2010 UTEP Preview – Defense

Posted Aug 6, 2010

CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - UTEP Miner Defense

UTEP Miners

Preview 2010 - Defense

- 2010 UTEP Preview | 2010 UTEP Offense
- 2010 UTEP Defense | 2010 UTEP Depth Chart
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What You Need To Know: The hot potato that is the UTEP defense is now in the hands of former UNLV assistant Andre Patterson. The most noticeable change as he tries to solve one of the nation's feeblest units is a shift to a 4-3 base that'll require more depth and talent up front. While the Miners have potential on the outside, with ends Bernard Obi and Robert Soleyjacks, the tackles have no experience and little hope of plugging the holes in a run defense that allowed more than five yards a carry. The return of Jamie Irving from injury and Isaiah Carter from academics will help bolster a corps of linebackers that's deeper than at any point in the last few seasons. The secondary was fortunate to get back star S Braxton Amy back for one more year because the rest of the unit is unproven and about to get picked on regularly. With only four starters back from a group that gave up at least 30 points eight times, it's going to be a long year in El Paso.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Royzell Smith, 68
Sacks: Bernard Obi, 2
Interceptions: Braxton Amy, 5

Star of the defense: Senior SS Braxton Amy
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Travaun Nixon
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE Bernard Obi
Best pro prospect: Amy
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Amy, 2) Obi, 3) Senior DE Robert Soleyjacks
Strength of the defense: Athleticism, the safeties, depth at linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, pass defense, preventing big plays, red zone defense, getting to the quarterback

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: UTEP couldn't have more polar opposite situations on the defensive line. While the ends form a feisty pass-rushing tandem, the tackles are one enormous question mark. The veteran up front is 6-2, 260-pound senior Robert Soleyjacks, a fourth-year starter posturing for his best season as a Miner. A terrific all-around athlete, he was way too quiet last season, posting just 19 tackles, four stops for loss, and a sack. In fact, in his last 21 starts, he has just that single sack, which isn't going to cut it.

The rising star along the defensive line is 6-2, 240-pound end Bernard Obi, a junior about ready to take off. Using a quick first step and the closing speed of a linebacker, he provided a spark off the bench, making 28 tackles, five tackles for loss, and two sacks. In a leading role for the first time, he's capable of harassing quarterbacks and quickly emerging as one of the league's best edge rushers.

On the interior, the staff is holding its collective breath. The biggest of the contenders for a starting spot is 6-2, 290-pound junior Jamie Fehoko, the favorite at nose tackle. A former transfer from College of San Mateo (Calif.), he did not see any game action in his first year. Instead, he used last fall to get a little stronger and better acquainted with his new surroundings.

Although 6-1, 270-pound Germard Reed is only a redshirt freshman, he's already bucking for the other tackle job and is certain to be a part of the rotation. A former basketball player in high school, he has excellent quickness and is stronger than his size might indicate. Still, he has plenty to learn in his first season at this level.

Projected Top Reserves: Reed's primary competition is coming from 6-1, 275-pound sophomore Isaac Tauaefa, a slightly more experienced option at the position. He saw action in nine games, making three tackles and two stops for loss, and played a season at the junior college level. Not unlike his linemate, he trades ideal size for good quickness and upper body strength.

One of the building blocks of the future up front is redshirt freshman Adam Ayala. Although he'll back up Soleyjacks at defensive end, he has the potential to eventually grow bigger than all of the Miner tackles. Already 6-5 and 260 pounds, he gives a much-needed strongside presence to a program that needs his girth and strength in run defense.

