Chris Avila covers the Miners for Rivals.com and MinerIllustrated.com, and he was kind enough to give BadgerBlitz.com a rundown on the Miners for our "Know Thy Foe" series.
1. What kind of shape are the Miners in as we head into 2012? Are they experienced or breaking in new players? Did they meet last year's expectations?
Chris Avila: For much of Mike Price's tenure at UTEP, there had always been consistency at the QB position. Last season was very different, as Price didn't have another QB to take over the reigns and had to bring in a JC player at the position to try and lead the offense. Senior Nick Lamaison had a steep learning curve in the fall and at times fans saw brilliance and other times a QB who was still learning. It didn't help that he was inadequately protected at times and the offense was left to backup players. Defensively, there was some improvement in that there were opportunities for the Miners to come out on top, but the fact of the matter was there were just too many missed tackles at critical junctures of games that UTEP on the short end of the stick. for the most part, 2011 was a season of inconsistency and injury problems once again as the Miners fell short of a .500 season with a 5-7 record.
2. Can you give me a run down of the Miners' offensive system? Who are the key players, and what should Badger fans expect to see?
CA: Mike Price has run pretty much the same offensive set for the entire time he has been a UTEP - spread them wide with 2 or 3 wideouts and a back into the flat with a QB that can fling the ball. That's still the case as UTEP prepares for the 2012 season with an added wrinkle of a TE threat in Eric Tomlinson who rolls out in to empty spaces quite effectively.. It should not come as a surprise to see Lamaison throw the ball to a number of receivers like Mike Edwards and Jordan Leslie, who are expected starters. The run game should be effective as well with Nate Jeffery and Josh Bell shouldering the work in the backfield.
3. Same question, but for the defense this time.
CA: With Andre Patterson entering his third year as defensive coordinator, there should be more stability and improvement with his 4-3 implementation. Starting upfront, Marcus Bagley, Horace Miller, Germard Reed and Greg Watkins all showed signs of improvement as the season progressed last year and into the spring. All four seem to have gelled very well and with an explosive Miller on the end and the ability to flush out QBs from the pocket, there's no question the line is much improved and Miller is a credible threat for any lineman. Aubrey Alexius and Josh Fely help ground the LBs with their quickness and ability to make stops before getting to the secondary level. The loss of Travaun Nixon is painful but DeShawn Grayson and Richard Spencer should help fill that gap.
4. What's the best-case and worst-case scenario for the Miners this year? Which do you think is more likely?
CA: We've been looking at the season in two parts: non-conference and C-USA games. At best, UTEP could finish their first 4 games with a 2-2 record, worst they should finish with a 1-3 record. It will be a difficult first 4 games because the Miners can either walk away with some confidence and wins under their belt or beat up and bruised to start C-USA competition. Conference play will be interesting as Houston will have to re-group after the departure of Case Kennum (who seems to have been at the school for AGES) and the introduction of a new coaching staff. Tulsa is expected to be good again as is UCF and Southern Miss. The jury is still out on SMU as they had a disappointing finish last year. UTEP could finish 4-4 if they can get wins against Rice, Tulane while stealing games from UCF or SMU in the Sun Bowl. UTEP has never been a good C-USA road team and I would expect more of the same. Best record: 6-6 and bowl eligible Worst record: 3-9
5. What kind of game are you expecting from the Badgers and the Miners? Do you have a prediction or gut feeling?
CA: I'd love to say the Miners are going to go in and try and steal a win in Wisconsin to wrap up their non-conference schedule but the reality is that the Badgers are going to be bigger, stronger, faster than UTEP and will walk away with the win. A close loss will be a moral victory for the Miners, but a loss none the less.