The UTEP football team managed to stay under the radar for most of the spring. In fact, with all the conference expansion buzz, the words UTEP and football were hardly mentioned in the same sentence over the last month. But, its time. This year is a very critical one for the future of the program.
Coach Mike Price is now entering his ninth year, and holds an overall record of 45-52 at UTEP. That mark actually happens to be the second best mark any UTEP coach has posted over the last 50 years. Only Bob Stull did better. But, while that record is a great improvement from what UTEP was before Price arrived, it won't be enough for him to hold onto his job much longer.
This is the final year of Price's contract, and without a successful season, he likely won't be receiving any extension. It's actually kind of a tough break that so much is riding on a season that features the toughest schedule a Miner team has seen in years, possibly decades.
The non-conference slate features a season opener at home against the preseason #5 Oklahoma Sooners, then a trip to Oxford to take on Ole Miss the next week, and then a trip to preseason #19 Wisconsin two weeks later. The Miners' other non-conference game will be against New Mexico State, and will be taking place in the Sun Bowl between the games against the Rebels and Badgers.
The conference schedule isn't exactly a cakewalk either. The Miners will take on SMU, Tulane, UCF, and Rice at home, and will meet ECU, Tulsa, Houston, and Southern Miss on the road. The good news is all four of those road games will be against teams that will have a new QB under center this year, and will be in somewhat of a rebuilding stage. The bad news is strong recruiting classes mean that most of them will barely skip a beat.
THE TEAM - DEFENSE
The Miners will have to figure out how to replace quite a bit of production from last year, especially on the defensive side of the ball. That unit will only returns 4 starters; two on the defensive line, and two in the secondary. They do however get back senior LB Jamie Irving who led all LBs in tackles in 2010, but was out in 2011 due to injury.
On top of getting Irving back, the linebacking corp returns fellow seniors AJ Ropati, Josh Fely, and Aubrey Alexius. All spent time as reserve LBs last year, but will bring experience to a group that lost all three starters from last year's squad. That said, Fely should be taking over as the starting weak side LB, Alexius will be on the strong side, and Irving will fill the mike spot. Look for both Ropati and sophomore LB Michael Pickett to be in the mix as well.
The defensive line will be anchored by starting DL Germard Reed and DE Horace Miller, while DL Marcus Bagley, DL Adam Ayala, and DE Greg Watkins should also figure into starting rotation. Also we can't forget about guys like SR DL Isaac Tauaefa, and incoming freshmen DL Glen Antoine and DL Devontae Smith. I'd expect all of these guys to get significant playing time, as well as compete for starting jobs.
The secondary returns CB Drew Thomas, and S DeShawn Grayson, but has to say goodbye to guys like CB Antwon Blake and CB Travaun Nixon. That unit will also have some experienced reserves stepping in to take over starting spots though. Senior CB Darren Woodard could be taking over one corner, while both senior S Derrick Morgan, and senior S Richard Spencer should compete for a starting job as well. That unit also has some solid up and comers.
Overall, the defense will have a tall order to fill after losing 7 of its 11 starters from last year. But, when it comes down to it, almost the entire starting defense will be made up of seniors. You can't really ask for much more. Sure it will be tough, but if they can stay healthy, this unit could turn out to be the best defense we've seen from UTEP in a long time. Just don't be too quick to judge. Remember, they're being thrown to the lions from day 1, so don't jump off the bandwagon if things don't go so well against OU. Give them a little time, they just might surprise you.
THE TEAM - OFFENSE
Things on the offensive side of the ball kinda feel like they did two years ago. No quarterback controversy, plenty of returning starters, time for the unit to step up right? Well, injuries plagued that unit two years ago, let's hope for some better luck with that this year.
Highlighting the offense, of course, is returning QB Nick Lamaison. Last year Lamaison threw for over 1,700 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Granted, the numbers aren't great, but the guy definitely has the tools to be a great quarterback. What he needs is time. Not time to get better, just time to throw. He was constantly under pressure last year, and in turn was injured on multiple occasions because of it. If the OL can give him a little protection, he'll be able to move the ball.
That offensive line should actually prove to be a great asset for the Miners, as they return a few starters, and a handful of reserves from last year's team. The group as a whole suffered some minor nicks and dings throughout the spring, but that only gave some of the reserves the opportunity to get more reps in. When the season kicks off, its expected that the starting five will be LT Brander Craighead, LG Jerel Watkins, C Eloy Atkinson, RG Kyle Brown, and RT James Nelson. But, rest assured, this unit will have plenty of others who will be ready at a moments notice.
