2010 UTEP Miners Football Preview
2009 Results: 4-8, No Bowl
Head Coach: Mike Price (7th year, 34-38 @ UTEP, 153-150 Overall)
Home Venue: Sun Bowl (51,500) El Paso, Texas
I was genuinely surprised when I saw how many people were predicted UTEP to win the C-USA West Division last year. It seemed like every pundit was citing their relatively easy league schedule as the reason for their pick but I kept coming back to one conclusion: The Miners weren’t a very good football team last year. Thus, I picked them 4th in the West and surprise, surprise, they finished fourth. 2009 was a prime example of misplaced hype hurting a team that wasn’t ready to live up to expectations.
This season, those expectations appear to be much more tempered in El Paso. And speaking of tempers, people are not happy with Coach Mike Price after last season’s high profile disappointment. With a rebuilding defense, can he push the Miners into the postseason for the first time since 2005?
The UTEP offense was actually fairly productive last fall, scoring just under 30 points per game. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the year was senior tailback Donald Buckram’s (1,594 rush yards, 30 catches, 453 pass yards, 21 total TDs) 4th Team All-American campaign. He’s a phenomenal tailback and the only downside to his success is that there really isn’t any depth behind him because he’s such a workhorse. If he stays healthy, UTEP will have a strong offense, period.
Buckram was senior quarterback Trevor Viattatoe’s (3,308 yards, 17 TDs, 13 INT) 3rd leading receiver last season and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him repeat that feat. However, Vittatoe had a disappointing campaign after two excellent seasons in ’07 and ’08 and think that he should bounce back this year. With an offensive line that returns three senior starters, he should have plenty of time to make plays and Buckram should find a lot of room to run once more.
But I have some concerns about the quality of UTEP’s receivers. Senior Kris Adams (42 catches, 580 yards, 2 TDs) is the top returning option and the entire corps had issues with drops. There really isn’t a playmaker in the bunch and that could mean another season of lower numbers for Vittatoe. In the end, I’m going to be optimistic and expect the Miner receivers to put together a stronger campaign, especially junior Donavon Kemp, who averaged 23.7 yards per catch in ’09.
Overall, there is a lot to like about this offense. Buckram is obviously one of the best players in the country, Vittatoe has started 36 games in his career, and the offensive line is pretty solid. While I am concerned about depth at tailback behind Buckram and the caliber of the receivers, I think it is pretty likely that UTEP will break into the 30+ points per game club in 2010.
But for all of the scoring that UTEP has done over the past three seasons, their defense has not been able to muster a remotely decent campaign. Last season saw the Miners allow 33.5 points per game while ceding over 200 yards per game on the ground and nearly 250 yards per game through the air! If you wondered why I wasn’t excited about their team last year, it was clearly because of the defense.
This season, only five starters are back but I really have some doubts about their talent. Up front, senior Robert Soleyjacks is the only returnee and he was an Honorable Mention All-Conference choice last year despite posting only 19 tackles and a single sack. What does that tell you? Other teams were supremely unconcerned about the rest of the line and sent double and triple teams his way, a theme that might repeat itself in 2010 because the rest of the line isn’t that good. However, if junior Bernard Obi (28 tackles, 2 sacks) can continue to evolve into a pass rushing threat, then that will open up more opportunities for Soleyjacks and should mean an improvement upon their anemic 15 sacks from a year ago.
The situation at linebacker is somewhat of a mixed bag, as UTEP loses 1 st Team All-Conference linebacker Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith (108 tackles, 1 sack, 4 forced fumbles). However, they were absolutely decimated with injuries last year and a season of full health would be a nice change for the better. The returning group, led by junior Royzell Smith (68 tackles, 2 INT), has to play behind a pretty weak line and that means that they’ll have to shed a lot more blockers to make tackles. I don’t have a lot of confidence in this group in spite of their experience.
The secondary is also a big concern, as only senior safety Braxton Amy (52 tackles, 5 INT) returns from last year’s poor coverage unit. While Amy is a nice player, the new starters are very inexperienced and I think that UTEP will suffer in the pass-heavy C-USA West because of it. In short, this defense doesn’t look any better than last year’s poor unit (it might actually be worse) and I can definitely see the 2009 scenario repeating itself, where a solid UTEP offense was undone by a bad defensive performance.
The non-conference games look like they were scheduled with easing the path to bowl eligibility in mind. Both New Mexico teams dot the slate, as does D-1AA Arkansas Pine-Bluff, leaving the SEC’s Arkansas as the only major opponent. In conference, UTEP has two long road trips to Eastern foes UAB and Marshall (the league’s longest road trip) and also has to face Tulsa and Houston on the road. To make matters worse, UTEP doesn’t have an off week. While I can definitely see UTEP pulling six wins out of this schedule (both New Mexico teams stink), their league schedule is pretty tough thanks to travel concerns.
2010 has 2009 written all over it for the Miners. Just like 2009, UTEP looks like they’re going to have a very good offense that should put up more than enough points to win most games. However, their defense actually looks worse than 2009 and that is going to repeat the scenario of UTEP losing in shootout fashion. After all, the Miners lost four games last season in which they scored more than four touchdowns! In the end, this defensive deficiency is going to prevent the Miners from earning bowl eligibility and it might also cost Price his job. UTEP is my choice to finish 5th in the C-USA West Division.
PREDICTED RESULT: 4-8 (2-6 CONFERENCE USA)
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