Monday, May 31, 2010

Pre-Season Preview: UTEP Miners

2009 Record: 4-8 (3-5 in C-USA)
2009 Bowl: N/A
Final 2009 AP Ranking: Not Ranked
Head Coach: Mike Price (34-38 at UTEP, 163-160 Overall)
Non-Conference Schedule: Arkansas-Pine Bluff (9/4), New Mexico State (9/18), @ New Mexico (10/2), @ Arkansas (11/13)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 29.8 points per game (3rd in C-USA)
Rushing Yards/Game: 151 (5th in C-USA)
Passing Yards/Game: 275 (3rd in C-USA, 20th in Nation)
Total Yards/Game: 426 (2nd in C-USA) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 33.5 points per game (9th in C-USA, 104th in Nation)
Rushing Yards/Game: 200 (10th in C-USA, 106th in Nation)
Passing Yards/Game: 246 (5th in C-USA)
Total Yards/Game: 446 (7th in C-USA, 110th in Nation)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: -0.25 per game (8th in C-USA)
Penalties: 69 yards per game (11th in C-USA, 112th in Nation)

Returning Starters
Offense: 7
Defense: 4

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Trevor Vittatoe, Sr (223 of 407 for 3286 yds, 17 TD, 13 INT, 273 ypg)
Rushing: RB Donald Buckram, Sr (259 carries for 1594 yds, 18 TD, 6.1 ypc, 132 ypg)
Receiving: WR Kris Adams, Sr (42 rec, 580 yds, 2 TD, 3.5 rec/game)
Receiving: WR Donald Buckram, Sr (30 rec, 453 yds, 3 TD, 2.5 rec/game)
Tackles: LB Royzell Smith, Jr (68); LB Jeremy Springer, Jr (66)
Sacks: DL Bernard Obi, Jr (2)
Interceptions: LB Royzell Smith, Jr (2)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Lindy's: Not Ranked
Mark Schlabach: Not Ranked
Rivals: Not Ranked
Scout: Not Ranked
Sporting News:  #77
Sports Illustrated: Not Ranked
Athlon Sports: #82

2010 Pre-Season C-USA Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #3 in C-USA West

Bowl Prediction:
Athlon Sports: New Orleans Bowl (vs Troy)

UTEP went 2-11 in 2003 and then they turned the program over to Mike Price. Price posted back to back 8-4 seasons in his first two at UTEP and led them to bowl games. Unfortunately, they haven't had a winning season or been back to a bowl since 2005. Even though they went 4-8 last year they did beat Houston (then #12 in the Nation) 58 to 41. UTEP returns some impressive talent on the offensive side of the football but the achilles heel of the team last year was the defense. Can Price turn around the UTEP defense and be a contender in Conference USA? We caught up with Adrian from the SB Nation blog Miner Rush to find out what to expect from the 2010 UTEP Miners.

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the team?

The major strength is obviously talent at the skill positions on offense. Trevor Vittatoe is a four year starter at quarterback who will be expected to have a 3,000 yard season this fall. Donald Buckram finished fourth in the nation last year in rushing. He's a small, speed back, who has a knack for breaking tackles and runs with surprising power for his size. He has incredible vision and might be the closest thing at the college level to Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans. Kris Adams has potential to be a threat at the WR postition. His numbers weren't great last year but Miner fans expect a big year from him.

The team's greatest weakness will probably be the transition to a new defensive scheme. New defensive coordinator, Andre Patterson, is switching UTEP over from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3 attack. The Miners showed promise along the defensive line during spring and while they may be undersized as a whole, have decent depth that they will need to free up their linebacker corps led by the very talented Jeremy Springer and Royzell Smith. The team's secondary struggled immensely last year as the 3-3-5 required tons of man to man coverage. Expect a transition into more traditional zone sets to really help a team with talent maximize their potential.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test?

