Five Questions: UTEP
This is the second of 12 installments of the Five Questions series, in which the DCTF staff picks the most pressing questions facing each of the FBS programs in the state.
Today’s team: the UTEP Miners.
Even if you count the 2010 New Mexico Bowl season – in which the Miners actually finished 6-7 – as a “winning season,” UTEP has had just three winning seasons since Mike Price arrived in 2004. Last season wasn’t among them, as the Miners stumbled to a 5-7 record, including a paltry 2-6 mark in Conference USA play. There are reasons for optimism entering 2012, but there are some significant questions that must be addressed.
1) Who – if anyone – can take advantage of continuity up front?
If you’re looking for a reason for optimism, look no further than the Miners’ offensive line. Mike Price and company will have the very, very rare luxury of returning all five of their starting offensive linemen from a year ago, giving the group another full season to gel and improve as a unit. From the outset, that appears to be a major strength for UTEP entering the 2012 season…but it only goes to put a weakness under the microscope. While the offensive line is steady, the Miners are losing basically every legitimate rushing option, as the top three leading rushers – Joe Banyard, Vernon Frazier and Leilyon Myers – are all graduating. Freshman Nathan Jeffrey earned some carries last season, but only 26 of them for 166 yards and a touchdown; can he step in to be the No. 1 guy? What about rising sophomore RB Josh Bell, who got just two carries last season? Or will an incoming freshman – like Dallas South Oak Cliff RB Paul Franklin – grab the starting job? The road for a strong running game should be plowed; now all the Miners need is to find someone to travel it.
2) How does the defense get out of the cellar?
There’s no way to spin it positively: UTEP’s defense was awful last season. 104th in total defense, 92nd in passing defense, 96th in rushing defense and 85th in scoring defense; or, if you prefer the advanced statistics, the Miners ranked 119th in adjusted defensive efficiency by Football Outsiders. The defense absolutely has to improve if the Miners are going to return to their winning ways, but that’s much easier said than done. This will be defensive coordinator Andre Patterson’s third season in El Paso; his results, thus far, have been mixed. There are playmakers returning on defense -- especially talented DBs Darren Woodard and DeShawn Grayson, and DLs Horace Miller and Germard Reed – and other holes to fill (we’ll get to those in a minute); it’ll be up to Patterson and his staff to make it work and get UTEP’s defense to at least the national average.
3) Lamaison? Meger? Hall? Someone else?
Through a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness, three different quarterbacks started a game for the Miners in 2011: junior Nick Lamaison, sophomore Carson Meger and freshman Javia Hall (memo to Mr. Hall: I’ve seen you referred to as both Javia and Jay; which do you prefer? Signed, some dorky sportswriter.) None of them were spectacular – Lamaison was the best of the bunch – and they all showed enough upside to at least warrant a conversation during the spring as to who will be the starter. Lamaison is probably the most able to lead right now, but Meger would provide you with a two-year plan as opposed to one year with Lamaison. Meanwhile, Hall’s the most raw but the most athletic, and the youngest. If I had to guess, Lamaison will get the nod out of camp, but all three QBs are at least worth analyzing.
4) What’s the plan up the middle?
I mentioned earlier that UTEP has a number of important playmakers returning, especially in the secondary and on the defensive front. But the middle of the defense – the linebackers – will be taking a huge hit entering the 2012 campaign. All three of the opening day starting linebackers in Andre Patterson’s 4-3 alignment – weakside LB Isiah Carter, middle LB Jeremy Springer and strongside LB Royzell Smith – are graduated. There are still some leftovers in the linebacking corps, like Josh Fely and Aubrey Alexius, but the spots in the middle of the defense are the most pressing toward the likelihood of UTEP taking a leap forward defensively. Can players like rising sophomores Anthony Puente and Michael Pickett fill the gaps, or perhaps even an incoming freshman like Rowlett’s Chester Egbim or California native Darnell Murray?
5) Is there a big-play threat on campus?
In 2011, UTEP ranked 66th in the nation in plays of 20 or more yards (53) and 69th in plays of 30 or more yards (22). Now, it’s losing its biggest play threat in WR Donavon Kemp, who averaged 19.8 yards per reception, and its three leading rushers. Who is going to develop into the homerun threat for the Miners in 2012, a guy who can stretch the field and keep the defense honest? Leading receiver Mike Edwards seems like the surefire candidate, but he’s undersized at 5-10 and is more of a crisp route-runner than a burner. Maybe a running back steps up. But my guess is WR Jordan Leslie, who caught 30 passes for 430 yards as a freshman last year. At 6-2, he can go up and over most cornerbacks in single-man coverage, and he’s got the speed that, well, got him a Division I scholarship in the first place. If Leslie or someone else can step up to be the “we must cover him” guy, the entire Miners offense opens up.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.