In the Trenches: The Ultimate UTEP Miners Offensive Line Preview

Way back when, before many of you knew what a "Miner Rush" was, I began preparing spring positional previews for the 2010 Miners.  Time constraints limited the previews to three positions, so today I'm picking up where I left off.  Where better to start than with the position group that will determine just how high UTEP's 2010 offense can fly; the offensive line.

By the way, If you haven't read the Rush's other positional previews, I recommend it.  Each preview will give you an idea of where UTEP stands depth wise,what we lost in 2009, and offer glimpses into the incoming recruits that will bolster each position.  Here are the links:

The Wide Receivers

The Tight Ends

The Running Backs

Now, let's take a look at UTEP's offensive line.


The Stats & Scheme

Perhaps the most telling indicator to use when predicting the effectiveness of an offensive line is to get a gauge of the experience level at each position.  Even the highest rated lineman recruits rarely see significant playing time as freshman.  A good offensive line is usually one that has players who are familiar with their position, have game experience, and can stay healthy. 

For UTEP's base 1 back offense to be successful, the Miner's don't necessarily need brute size and strength from their offensive lineman.  They need lineman who are strong, obviously, but UTEP's highly effective draw plays and screen passing game requires that each of the five starting lineman be able to get down field to help create running alleys for Buckram.  Let me show you:
 

  • 3:25 mark:  Here's a better angle of a classic draw play that's a staple of UTEP's 1 back offense.  Vittatoe opens up to his right to show pass, then swivels left and hands the ball to a waiting Buckram.  Observe the left tackle and center (Aguayo and Tanner Cullumber).  Aguayo does a classic job of showing pass, turning the defensive end away from the run, and then uses his athleticism to get down field and help Cullumber take out the middle linebacker (paving the way for Buckram to spring past him).


  • 0:22 Mark:   Here is a hi-quality video that displays Alex Solot's athleticism.   Solot releases inside of the defensive end, makes contact with Houston linebacker Marcus McGraw while he is in pursuit of Buckram and drives him 14 yards away from the original line of scrimmage before flat-lining him.  McGraw, by the way, is no slouch.  He was just named to he Bronco Nagurski Trophy watch list.
  • 0:35 Mark:  Another clip that shows just how quick Solot is for a 6'8, 310 pound man. Another inside release, where he first cuts off any chance the end has at taking a proper angle at Buckram, then he gets up field and gets just enough of McGraw to allow Buckram to accelerate to the next level. 

Size matters, but don't for a second underestimate the incredible agility and athleticism of UTEP's o-line.  Last year's offensive line anchored an offense that finished with impressive statistics seemingly across the board.  Take a look at UTEP's final 2009 numbers and conference and national ranks in categories relevant to the line.

Statistic 2009 C-USA Rank NCAA Rank
Sacks Allowed 25 7 67
Total Offense 428.67 2 18
Rushing Offense 151.08 5 57
Passing Offense 277.58 3 20
First Downs (Total) 21.75 pg 3 22
First Downs (Rushing) 93 na na
First Downs (Passing) 141 na na
Third Down Efficiency 41.40% 6 48

 

It doesn't take a mathematician to see that UTEP's offense was among the best in the nation last year.  UTEP's offensive line paved the way for the nation's 4th leading rusher, Donald Buckram, and the nations 18th most productive offense. 

The offensive line gave up 25 sacks in 2009.  The number, 25, is also deceiving when you factor in the fact that UTEP gave up 5 sacks to Kansas and 4 sacks to the #2 Texas Longhorns.  In 10 games against non-Big 12 competition, UTEP gave up about a sack and a half per game, which would average in the top 40 in the nation.

So, last year's line was obviously effective.  Who's coming back to stabilize the position in 2010?

 

 

The Starters

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Photo courtesy of Alan Solot

Keep in mind that UTEP has not released an updated depth chart or post-spring starting line-up.  These starters are based off of observations made during spring ball and by closely examining the depth chart, playing time, and experience of  each player.  Right now, the starting offensive lineman look to be:

The biggest battle, literally, of fall camp should come down to who gets the nod at left tackle.   Evbuomwan is the only potential starter who has never started a game.  That's not a knock on his skill, recall that he only had two years of eligibility at UTEP after transferring from Bakersfield College.  He spent his first year in El Paso backing up left tackle mainstay Mike AguayoWill Osolinsky is also in the mix for the left tackle spot.  This should be one of the biggest battles of fall camp. 

