UTEP's had more than any single teams share of injuries this season, but the Miners have been able, for the most part, to lean on their depth along the offensive line and in the backfield and on some young talent in the secondary to help them get through it (nearly) unscathed.
The Miners have suffered season ending injuries to star defensive back Braxton Amy, sophomore DT Isaac Tauaefa,staring WR Donavon Kemp, and reserve DB Traun Roberson. Donald Buckram's been banged up all season but is starting to finally show signs of improvement. Kris Adams has suffered with back spasms but is still playing excellent football.
UTEP lost their starting left tackle for a while, but the loss of Will Osolinsky was absorbed by the steady play of Lanve Evbuomwan. At center, the Miners have lost their starter, Tanner Cullumber, his backup, Eloy Atkinson, and his backup Nathan McCage to injuries.
Defensively, DT Germard Reed, and linebackers Anthony Morrow and Royzell Smith have missed time to injury. Losing Tauaefa and Reed has perhaps been the most costly of UTEP's injuries because the Miners are young and undersized along the defensive line. Veterans like Robert Soleyjacks and newcomers like Marcus Bagley have helped fill the void. DeShawn Grayson has been a monster in the secondary.
The Miners have shown an incredible ability to adjust to injuries that before the season would have seemed insurmountable. Who would have thought UTEP would be 5-2 without Donald Buckram having a big game or Braxton Amy manning the fort?
Leading up to the UAB game, UTEP was blessed to have senior quarterback Trevor Vittatoe avoid the injury bug. His steady play is the primary reason why UTEP is sitting a game away from their first bowl bid since 2005. Trevor's impact on this team was never more apparent then last week, at UAB, when we saw how dreadful our offense can look if we don't have a healthy TV behind center. Naturally, Vittatoe injured his ankle and his non-throwing shoulder in the first half of UTEP's loss to the Blazers.
In the second half, he looked like a different guy. He wasn't the confident, accurate gunslinger that had tossed an incredible 14 touchdowns (with only 2 interceptions) in UTEP's first six games. He wasn't the leader who was finding ways to extend drives with his underrated running ability.
He was stagnant. His footwork was lazy and his timing was off. He was staring down receivers, notably begging for a deep pass to Kris Adams time and time again. He wasn't looking to keep the chains moving; he was looking for a home run.
I don't know how severe his injury is. Nobody outside the team does. Mike Price has closed practices and kept the media away for the most part in an effort to keep his cards close to his chest with his old Pac 10 rival Bob Toledo coming to town.
But, Price did allow some players to talk to the press after Tuesdays practice. KTSM reports that backup QB James Thomas II is preparing this week as if he's the starter. When asked about it at practice, Thomas said:
"It's definitely exciting, I want to thank Coach Price for this opportunity, because this is what I want to do, is to play division one quarterback. It didn't work out like that, but stuck with me, kept believing in me, and Coach Aaron Price too, so it's a blessing and an opportunity. I expect Trevor to play, he's a warrior and we all know that, he's played through injuries before, so I don't doubt that he will probably be ready to pla," said Thomas.
When we lost left tackle Will Osolinsky, there wasn't a steep drop-off when Lance Evbuomwan took over. Lance is a veteran, a senior who had spent 2 years in UTEP's system. When Buckram went down, UTEP's rushing offense actually improved statistically from last season with Joe Banyard grinding away at defenses.
But, Trevor doesn't have a Joe Banyard behind him.
James Thomas II is a hard worker and an excellent change of pace QB. I like that UTEP uses him in the Wildcat formation and even think we should use it more often. But, he has not been proven to be a capable every down quarterback. Can he come in and wow us with a stellar game against Tulane? Sure. But, truthfully, we don't have any idea how UTEP's offense will look with Thomas at the helm. In four seasons, he's attempted 27 passes.
Thomas is probably UTEP's best option right now. Who's next in line should Thomas be ineffective or, knock on wood, gets injured himself? It looks like it would be the redshirt frosh Carson Meger.
Meger kind of reminds me of ex-Miner Rocky Perez. He's undersized and doesn't have a rocket arm, but he's incredibly accurate and I get the sense he won't try to do too much. He will excel with short passes and I'd imagine that Aaron Price will use a lot of play action and screen passes with him in. Meger is a wildcard but he's inexperienced and I don't think he's ready for the big stage just yet.
Against UAB, we saw that UTEP's best defense could possible be a good offense. When the Miners couldn't move the ball, UAB wore down our battered front seven until they finally broke the game open. When UTEP's offense is stalling, the Miners can lose to anybody (see the Memphis game where UTEP struggled to move the ball in the second half). Trevor is the key to UTEP's offense and the offense is the key to keeping UTEP's battered defense fresh and competitive down the stretch.
I'm not going to sugar coat it; UTEP desperately needs a healthy Trevor Vittatoe if the Miners are going to grab that elusive 6th win. If he's out, or injured, how the Tulane game unfolds is anybody's guess.