Watch Out For .... Obi to quickly become the team's best pass rusher. Soleyjacks has had three years to make an impact, but has been quiet as a pass rusher. Obi has already shown more upside in one season as a reserve, and is on the brink of becoming a disruptive presence around tackle.
Strength: The ends. Not only do Obi and Soleyjacks combine to form an athletic and energetic tandem on the outside, but the young backups have plenty of upside as well. Ayala should be a starter in 2011, and 6-5, 220-pound sophomore Greg Watkins is a raw project, who's worth the time and effort.
Weakness: Run defense. With so much youth in the middle, it's hard to imagine the run D getting much help from the first line of defense. A perennial problem in El Paso, UTEP will struggle to improve upon last year's results, yielding 200 yards a game on the ground and ranking 106th nationally.
Outlook: Yes, the two-deep at defensive end lends hope for an improved pass rush, but the Miners will continue to get bullied mercilessly on running downs. They lack the size and strength to hold up against more physical teams, a perennial headache with no simple remedy.
Rating: 4.5


Projected Starters: Junior Royzell Smith continues to develop up to expectations for the program, entering 2010 as its most dependable linebacker at strongside. The Miners' leading returning tackler, he had 68 stops and a couple of interceptions in his first full year as a starter. While just 6-1 and 220 pounds, he has safety quickness and enough range to be effective in run and pass defense.

At weakisde, the staff will turn to 6-0, 225-pound senior Anthony Morrow, a starter in each of the last two seasons. A year ago, he played in eight games, opening six, and making 30 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He's added some weight in an effort to hold up better at the point of attack, yet, like Smith, will fly all over the field to make his presence felt.

One of the pleasant offseason surprises has been the play of 6-0, 225-pound junior Jamie Irving , who's closing in on the starting job at middle linebacker. After missing time with injuries in each of his first two years, making 13 tackles in 2009, he appears ready for an expanded role. Fully recovered from last year's concussion, he's set to unleash his tenacity and agility on the rest of the league.

Projected Top Reserves: Providing excellent depth in the middle will be 6-3, 225-pound junior Jeremy Springer. He arrived as a quarterback, but shifted to defense in 2008 and started all 12 games last season. He wound up fourth on the team with 66 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, and has the best size of anyone competing for playing time out of this group.

The career of 6-2, 220-pound junior Isaiah Carter was on the right track before academic problems derailed his 2009 season. He's back to earn his third letter as a Miner and compete for the job at weakside currently held by Morrow. He's a thick and physical defender, who had 29 tackles in his last season of action and can be an asset in run defense.

Watch Out For .... the competition to rage on right through the summer. Springer and Carter may be listed as reserves at this time, but the latter has every-down potential and the former won't give up his old job without a fight. Neither is your garden variety backup, which should make for nip-and-tuck battles in August.
Strength: Range. Over the last few seasons, the Miners have dramatically upgraded their speed and athleticism at linebacker, attracting and promoting the likes of Smith, Irving, and Carter, who all have good range and lateral quickness.
Weakness: Size. While this group is small and quick by design, it has a tendency to get engulfed 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 and let too many runners slip through their grip.
Outlook: For the first time in a couple of years, UTEP feels encouraged about this spot on the field. The shift to a 4-3 and the returns of Irving and Carter have afforded the program outstanding depth and enough speed to start making more game-changing plays, like turnovers and plays for minus yards.
Rating: 5


Projected Starters: The Miners return just one starter from a secondary that can ill-afford the turnover. Fortunately, he's a good one, 6-0, 205-pound senior Braxton Amy. A fixture at strong safety in El Paso, he received an additional year of eligibility for missing 2008 with an ACL injury. He returned last fall to make 52 stops and a team-high five interceptions in only eight games. An instinctive pass defender, who plays the run like a linebacker, he's the undisputed leader of this defense.

Amy's new partner at free safety is expected to be 6-2, 200-pound FS Brandon Miller, who performed well in his debut out of Bakersfield (Calif.) Junior College. In a reserve role, he had 29 tackles, while adapting to the speed of better competition. Best known for his run-stuffing ability, he has the size and aggressiveness to step up and fill the lanes on running plays.

The situation at cornerback figures to be a fluid and tenuous one. The most seasoned member of the group is 5-10, 185-pound junior Antwon Blake, who has lettered in each of his first two seasons, making 20 tackles in 2009. While his speed isn't an issue, he still needs a lot of work and fine-tuning with his back pedal and overall cover skills.