Recall that Osolinsky was the established starter at right tackle before suffering a shoulder injury last fall.   Senior Alex Solot took over prior to the Houston game and seized control of the position.  Osolinsky started eight games in 2008, four at left tackle and four at right tackle.  I expect him to play a lot in 2010, but we won't know who the definite starter is until August.  

Whether it's Lance or Osolinsky at LT, UTEP should have seniors starting at all five offensive line positions. Of the likely starters, Huntley, Solot, and Cullumber have extensive starting experience.

 

UTEP Miners Offensive Line Starting Experience

Player Class Position 2009 Starts Career Starts
Rod Huntley SR RG 12 18
Alex Solot SR LT 8 13
Tanner Cullumber SR C 11 13
Anthony McNac SR LG 0 5
Will Osolinksy SR LT, RT 4 12
Total     35 61

UTEP will obviously miss their former mainstay at left tackle, Mike Aquayo.  Aguayo started 37 games during his stellar career at UTEP.  The Miners also lost both players who started at left guard last season, Cameron Raschke and Colby Meek.  I expect Anthony McNac, a senior, who has played significant time in his career to step in on the left side.  McNac has five career starts under his belt.

The veterans on the right side of the offensive line are among the Miners greatest strengths entering 2010.  In 2009, both Cullumber and Solot were named Honorable Mention All-Conference USA.  Note that the right side of the line, Solot-Huntley-Cullumber, started 7 games last fall together at their respective positions.  That's important.  It's one thing for a player to have individual experience at their respective position.  It's a whole other thing when you have experience playing with the same faces next to you, especially along the offensive line. 

The real question going into 2010 has to be wondering who will solidify the left side.  Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, as we all know, is a right handed passer, so the newly formed left side of the line will be under a lot of pressure to protect  TV's blind side.

 

The Star

Rod Huntley.

The 6'3, 320 pound right guard started all 12 games in 2009 and has 18 starts over his stellar career.  Last season, Huntley recorded 36 knockdown blocks.  He also graded out at 80% or better in 10 of 12 games.  Huntley, along with Buckram, was selected to Phil Steele's First Team All-Conference USA squad.  In 2008, Huntley was the starter at right guard before suffering a broken tibia in the Tulane game.  He obviously bounced back well in 2009 and is primed for a big senior season.

 

The Anchor

Tanner Cullumber. 

Cullumber brings much needed experience to a position responsible for much more than snapping the ball. Cullumber has also been given reps at left guard and could be moved there in fall camp.  His versatility makes him the glue guy on the line. If there are injuries along the front, expect him to be moved along to fill in a weak spot.  These shifts reflect the coaches desire to have Cullumber on the field at all times and their trust in his ability to adapt to any situation and be effective.

Cullumber's backup, Eloy Atkinson, has also emerged as a capable center.  If McNac doesn't look like the answer at left guard, don't be surprised if Cullumber moves over to his spot and Atkinson comes in at center.  A switch woudn't indicate that McNac isn't a capable player because he is and he has experience.  A switch would rather highlight the emergence of Atkinson as the type of talent that the Miners can't bear to have on the sidelines.

 

The Flatliner

Alex Solot.

Solot entered the starting lineup prior to the Houston game and never looked back. Solot recorded 31 knockdown blocks in 2009 despite the fact that he entered the season as a reserve.  He graded out at 80% or better 10 times.  In his eight starts, UTEP averaged 36.1 points per game and over 521 yards of total offense.

He also might be UTEP's most brutal blocker.  Need evidence?  Thought you'd never ask. Solot, #70,  is the right tackle.  Just push play.

Exhibit A:  All-American defensive end, and Baltimore Raven Sergio Kindle, dines at the International House of Pancakes


 

Exhibit B:  Another Big 12 short stack.



As you can see, Solot moves incredibly well for his size (6'8, 310) is talented at pushing defensive ends out of their rushing lanes.  When an end or linebacker loses their leverage in run pursuit, he has the strength to seal the deal and take them down.

 

The Mystery

Lance Evbuowman.  