I mean no disrespect to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in week one, because as a Miner fan, we can't take any games for granted, but the first major test is definitely Houston in week 2. The Cougars came in to El Paso ranked #12 in the nation last year, fresh off wins against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and had legitimate BCS expectations. Then, Donald Buckram & Co. torched their defense to the tune of 58-41 and the rest of Houston's season was quite forgettable. UTEP and Houston have a history of tough games and the early season game will be huge for the C-USA West race. Andre Patterson's new defense will have to play a perfect game to slow down Case Keenum.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

I'm not sure Miner fans "fear" any team on the schedule right now because nobody on the schedule looks to be as good as Texas was last year and the year before. This team has played the very best competition in the country, and while the second game wasn't nearly as competitive as the first, I'm confident that the Miners can hang around with anybody on their schedule. Even Arkansas.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

Good question and there are a lot of good players that don't get the acclaim they deserve. If I had to pick one, I'd go with TE Jonny Moore. Moore is not used in the passing game the way he probably could be, but if you watch Donald Buckram's highlights from last season, time and time again you will see Moore getting quality blocks downfield. He's a ferocious blocker and is essential to UTEP's success.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

There are a lot of good players on the team. Rod Huntley, Vittatoe, Adams, and Alex Solot are all quality D-1 players who at the very least will be fighting for an UFA contract at some point, but the star is probably Buckram. He's one of the most entertaining players to watch in the country. End of Story.

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?

Linebacker Jeremy Springer is all over the field on just about every play. He's a gamer and is one of those guys that even when he doesn't make the tackle, he's probably impacted the play in a way to make the tackle easier for someone else on the team. He's a good, hard nosed football player.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach it's full capability?

I can't identify one single player. I'll say it's the entire secondary. In the C-USA, with Tulsa, Houston, and other elite spread offenses littering the conference, it's essential that you have a secondary that plays tough coverage and has players that don't miss tackles that make marginal plays game changers. UTEP lost some leaders in the secondary in Cornelius Brown (now trying to make it with the Chicago Bears) and Da'Mon Cromartie Smith (now trying to make it with the Steelers). It will be interesting to see how the new guys step up and adjust to the new scheme.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

Getting back to the secondary, the Miners expect big things from JC transfer cornerback Travaun Nixon. He has good size, 6'1-205. and displayed excellent cover ability during spring ball. He showed vast improvement from the beginning of camp to the end of camp and emerged as a guy that could be the #1 corner in the fall.

Mike Price has been the Head Coach for 6 years. He started out with 2 winning seasons and since has had 4 straight losing seasons and has not posted a winning conference record since 2005. How much pressure is he under to turn around the program and what does he need to do better to get the job done?

Finish games. The Miners lost 5 games last year by 7 points or less. Some of the losses were absolutely baffling. For example, the Miners followed their triumph against Houston with an absolutely atrocious loss to Memphis. There was no reason why the Miners should have lost to Tulane or Rice. Coach Price is beloved in El Paso but the locals need UTEP to win the ones their supposed to. With Vittatoe a senior, and with one of the best running backs in the country, anything less than a bowl game will render this season a disappointment and the pressure will rise on Coach Price.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

I don't want to toss out numbers just yet, but like I said the Miners have to make a bowl game for this season to be a success. Miner fans want a winning record and with the senior talent it's justifiable to expect a bowl game this season. Anything more than 7-5 is cake for us. We want to see Trevor go out a winner and we want to see Mike Price's reputation vindicated nationally, but we understand that progress comes slowly and we are conditioned to not be greedy when it comes to expectations. Realistically, a winning record and bowl game will revive a city desperate to root for a winner.

Next Up: Tulane Green Wave

2010 Previews
Big East- Cincinnati Bearcats, Pittsburgh Panthers, West Virginia Mountaineers
Big Ten- Michigan WolverinesMinnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers
Conference USA- Houston Cougars
MAC- Temple Owls
Mountain West- Utah Utes
Pac-10- Oregon Ducks, USC Trojans, Washington Huskies
Sun Belt- Troy Trojans


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