UTEP’s defense kept the team in almost every conference game two years ago. The Miners weren’t necessarily good – but they were feisty.
That resilience completely disappeared in 2019. The Miners dropped 30 spots in total defense, gave up 6.8 yards per play and ranked No. 119 nationally in scoring defense. More disappointing was that the Miners finished within 10 points of a conference opponent just once, after five such games in 2018.
“I probably did a horrible job coaching, and we lost some really talented playmakers from the 2018 team,” defensive coordinator Mike Cox said. “Not to make excuses, but we didn’t make the plays we were supposed to. We’re a work in progress.”
Re-establishing a defensive identity won’t be easy after losing 56 percent of defensive production and seven starters. The top four tacklers on defense are gone, including four of six in the front group.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment came up front. The defensive line regressed and ranked bottom-five nationally with 12 total sacks. Two starters are gone from the unit, so the Miners are moving to a four-man front to try to get more pass rushers on the field. Sophomore Praise Amaewhule showed flashes in his first season. Now, he must take center stage. The staff expects defensive tackle to be a strength.
“It really fits our personnel more,” Cox said of the switch to a 4-3. “To be honest, we want to go in and out of both of it. It’s gonna add some flexibility as far as how our season goes and where our best players are at.”
While two established starters at linebacker departed, the staff is optimistic. By the end of 2019, Stephen Forester stepped into a starting role at the MIKE. Between three JUCO additions and a few promising young players, the Miners feel good about their depth.
The one position group with major upside is defensive back. Three safety starters graduated, but the position is in good hands. Juniors Justin Prince and Broderick Harrell both would have started in 2019 if not for season-ending injuries. Both are back and healthy. They’ll boost a solid cornerback rotation of Josh Caldwell and Duron Lowe that posted 17 combined pass breakups.
Building depth is difficult at UTEP, and Cox doesn’t have the roster where he wants it yet. Seven projected JUCO starters is still too many. But for UTEP’s five-year plan to stay on track, the defensive culture must return.
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