Photo courtesy of UTEP Athletics
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Although they were in great position and controlled their own destiny with five games to play in 2011, the Miners collapsed down the stretch and finished with a 5-7 record, UTEP's sixth straight losing record.
Coach Mike Price avoided humiliation in 2011's opener by squeaking by Stony Brook (31-24) of the FCS in a game that extended into overtime. UTEP was defeated by SMU (28-17) in its Conference USA opener the following week, but bounced back with a victory over New Mexico State (16-10). Back-to-back losses to South Florida (52-24) and Houston (49-42) were followed by triumphs over Tulane (44-7) and Colorado State (31-17).
The Miners, then with a 4-3 record and five games left to play, needed just two more wins to become eligible for bowl consideration. Southern Miss (31-13) and Rice (41-37) downed UTEP in consecutive weeks, but the Miners bounced back with a much needed win over East Carolina (22-17). UTEP however, went 0-for-2 in its final two contests, as Tulsa (57-28) and UCF (31-14) ran away with big leads to continue the Miners' streak of sub par campaigns.
OFFENSE: Price's well-known love for airing it out was put on hold in 2011 as he simply did not have the proper personnel to employ a strategy that revolved around an aerial attack. The more balanced offensive gameplan helped UTEP finish fifth in C-USA in scoring (26.6 ppg), fourth in rushing offense (154.9 ypg), and seventh in total offense (380.5 ypg).
Quarterback Nick Lamaison is back for his senior year after a pedestrian showing last season (1,718 yards, 12 TDs, 10 INTs). Lamaison showed flashes of potential, but often dealt with injuries and inconsistency in 2011.
"Our young players, particularly on offense, are very good," Price said. "The thing about this team is our starters can't get hurt and expect for their job to be waiting. They could be sitting on the sidelines to the credit of our depth."
Lamaison's chances of having a stronger showing in his final campaign are higher with his top two receivers, Michael Edwards and Jordan Leslie (6-2, 210), back in the mix. Although Edwards is built like a running back (5-11, 200), his excellent route running and blocking make him impossible not to play.
Nathan Jeffery (5-11, 195) might be the most valuable player on the offensive due to his explosive speed which makes him a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. Jeffery averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season as a freshman and became the feature back when Joe Banyard, Vernon Frazier, and Leilyon Myers graduated. Josh Bell and LaQuintus Dowell are Price's top options at backup running back.
DEFENSE: The Miners struggled against their opponents that had a winning record last season. Stopping the run was the most glaring problem for UTEP, as it allowed 189.8 rushing yards per game. The defense lost seven starters, but experienced seniors will fill in most of the open spots to avoid any drop off. Horace Miller is an impact player due to his high-motor and great speed coming off of the edge. He led the team in sacks (five), tackles for loss (eight), and QB hurries (seven) in 2011 despite only starting six contests. Interior lineman Germand Reed should command some attention in the middle to help Miller break free on the outside.
Defensive coordinator Andre Patterson had to replace all three of his starting linebackers from last season. Senior Jamie Irving sat out 2011 with a shoulder injury but was an impact player for the Miners before his injury. The middle linebacker can make plays from sideline-to-sideline and lays explosive hits on ball carriers when at full strength. John Fely (5-11, 225) and Aubrey Alexius (5-11, 225) will start at the outside positions and feed off of Irving's energy.
The secondary is led by the duo of FS DeShawn Grayson and CB Drew Thomas. Grayson is a former C-USA All-Freshman team member with lots of experience. Thomas is solid starter, but finding another CB to play opposite of him may be problematic for Patterson.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jeffery is an ideal return man due to his creativity and quickness in the open field, but his move up the depth chart to starting running back will limit how much he is used on special teams. Ian Campbell is one of the top punters in the country. The senior led the C-USA last season with a 46.1-yard average on punts. Dakota Warren, who went 13-of-22 on field goals an 32-of-34 on extra points last season, might lose his starting spot to sophomore Steven Valadez. The Miners plan to use Valadez on kickoffs either way.
OUTLOOK: Price has not guided UTEP to a winning record since his inaugural year with the school in 2005. The West Division will not be as deadly with Houston's Chase Keenum and Tulsa's G.J. Kinne's departures, but the Miners are not in position to vie for a spot in the C-USA Championship game.
UTEP's very difficult 2012 schedule begins with a home game against the Oklahoma Sooners on September 1, and it will travel the following weekend to square off with the Rebels of Ole Miss. The Miners then have to face their rival New Mexico State Aggies before heading to Madison to duel the Wisconsin Badgers.
An 0-7 start for Price's team is quite possible if it can not handle the Aggies on September 15. The Miners will conclude their regular season with an in-state bout versus Rice on November 24.
"I think as always we are aiming for a conference championship. We want to be conference champions, we want a bowl game, and we want to send these seniors off right." said Patterson.
The Miners just did not have what it took defensively to compete with the high octane offenses of the C-USA last season. Some of the conference's star power has been lost, but there are a handful of talented unknowns waiting to emerge. UTEP is going to take a step backwards from its 5-7 finish in 2011 if none of its players make an unexpected splash.