goes 6-1 and 175 pounds, and
when he was last kicking in high school, showed good range up to 50 yards.
Weakness: The return game. Boy,
does it seem like ages since Johnnie Lee Higgins and Quentin Demps were striking
fear into opposing special teams coaches. UTEP averaged just 6.8 yards on punts
and 20.4 yards on kickoffs, both significantly below their opponents’ averages.
Outlook: Decisions, decisions.
The Miners will have to decide on a kicker and a punter in August, two important
choices that’ll shape this year’s special teams unit. Barrett has big cleats to
fill, supplanting a kicker, who was first team All-Conference USA and nailed a
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