2007 UTEP Miners football preview
2006 Record: (5-7, 3-5)
Starters Returning: 10 (7 offense, 3 defense, 0 specialists)
Offensive Starters Lost: QB Jordan Palmer, WR Johnnie Lee Higgins, WR Daniel Robinson, OL Andy Smith
Offensive Starters Returning: RB Marcus Thomas, WR Joe West, TE Jake Sears, OL Oniel Cousins, OL Robby Felix, OL Tyler Ribitzki, OL James Riley
Defensive Starters Lost: DE Alfonso Auelua, DE Alex Obomese, DT Justin Hanel, DT Zach West, LB Josh Chamois, LB Troy Collavo, CB Bryant Tisdale, S Joe Fleskoski
Defensive Starters Returning: LB Emeri Spence, CB Josh Ferguson, S Quintin Demps
Starting Specialists Lost: K Reagan Schneider, P Ryan Hotchkiss
Starting Specialists Returning: none
Over the last few years UTEP has become very dependent on quarterback Jordan Palmer. Now he is gone and the Miners must look elsewhere for offensive production. For a team that ranked fifth in the nation in passing offense and 116 th in rushing offense, there are major changes that need to be made. Coach Mike Price wants to get the running game going, but how is a team that is not used to running going to react?
2007 UTEP Offense:
With Palmer and his favorite target Johnnie Lee Higgins no longer in El Paso, the offensive attack suddenly is going through Marcus Thomas. The 6-1 senior tailback only rushed for 513 yards last year, but he rarely got a chance in the ground game. Behind Thomas is Oregon transfer Terrell Jackson and sophomores Donald Buckram and Jason Williams. There is the potential for a lot of firepower in that fearsome foursome and, with an experienced offensive line, the running game will rank nowhere near 116 th in the nation this year.
Yet, there is still that little problem of replacing Palmer and Higgins. Five quarterbacks are fighting for minutes and none of them have any experience. Freshman pocket passer Trevor Vittatoe is the likely candidate to get the nod, but James Thomas, Kyle Wright, Brandis Dew and wide receiver Lorne Sam will continue to get looks. Sam, who caught 12 passes last year, is more valuable as a receiver. Joe West is the leading returning receiver with 496 yards, but it could be a couple new faces that help replace the production of Higgins and Daniel Robinson. Sophomore Jeff Moturi only caught one pass in 2006, but has the speed to stretch the field. The biggest newcomer may end up being Fred Rouse. The Florida State transfer was a very highly touted recruit out of high school and has the talent to be a magnificent player over the next three years.
2007 UTEP Defense:
The defensive line gave up 152 rushing yards per game last season. Thus, losing four starters cannot be that bad of a thing. Tackle James Olalekan leads the returning players with a whopping 13 tackles last year. Junior College transfers JaBoy Leomiti and Jason Boyce will be asked to provide experience to a vastly inexperienced group. Experience is not a concern at linebacker. Jeremy Jones broke his leg two games into last season after recording second-team All C-USA accolades in 2005 and will return to his leadership role this season. Emeri Spence returns after starting seven games and Adam Vincent is eligible after transferring from Arizona State. Led by junior college transfers Nuuese Punimata and Torrey Huckaby, depth is not an issue either.
The secondary may have given up a slew of yards and lost two starters, but it could end up to be the strength of the Miners defense. Senior Quintin Demps is a quality free safety and sophomore Braxton Amy is the star of the future. Amy returns to his natural position after starting five games at linebacker last year. Returning starting cornerback Josh Ferguson is an experienced player, but finding his fellow corner is a little more difficult. Senior Tim McCullouch redshirted in 2006 and is expected to get the job, but he will find some competition from sophomores Cornelius Brown and Lance Castleberry.
The Bottom Line for the Miners:
There are a lot of new players on this UTEP squad. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but it will take some time for the team to come together and show what it can really do. On both sides of the ball, the running game is important. If the offense can develop a consistent running attack, the Miners can control the game and not have to put pressure on the inexperienced quarterbacks. The new front four on the defensive end needs to come around quickly to revitalize what was a pretty pathetic defense in 2006.