By: chalifour.eric | 5/5/12, 3:10 PM EDT
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You can read the entire UTEP preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 National College Football magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
C-USA West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Mike Price, 45-52 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Aaron Price | DEF. COORDINATOR: Andre Patterson
The UTEP offense morphed from a wide-open, receiver-oriented passing attack to a more balanced approach last season, and even though the top three rushers graduated, the Miners will stick to that blueprint.
UTEP returns its quarterback (Nick Lamaison), four of five starters on the offensive line, the top three tight ends and the top two receivers. That leaves an obvious question at tailback, but if sophomore Nathan Jeffery, coming off a tantalizing freshman campaign — he averaged 6.4 yards per carry — can stay healthy, UTEP feels good about its offense.
Coach Mike Price had more confidence in his running back after Jeffery ran for 123 yards in the Spring Game. However, depth at the position is unproven.
Lamaison was solid after transferring in last year from junior college, throwing for 1,718 yards and 12 touchdowns. Receivers Michael Edwards and Jordan Leslie are productive, but the strength of UTEP’s offense may be three big, proven tight ends in Kevin Perry, Craig Wenrick and Eric Tomlinson.
The veteran offensive line will need to play well to help the offense take a step forward.
UTEP’s defensive struggles showed signs of improvement in ’11, but the Miners still ranked 104th in the nation in total defense in 2011. They have not finished in the top half of the conference in total defense since 2005.
The pass rush did take a step forward, and the biggest factors in that — ends Horace Miller and Greg Watkins and tackle Germard Reed — are back and could give the Miners their best defensive front since early in Price’s tenure.
The linebackers should benefit from the return of Jamie Irving, who started in 2010 before missing last year to a pair of shoulder injuries. Safety DeShawn Grayson is a third-year starter, while returning corner starter Drew Thomas was a star of the spring.
“I feel good about the spring,” third-year coordinator Andre Patterson says. “Where we sit today, I told the players, are they going to be satisfied with what they’ve done in 15 practices, or take it as a taste of how good they can be if they work even harder?”
Punter Ian Campbell is an All-America candidate after finishing fourth nationally at 46.1 yards per attempt last season, but there are some questions elsewhere. Incumbent kicker Dakota Warren struggled at times last season and missed spring with an injury, opening the door for kickoff specialist Steven Valadez to win the job as a sophomore.
Edwards is the top punt returner and could be a difference-maker. Jeffery enters the fall as the No. 1 kickoff returner, but Price would rather not use his primary running back on special teams. A backup tailback, perhaps Josh Bell or LaQuintus Dowell, could step into that role.
UTEP’s unspoken formula — to win three nonconference games and cobble together three more victories to get to bowl eligibility — is rendered just about impossible by a slate that includes Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ole Miss. On the bright side, the five wins a year ago were more than many predicted in a complete rebuilding season, and 2012 could see the fruits of that in the final year of the 66-year-old Price’s contract.
The offense returns most of the key pieces, and the defense seems poised to make another incremental improvement, but the Miners will have to overachieve to put themselves in position to become bowl-eligible.