This time last year, UTEP was undergoing an experiment. Coming off a season that saw it become one of the worst bowl-eligible teams of all-time (they ranked just 102nd in F/+ but reached six wins by beating teams ranked worse than them and upsetting SMU), they decided to do something simple to rectify the struggles of one of the worst defenses in the country: They made everybody bigger.
UTEP changed its offseason football routine this year to include more work with weights and less aerobic conditioning.
The idea was to get the team bigger and it worked.
A good example is redshirt freshman Michael Pickett, who was listed as 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, when he signed last February as a safety, but is now a 225-pound linebacker working with the first team.
"The whole team is bigger than last year," coach Mike Price said. "We lifted a lot during the winter; we didn't do the normal winter conditioning. We lifted instead of running."
SBN's own Tomahawk Nation has long embraced the notion that, when it comes to your defensive front seven, bigger is better. And along those lines, Florida State has served as nice proof of the relationship between size and success -- according to Def. F/+ rankings, the Seminoles' defense has improved from 99th in 2009, to 41st in 2010, to sixth in 2011. That they have gotten bigger and bigger in that time does suggest a solid correlation. But there is still some gray area there. FSU has recruited incredibly well recently, and as we have seen for a while, more highly-touted recruits tend to be bigger and more athletic. Talent probably played at least as large a role in FSU's improvement as anything else. UTEP, then, was an interesting test case last year. They simply added weight to current personnel … personnel which happened to perform horribly the year before.
Combined Weight of UTEP's Front Seven Two-Deep, First Game of 2010: 3,465 pounds
Combined Weight of UTEP's Front Seven Two-Deep, First Game of 2011: 3,565 pounds
One hundred pounds averages out to only about seven pounds per player, but considering 10 of the 14 names remained the same on the two-deep, that is still a nice, isolated case of "same players, more heft."
The results were intriguing. The Miners improved from 117th to 99th in Def. F/+, from 113th to 47th in Adj. Sack Rate, from 119th to 76th in Passing S&P+, from 119th to 100th in Adj. Line Yards, and from 120th to 78th in Rushing Success Rate+. There were obviously still other contributing factors -- that 10 of 14 players remained the same on the front seven's two-deep shows that experience improved by a nice margin -- but consider this a feather in the "size does matter" cap.
In terms of experience, this year's front seven thins out a bit, but depending on who ends up on the fall two-deep, the weight should come in around 3,500-3,550. Will the results stay the same?
Playing an average team each week, UTEP quite possibly would have gone about 2-11, but in sneaking out wins against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (5-6 in the SWAC), New Mexico State (2010 F/+ rank: 120th, dead last), New Mexico (119th), Memphis (118th), Rice (108th), and SMU (59th), the Miners figured out how to make a bowl game with a single win that was even remotely respectable. I don't blame them for this, of course -- you play the teams on your schedule, and if you win enough of them, you go bowling -- but it took a perfect confluence of scheduling events to get this team bowl-eligible (think about how hard it would be to try to schedule the three worst teams in FBS in a given year, only one of which is actually in your conference), and it almost certainly won't happen again in 2011. […]
In losing six of seven to end 2010 (including a stomping in the New Mexico Bowl), he probably negated whatever good will he had established in getting to six wins in the first place, and ... while "three bowls in seven years" doesn't sound too bad, "one bowl in five years" sounds quite a bit worse. UTEP is trending downward quickly, even if wins over some incredibly bad teams disguised that a bit. I used to joke that teams had entered "Glen Mason Territory," when they were winning just enough, compared to their historical baseline, that firing a coach was tough to do ... even though they don't have a lot of hope for ever winning more again. Well ... welcome to Glen Mason Territory, UTEP. Dumping Price would feel good, but the alternative could still be much worse.[…]
UTEP has not played at an "average Conference USA team" level since 2007. Last year, Mike Price fielded his worst team in El Paso, and now a good number of offensive playmakers were gone. With the same schedule as they had last year, the Miners could make another run at bowl eligibility, but ... the 2011 schedule is not the 2010 schedule. ... Mike Price has accomplished a lot in his career (not all of it good), but I really struggle to find too many positives in next year's team.
So I wasn't very high on UTEP heading into last season. As a whole, however, it was a slightly positive surprise. They finished 5-7 against a tougher schedule, improved a solid amount on defense and held steady despite losses (and platoons) on offense. It took them a while to round into form, but they were downright solid over the last two months.
Adj. Scoring Margin (First Four Games): Opponent 29.5, UTEP 23.4 (minus-6.1)
Adj. Scoring Margin (Last Eight Games): UTEP 29.2, Opponent 28.5 (plus-0.7)
A tough schedule and a tight loss at Rice precluded any major sense of progress (the record did, after all, slip by a half-game), but it was there if you looked hard enough for it, and evidently athletic director Bob Stull saw enough of it to keep Price on for another year. The offense has a new round of departures to account for (this time at both running back and receiver), but with a true starting quarterback and a downright solid line, it should be able to maintain last year's solid late form.
You know the old saying: If you have four quarterbacks and four running backs, you have none of either.
That's the old saying, right? Something like that? Regardless, UTEP came into the 2011 with something of a logjam, and thanks to injury, it did not sift itself out very quickly. Nick Lamaison won the job to start the season, completed 15 of 26 passes for just 142 yards against SMU in Week 2, then got hurt. He recovered, looked good against Rice (16-for-29, 294 yards, three touchdowns, two picks), then got hurt again. His backups were mostly ineffective, which resulted in an odd turn of events: Four different UTEP quarterbacks saw snaps over the course of the season. Then-sophomore Carson Meger was reasonably effective, if pick-prone; Jay Hall was sacked just about every time he dropped to pass, and New Mexico transfer Tate Smith failed to impress in minimal snaps.
