Five Rising Players on Defense to Watch in 2023 for UTEP Football
Week two of UTEP football fall camp continued as the Miners are officially in the month of August and the countdown to the season opener at Jacksonville State (Aug. 26) is on.
Let's talk UTEP defense!
The Miners are led by three All-CUSA veteran players on defense in pass rusher Praise Amaewhule, linebacker Tyrice Knight and safety Kobe Hylton. Other previous starters, including defensive tackle Keenan Stewart and slot corner Josiah Allen, are back in the mix.
Then comes guys like cornerback Torey Richardson, who was lauded by coaches going into the 2022 season but never saw action due to a season-long injury. The junior is healthy and is expected to be the top cover corner this year.
Defensive tackle Tevita Tafuna will fill the Kelton Moss role on the defensive line and has 22 games of playing experience under his belt. Linebacker James Neal is competing for a starting job alongside Knight. Lastly, free safety McKel Broussard is expected to play alongside Hylton in the defensive backfield.
Now let's get to the rising players to watch in 2023.
Honorable mentions: DE Kanious Vaughn, FS Davis Burns, S Oscar Moore
I'm still a firm believer that the Miners' strength is on the defensive side of the ball. It's reflected by the two/three-deep that the Miners flex at each position on defense. I had a tough time picking three honorable mentions knowing how much depth the defense has at fall camp.
Saddleback College transfer Kanious Vaughn will be a name to watch on the defensive line this year. He was named Southern League Defensive MVP after starring for Saddleback as a freshman in 2022, where he racked up 11.0 sacks and 15.0 tackles for loss.
"He has a certain knack to him," Dimel talked about Vaughn. "He only started five games last year and led the conference in sacks. He will add some pass rush for us on the edge."
Coronado graduate Davis Burns is a defensive back that is fighting for more playing time this year. He's received praise from players and coaches for his development in the secondary. Burns played in 11 games last year on special teams for the Miners. This year, he hopes to see action at the safety position as a backup to Hylton and Broussard.
"It's a blessing, I've worked my whole life to get here," Burns said. "You see the ups and downs of UTEP over time. I saw the downs for UTEP and we're progressively getting better and now we're on the rise."
Out of the Kilgore College pipeline comes junior transfer safety Oscar Moore. The Miners want their defensive identity to revolve around making aggressive plays on defense and forcing turnovers. Last year, Moore totaled four interceptions and three forced fumbles at Kilgore. He will be someone to watch out for this year.
5. CB Atiq Muhammad
In football, there are guys that work constantly to become great and there are guys that are physical freaks at the sport. Atiq Muhammad, who might not see the field in 2023 because of depth in the secondary, falls in the "freak" category.
I asked defensive back Ilijah Johnson, who is a name to look out for in the future among the Miner secondary. Johnson, a three-year veteran on the squad, didn't hesitate to tell me his answer was Muhammad.
Based on conversations I've had, both on and off the record, this didn't surprise me.
"Mother f—long dude, fast, he can lock in and play well," Johnson said about the 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman.
There's a certain buzz around Muhammad that is infectious. He looks like a tall wide receiver when you watch him stand on the sidelines. He flies across the field with noticeable speed. He is extremely raw and needs polishing on his game, but has all the tools to be great. Again, he might not play this year, but my eyes are on No. 29 this year.
4. DL KD Johnson (Kilgore College transfer)
As the Miners continue to build depth on their defensive line, another Kilgore College product in KD Johnson is expected to play immediately for the squad this year.
"He's playing as good as anyone up front," Dimel said. "He started for us [on Thursday] and looked really good."
Johnson, a junior from Houston Hightower High School, wears No. 7 like another former Kilgore product in Kelton Moss. He was productive at Kilgore, finishing two seasons with 86 tackles, 9.0 sacks and three fumble recoveries.
3. CB Amier Boyd-Matthews
Redshirt freshman Amier Boyd-Matthews is entering the season in a unique situation. When the Miners faced injuries and had depth concerns in the secondary last year, Boyd-Matthews stepped in as a true freshman and started the final three games at the cornerback spot. Since he only played four games last year, he was able to still be redshirted with the team and enters this season as a redshirt freshman.
"Last year was a wake up call for me," Boyd-Matthews said. "Last year against UTSA, I didn't really have a good game. All the offseason, I put in a lot of work. Last year was motivation for this year. I'm going to push myself to be the best player on the team I can be."
The Tempe, Ariz. product will play his share of snaps behind starters like Torey Richardson. And if he continues to progress during camp like the coaching staff suggests, he could find his way into a starting role in the future.
2. NB/Slot Ilijah Johnson
It feels like Ilijah Johnson has been a part of the squad much longer than his redshirt sophomore classification indicates. Due to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Johnson had a chance to see on-field action but didn't lose a year of eligibility. He redshirted officially in 2021. Last season, he appeared in 10 games for the UTEP secondary, making eight starts.
"I'm trying to win a bowl game and get a conference championship," Johnson said. "It was disappointing last year how I ended my season. We ended up missing a bowl game and I don't want that to happen again. That's why I have a fire to myself this year."
In only 14 games played at UTEP, Johnson has made his presence felt. He led last year's defense with a pair of interceptions and also co-led the team in pass breakups (six). This season, Johnson will split time with Josiah Allen as a nickel/slot cornerback. The positive part about Johnson's game is his versatility to play anywhere in the secondary.
"It gives me more opportunities to get on the field and help the team out," explained Johnson.
1. CB AJ Odums, junior (New Mexico transfer)
As one of the top recruits from the 2023 class for UTEP, New Mexico transfer AJ Odums is expected to be a day one starter for the Miner defense. He finished the 2022 season with 48 tackles (28 solo), five breakups and an interception for the Lobos. Following a productive spring that has translated into a solid fall camp, Odums is continuing to earn the trust of coaches and learning the defense.
"He's a football junkie," Dimel said. "He spends a lot of his extra time learning."
Odums will play opposite of Richardson as a cornerback on this team. If healthy, the Miners will have a combination of Richardson-Odums-Allen as cornerbacks. To back them up, they will have solid depth pieces like Ilijah Johnson, Trez Moore (formally known as La'trez Shelton) and Muhamad.