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2009 UTEP Preview - Defense
UTEP CB Cornelius Brown
UTEP CB Cornelius Brown
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jul 18, 2009


CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - UTEP Miner Defense

UTEP Miners

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 UTEP Preview | 2009 UTEP Offense
- 2009 UTEP Defense | 2009 UTEP Depth Chart

- 2008 UTEP Preview | 2007 UTEP Preview | 2006 UTEP Preview 


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.      

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: 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 teams.

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 in 2009.
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.
Rating: 4.5

Linebackers

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 plays.

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 opponents.  
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.
Rating: 4.5

Secondary

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 stops.

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.
Strength: Tackling. 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.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

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 August.

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 64-yarder.
Rating: 4.5

  

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