(Lamaison wasn't the first recent UTEP quarterback to struggle with injuries. UTEP fans are starting to develop a complex.)
When healthy, Lamaison was at least reasonably effective, and with help from the run game, UTEP's offense played at a higher level late in the season, even with him in and out of the lineup. That he lost four of his top six targets seems a little scary at first, but A) the top two (senior Mike Edwards and intriguing sophomore Jordan Leslie) return, B) none of the four who left were very effective, and C) the Miners are downright giddy about their tight ends. The trio of junior Kevin Perry and sophomores Eric Tomlinson and Craig Wenrick combined for just 27 receptions last fall, but they each took turns dominating in March.
At first glance, one would probably expect the running game to regress following the departures of three interesting backs: Joe Banyard, Leilyon Myers and Vernon Frazier, who combined for 25 carries and 136 yards per game last year. And to be sure, their combined plus-20.1 Adj. POE rating suggests they were a combined three touchdowns better than your average running back given their carries and blocking. But sophomore Nathan Jeffery (6.4 yards per carry) also looked interesting in limited opportunities last year, and he torched all of El Paso this spring. If he and a batch of youngsters (including incoming three-star freshmen Paul Franklin and Autrey Golden) can approximate the departed seniors' production, the improved passing game should result in an improved overall offense.
Of course, there is another enormous "if" here: The offensive line needs to get healthy. Six linemen, including four projected starters, missed the spring with injuries. If healthy, a line that ranked 59th in Adj. Line Yards last fall, returns six players with starting experience (53 career starts). Jeffery looked just fine running behind the backups in spring, but that isn't something they should try when Oklahoma comes to town in September.
Throughout all the spring practice articles I read, I saw quite a bit about Nathan Jeffery, the dominant tight ends, and an offensive line that did well despite the injuries. All I saw about the defense was that it "hit hard." That is what we will call a Spring Football Red Flag. The Miners' defense really did improve a considerable amount in 2011, on standard downs at least (they still ranked 110th on passing downs, which is odd considering they ranked 47th in Adj. Sack Rate), but there is some decent personnel to replace: End Bernard Obi, tackle Jamie Fehoko and linebackers Jeremy Springer and Isaiah Carter were all integral members of the two deep, and it is probably not a good sign that their replacements got pushed around by the second-string offensive line. Perhaps the offense is just that good, but perhaps not.
There is hope regarding the upside of the replacements -- former three-star recruits like tackle Marcus Bagley, end Adam Ayala, and linebackers A.J. Ropati and DeAndre Little will all play expanded roles this fall. So perhaps by the time September rolls around, the replacements will have settled in just fine. If so, the Miners can go back to solving LAST year's problem: a secondary that was a bit too leaky on passing downs. The pieces are in place for an improved secondary -- cornerback Drew Thomas is solid, and seniors like DeShawn Grayson and Richard Spencer are aggressive. These three combined for 6.5 tackles for loss, 12 passes broken up and three picks last fall. On paper, this looks like a solid unit, though it is hard to absolve the secondary for last fall's only-so-improved numbers.
While size was a contributing factor to last fall's minor improvement, the key to taking another step forward in 2012 could be newcomers. Ropati led the team in tackles in the spring game, but each unit could at least get a boost in depth with the arrivals of three-star tackle Devonte Richardson and three-star defensive backs Dashone Smith and DaCarlos Renfro this fall. Relying on freshmen is typically a fool's errand, but if at least one of those three can become immediate contributors, UTEP might have enough playmakers to take at least another small step forward.
Two years ago, UTEP took advantage of a woefully weak schedule to reach six wins with an iffy team. This fall's Miners will almost certainly be better than that one (just like 2011's team was), but with trips to Ole Miss, Wisconsin, Tulsa, Houston and Southern Miss and a visit from Oklahoma, the road to six wins will have no margin for error whatsoever. UTEP will likely need to pull an upset in that batch of games, then go 5-1 in the others (which includes home games versus SMU and Central Florida). We'll go ahead and say that's unlikely and set the bar at five wins.
I'm not sure what Mike Price needs to accomplish for job security purposes, but with this schedule five wins will be another sign of improvement. And as far as Price goes, something I wrote last year bears repeating:
[W]hen Mike Price came to town in 2004, UTEP had managed just a single winning season since Bob Stull left for Missouri in 1989. They had won three games or fewer in 11 of those 15 season. UTEP football was, for all intents and purposes, a wasteland. So the job Price has done in establishing even relative respectability -- three bowls in seven seasons -- deserves praise. This is not an easy job.
Price has raised expectations just enough that he is now not meeting them. UTEP will improve in 2012, but I'm not sure the win total will reflect that. (And "Yeah, but their F/+ ranking has improved for two straight years!" will resonate among fans, ahem.) Athletic director Stull knows exactly how hard this job is, and he likely gave Price more time because of it. But at some point, fan interest dwindles with 4-8 and 5-7 seasons. Sophomores like Jeffery, Leslie and the tight ends are intriguing, and the bigger defense has certainly improved output thus far, but the Miners will need to improve quite a bit to see minor improvements in the win column.
While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together: