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UTEP Football Position Group Focus: Defensive backs

UTEP’s secondary looks really, really good on paper, but can that translate into consistent production?

Who is in the mix?

Experience, speed, and toughness can quickly define a UTEP secondary that returns tons of pieces, and a few all-conference caliber players in 2017.

For UTEP, the center piece of the secondary is fourth year starter at strong safety and senior leader Devin Cockrell. D.C. should become a late-round NFL prospect with another strong season, but adding some statistical production like INT’s and forced fumbles to his line could raise his prospects to a very high level.

Cockrell accounted for 7.1 percent of UTEP’s solo tackles last season, and provides a punch in the secondary with his punishing physicality and natural instincts.

Returning to UTEP’s secondary is former C-USA All-Freshman free safety Michael Lewis who missed last season due to academic reasons.

Lewis broke out in the latter part of his freshman season in 2015, and gives UTEP an athletic and physical body who has experience.

On the corners, UTEP boasts one of the top cover corner duos in the conference with juniors Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly. Needham led the Miners with 11 pass breakups, and was wrongfully snubbed from all-C-USA honors last season.

UTEP had the 27th best pass deflection to incomplete pass rate nationally last season in where UTEP defensive backs made plays on 33.1 percent of opponents’ pass plays.

Creating tunovers, and momentum for the UTEP offense is the next growth step for this group, and was a huge emphasis this spring and fall.

And while UTEP’s front line starters in the secondary are proven, and talented, recruiting has helped shore up the depth around the edges.

JUCO transfer Kahani Smith will help out at the free safety spot, and in pass coverage packages giving him a chance to make an immediate impact.

Jerrell Brown is another rangy safety who had a strong spring and along with freshman Broderick Harrell, and junior Adrian Hynson gives UTEP capable depth behind those frontline guys.

2016 signee Joseph Pickney is another hybrid defensive back that could make an impact as a freshman, showing the depth is plentiful in the secondary with his strong fall camp.

SMU transfer Jesse Montgomery is another depth piece UTEP can use in certain packages adding to the depth.

Corner Justin Rogers who was pushed into action last season also returns, and was second on the team in pass break ups with seven last season and drew some tough assignments.

Alex Jean-Charles is another name to keep an eye on at corner, and UTEP added Khalil Rashaad-Brown who had a very strong camp and figures to also be in the rotation at corner.

Predicting a Breakout player

With so many proven players returning in the Miner secondary, this one is tough, but I think Michael Lewis will re-breakout, if you will.

Lewis was sixth on the team in total tackles in 2015, and also broke up two passes playing in the 4-2-5 defense. Playing in a zone friendly 3-4 defense in 2017, Lewis’ ball skills will be tested, and the talented sophomore from the Dallas area should have a nice bounce back year.

The future

A clear recruiting need for 2018 will be in the secondary as UTEP only signed one defensive back in 2017.

Pickney, Harrell, Brown, and Rogers are future starters who will play reserve and package roles this season, but all have bright futures.

UTEP also added Deaumonjae Banks from El Paso-Chapin who was an underrated and productive player in the secondary in high school.

Tom Mason has some nice building pieces, and has his two starting corners back for two more seasons including this one, but building the depth UTEP currently has will be priority in the next recruiting cycle.