Editor's note: 600 ESPN El Paso will be previewing the UTEP football team ahead of fall camp this week. Stay tuned to SportsTalk for exclusive interviews with coaches, players and football personalities ahead of the season's kick-off on Aug. 27. For the season overview, click here. 


 

The UTEP defense was beyond impressive in 2021. Thanks to seven returning starters, the expectations are high for the unit in 2022. The defense is the anchor for the Miners and the squad needs a repeat of last year's production to have success.

Give a lot of credit to defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto, who was hired over the 2020-21 offseason and helped the defense take the next step. The Miners gave up just 25.2 points per game last season. They were ranked 12th in FBS for their third down defense. They were second in C-USA for total defense, allowing 349.5 yards per game. It was a special year for the defense.

Can they replicate that success in 2022? Similarly, is there another level the defense can go to? Let's jump into this.

Jorge Salgado
Jorge Salgado
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Defensive MVP: Praise Amaewhule 

Defensive end Praise Amaewhule is entering his junior season at UTEP with many goals in mind. He wants to help the program achieve things that haven't been done at the school. He is prideful of being a Miner. He has pro football upside and talents that make him a beast on the defensive line.

When you compare his numbers to a former UTEP defensive end, now NFL player in Roy Robertson-Harris, Amaewhule's stats are admirable to look at. Robertson-Harris, who is currently playing with the Jaguars, totaled 7.5 tackles for loss with the Miners during his junior and senior seasons. His season career high for sacks was in his sophomore year when he totaled 3.5 sacks. In each of his three years with the Miners, including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Amaewhule has totaled 3.0 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss or better. Amaewhule finished with 5.5 sacks in back-to-back seasons (2020 & 2021) and totaled a whopping 12.0 tackles for loss with three forced fumbles in 2021.

The Katy product is a three-time All C-USA selection and enters this season with a veteran defensive line. Teams will game plan against Amaewhule, as they did last year. It's up to the 6-foot-3, 255-pound edge rusher to adjust to different offenses and make his presence felt.

Jorge Salgado
Jorge Salgado
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Defensive line has the potential to be the best in C-USA

Jadrian Taylor, Keenan Stewart, Kelton Moss and Amaewhule. That's an All Conference-caliber unit that the Miners have going into 2022. Their backups are almost just as good as any starting group in C-USA—Kilgore transfer Maurice Westmoreland, Tevita Tafuna, Deylon Williams and Blake Thompson.

This is the strongest and deepest position group on paper for the Miners.

While a lot of the shine is on Amaewhule and Taylor—who combined for 20.5 tackles for losses and 12 sacks in 2021—don't forget about their interior defensive linemen in Stewart and Moss. The senior duo display consistency and play with a lot of physicality. Both battled injuries in 2021 and if healthy this year, the two could be a force.

Jorge Salgado
Jorge Salgado
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With Hayward, the front seven is complete 

The NCAA waiver for standout linebacker Breon Hayward is still up in the air, though sources tell 600 ESPN El Paso that things are trending in the right direction to gain one more year of eligibility this fall. He is still allowed to practice with the team as the process plays out. If and when he's eligible, the Miner defense feels complete.

Hayward finished last season with 108 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery. He was simply all over the field as UTEP's MIKE linebacker. His running mate in Tyrice Knight also had a productive season last year, totaling 101 tackles, 2.0 sacks, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles and an interception.

UTEP's had their share of solid linebackers in recent history, such as AJ Hotchkins, who led C-USA in tackles in 2018, Alvin Jones Jr., Nick Usher and Jimmy Musgrave. However, this might be the best 1-2 punch that we've seen from the linebacker group since Jeremy Jones and Troy Collavo combined for 242 tackles in 2005.

Secondary lacks experience but brings athleticm and potential  

The area of concern for the defense is the secondary simply because we haven't seen a lot of these players on the field.

The most overlooked player in all the preseason watch lists is nickel cornerback Dennis Barnes, who is entering his senior year. Barnes is a hard-hitting athlete that can play anywhere in the secondary. He snagged a pair of interceptions last year, along with three pass deflections and a forced fumble.

Safety Justin Prince is back for his senior year following a medical redshirt season in 2021. The California product will help round out the experience for the secondary.

The coaching staff expects newcomers Josiah Allen, Kobe Hylton and De'Angelo Bellamy to have an impact in the secondary. I'm a fan of newer faces like Torey Richardson, Deshaun Trotter, Tyson Wilson and Ty'reke James, who have each progressed in their respective development throughout the last few years at UTEP.

We could see a lot of different faces rotating in the secondary this year. The depth chart is far from being finalized for the secondary. Fall camp will tell us a lot about this position group.

Bold predictions:

  • Praise Amawhule will shatter the all-time sack record at UTEP this season. He is only 4.5 sacks away from breaking Gonzalo Floyd's (1990-93) record of 20.0 career sacks.
  • Breon Hayward will lead C-USA in total tackles and he will be named onto the first team all-conference
  • Dennis Barnes will lead the team in interceptions for a consecutive season
  • The defense will rank in the top three of C-USA for a consecutive season

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