QB Nick Lamaison should not only be comfortable with his protection, but his receiving group as well. The top two targets from a season ago, senior WR Mike Edwards (657 yds, 3 TDs), and sophomore WR Jordan Leslie (430 yds, 2 TDs), will likely take the field as the top WRs this year. The receiving corps will actually be the youngest group on the entire team this coming season. Outside of Edwards, the group is filled with freshmen and sophomores. Considering that, expect the TE group to be leaned on quite a bit.
The tight end group will be led by junior Kevin Perry, and sophomores Eric Tomlinson and Craig Wenrick. Last year, Perry caught 17 balls for 203 yards and a score. Tomlinson had 6 catches for 83 yards and 2 scores, and Wenrick had 4 grabs for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns. If this offense is to be as productive as we hope it will be, look for all three of these guys to improve on last year's stats.
Last, but certainly not least are the Miner running backs. Last year the Miners boasted a three headed monster in the backfield that featured the speed of Vernon Frazier, the power of Leilyon Myers, and the finesse of Joe Banyard. Unfortunately for us, all three were seniors. But, one other back did show some glimpses of excellence last year, freshman Nathan Jeffrey.
Now in his second year, Jeffrey will be expected to step into the featured back roll, and just carry the overall load for the Miner backfield. In the Spring game, Jeffrey rushed for 122 yards on 18 carries, running behind somewhat of a makeshift offensive line. Hopefully he can carry that production into the season. Also, expect sophomore Josh Bell to get his carries as well, and fill the role of a change of pace back.
THE TEAM - SPECIAL TEAMS
The special teams unit for the Miners should prove to be a huge asset as well, again. The Miners return senior P Ian Campbell, senior K Dakota Warren, and sophomore K Stephen Valadez. Campbell was a second team all C-USA selection, and a Ray Guy Award finalist in 2011. He ranked fourth nationally, and first in C-USA with an average of 46.3 yards a punt. That marks the second year in a row that Campbell has averaged better than 45 yards for the season.
Senior Dakota Warren was expected to be one of the better kickers in C-USA last year, but he struggled throughout the season, giving sophomore Stephen Valadez a chance to take over kicking duties. Its still unclear how the duties will be divvied up this year, but I'd expect either one of these guys to have a great season. Especially Warren. If he can overcome last year's struggles, he can easily be one of the best in conference.
All in all, this Miner team brings a whole lot of experience to the table. For the most part, positions are set, and there isn't a ton of controversy as to who will be the starter, really at any position. But, there are a couple things of note here. First, can this team stay healthy?
Injuries have played a huge part of the success, or lack thereof, over the last two seasons. Its not comforting to see that most of our offensive line missed most, if not all of spring practices. If the Miners are going to be able to have a successful season, and potentially reach a bowl, they will need to stay healthy.
The second part of the equation is the schedule. And, it pretty much goes hand in hand with the team being able to stay healthy. The Miners will open up against a team, in the Oklahoma Sooners, that are easily top 10 on anybody's list, and could even potentially be looking for a national title game appearance.
A week later, we travel to SEC country to take on Ole Miss, and two weeks later we get to take on another top 20 team, the Wisconsin Badgers, in Madison. All three games will be extremely tough for the Miners, and their potential success rides on their ability to make it through that brutal non-conference schedule without suffering any major injuries.
Remember, last year UTEP didn't even make it through the second game of the season before we lost starting QB Nick Lamaison. That injury set the tone for the season, and never allowed the offense to truly get in rhythm. Needless to say, we can't have that happen this year.
FINAL WORD/PROJECTED RECORD
So, what should we expect from this team? I know that considering the schedule, its hard to believe this team will have a chance to win six games, and make it to a bowl. But, I think its completely possible. The tough non-conference schedule can serve as a great prep for a solid conference run. See Tulsa, 2011. The Golden Hurricane took on Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., and Boise St. last year, and got pounded in all three, but went on to win 8 games on the season.
Again, the success of this team will be heavily dependent on their ability to stay healthy. If we can make it out of that first third of the season in relatively good shape, don't be surprised to see our Miners back in a bowl game. The Miners will face some stiff competition in the non-conference, but could have an opportunity to steal a win at a rebuilding Ole Miss. The conference slate will also be a test, but I'm expecting the Miners to step forward as one of the better teams in the West.
Projected record: 6-6 overall, 5-3 in Conference USA.