First things first, Lance needs a nickname because typing up "Evbuowman" over and over is near impossible.  Try it.  For now, we'll stick with Lance but suggestions would be appreciated in the comments.

Know this about Lance.  He was recruited out of college by a barrage of Pac 10 teams to play tight end.  He signed with Arizona St. and played with the Sun Devils for a year (on the scout team) before transferring to Bakersfield.  The Arizona Wildcats, among others, recruited him after that but he ultimately decided to come to UTEP. 

Yes, he's a massive specimen at 6'4 and 300 lbs., but he has the feet of a tight end.  This athleticism should help Lance take on the opposing team's best pass rushers who will blitz Vittatoe's blind side.  I was able to watch Lance play during spring ball and I came away impressed with his footwork.  Miner fans have seen Cullumber, Solot, and Huntley play significant time.  They are seniors who have extensive experience.  Lance has played his fair share of college football, but in El Paso, and starting at left tackle especially, he's very much an unknown quantity.


The Backups

These are projections, again, remember that UTEP hasn't released a post-spring depth chart.  Atkinson seems to be a lock to backup Cullumber at center, but if Tanner moves to LG he may find himself in the starting lineup. Osolinsky has starting experience and will contribute in his senior campaign.  Frazier, who originally committed to SMU before becoming a Miner, was a redshirt frosh in 2009. 

James Nelson, who should back up Solot on the right side, is a 6'7, 330 lb junior college transfer.  He played one season at Ventura Junior-College before transferring to UTEP.  He is listed as a sophomore.  Scout had him listed as a three star prospect coming out of Ventura. Like Lance, expect Nelson to get on the field a bit this season, his first after a JC transfer, but really keep your eye on him as a potential starter in 2011.

Solot has the RT spot on lockdown and Osolinsky's move back to the left side of the line proves that.  I will still expect the coaches to find a way to get Nelson and other underclassmen some time on the field if only to prepare them for 2011 when UTEP will be forced to replace the six senior lineman who will see significant time this season. 

As we enter 2010, though, the stage is set for UTEP's offensive line to be cast with a core group of veterans who hope to help pick up the offense where it left off in '09.  What happens when they all graduate?  Well, it wouldn't be the Ultimate Offensive Line Preview without asking.....


Who's Got Next?

Last spring, Coach Price signed the following offensive line recruits:

  • Kyle Brown (6' 2", 265)
  • Devin Dashnaw (6' 6", 340)
  • Nick Martin (6' 5", 300)
  • Blake Snider (6' 6", 290)
  • Deron Jefferson (6'6, 235)

Brown was ranked the #133rd best defensive end in the country by ESPN.  He may or may not end up on the offensive line at UTEP.  Brown was also a heavyweight wrestler at Conroe.  Associate Head Coach Bob Connelly has been quoted as saying that Brown will play guard or defensive end at UTEP.  Here is how the incoming class graded out per Rivals, Scout, and ESPN (Scouts, Inc.).

Recruit Rivals Scout ESPN
Kyle Brown 2 Star 2 Star 2 Star (#133 DE)
Devin Dashnaw 2 Star 2 Star 2 Star (#136)
Nick Martin 2 Star 2 Star na
Blake Snider 2 Star 2 Star na
Deron Jefferson 2 Star 2 Star na

.

Connelly also said that Jefferson, who played tight end and defensive end in high school, could find himself playing defense as a Miner.  UTEP will try to see if they can mold his tall, athletic frame into an offensive tackle first. So, Kyle Brown and Deron Jefferson may not ever play OL at UTEP . 

Wait.  We're losing how many seniors after 2010?  Well, that's why the staff also signed Devin Dashnaw, Nick Martin, and Blake Snider.

Dashnaw was ranked one of the top 10 lineman in the Arizona by the Arizona Republic.  He's already up to 340 pounds and that development might help him see the field earlier than the others.  Martin, at 6'5 and 300 pounds, is also a true lineman who comes to El Paso in a slightly better position to contribute early.  So, the Miners will lose some veterans along the o-line after this coming season, but do have some prospects waiting in the wings who will have a year or more to develop.  So, the prospects look bright.

 

Special thanks to Alan Solot for giving me permission to use his pictures!

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