Despite the fact that he's yet to play a down here, the Miners are banking on 6-1, 205-pound junior Travaun Nixon to be an immediate contributor. The transfer from Ventura (Calif.) College drew a handful of offers for his versatility in the secondary. A ball-hawk, with outstanding speed, he's also tough against the run and not afraid to get physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage.

Projected Top Reserves: Whether or not he beats out Miller at free safety, 6-0, 200-pound sophomore DeShawn Grayson is going to play a lot of football for UTEP in 2010 and beyond. An outstanding all-around athlete, with a lot of pop as an open-field tackler, he started five games in his debut, making 65 tackles and breaking up three passes.

Even more depth at safety will come from 6-3, 210-pound senior Wiston Jeune, the caddy to Amy and an asset on special teams. A native of Haiti, he's built like a linebacker, patrolling the defensive backfield with a chip on his shoulder. A transfer from Moorpark (Calif.) Junior College, he had seven tackles in seven games, which only scratched the surface of his potential.

Watch Out For .... Nixon. If the Miners have even a prayer of righting the ship in pass defense, he has to do more than just meet expectations; he'll have to exceed them. Considering the dearth of quality cornerbacks in El Paso, it's incumbent upon the junior to step up and encourage opposing quarterbacks to avoid his slice of the field.
Strength: Wrap-up tackling. Unfortunately for the defense, the secondary gets plenty of experience making stops since way too many plays bleed past the first two lines of defense. Actually, the Miners are big and tough in the secondary, especially at safety, boasting a bunch of 200-pounders, who pack a punch.
Weakness: Cover skills. New season. Same old concerns. UTEP made some progress in pass defense, yet still finished 98th nationally and allowed 25 touchdown passes. And that was before the team lost a slew of veterans to graduation. Considering the state of the corners, the Miners will be ripe for the picking through the air again this fall.
Outlook: UTEP's defensive backs, especially the safeties, can wallop like linebackers. Unfortunately, they cover like them, too. There are simply too many holes in the group to expect any dramatic turnaround from the last few seasons. The Miners are going to be beaten through the air, period. At best, they'll create more turnovers by taking chances and using their athleticism to strip the ball.
Rating: 4

Special Teams

Projected Starters: With a kicker and a punter needed to be replaced, UTEP hopes to have filled both positions with one stroke of the pen. In February, the Miners signed sophomore Dakota Warren out of Ventura (Calif.) College, hoping he can handle two jobs. He has good leg strength and naturally ability, and should be an asset on kickoffs.

Warren's primary competition will come from true freshman Ryan Lasky and junior Mike Scott at punter and placekicker, respectively. Although Scott has been on campus for three years, but has no relevant experience.

After being a pleasant surprise in his first season, 5-9, 155-pound sophomore Marlon McClure is back to provide a spark in the return game. He averaged 23.7 yards on kickoffs, getting occasional assistance from senior Evan Davis and junior Donovon Kemp.

Watch Out For… the transition of Warren. Is he up to the challenge in his first year out of junior college? If not, it's going to put extra strain on a Miner offense and defense that can ill-afford any other hurdles.
Strength: McClure. He came close to breaking a few kicks last season before being dragged down. With a little more muscle and a season of experience, he has the flash to be one of Conference USA's more dangerous return men.
Weakness: The coverage teams. The Miners need to plug the holes in a leaky unit that ranked 115th nationally defending punts and 81st on kickoffs, allowing two to be taken back for touchdowns.
Outlook: If UTEP is banking on getting help with the little things this year, it could be disappointed by the special teams unit. The placekicker and punter will have no experience at this level when the season begins, and the coverage teams are sieves. The development of Warren in his debut will be a critical factor that could make the situation less perilous.

- 2010 UTEP Preview | 2010 UTEP Offense
- 2010 UTEP Defense | 2010 UTEP Depth Chart
- UTEP Previews  2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006