UTEP Football Position Breakdown: Offensive Line
July 27, 2009
This is the first in a series of articles previewing the 2009 UTEP football team. The Miners will start fall drills on Thursday, Aug. 6.
The old adage is that a football team's offense is only as good as its offensive line.
It's a saying that has carried weight in the Mike Price era at UTEP. In four of the last five years, the Miners have piled up yards and points. The only year that they have had their struggles moving the ball - in 2006, when they averaged 57.6 yards rushing per game - they received their weakest protection up front.
That was Jordan Palmer's senior year - proving that a good quarterback can take a team only as far as its offensive line will lead it.
The Miners will have another record-setting signal-caller, junior Trevor Vittatoe, this fall. But if UTEP is going to have its most prolific offensive team under Price - and the potential is certainly there on paper - then the O-line will have a lot to say about it.
Bob Connelly's first year as co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach was certainly a successful one, as the Miners averaged 406.5 yards and 32.9 points per game and Vittatoe set a school record with 33 touchdown passes.
"We had a lot of injuries and there were some different faces throughout the season, and I thought we got some valuable playing time across the board," Connelly said. "I thought we got the most out of the group that we played with."
While the Miners posted eye-popping offensive numbers a year ago, Connelly believes improvement can be made in 2009 - especially if the team can run the ball more effectively at certain times than it did a year ago.
With several backs sharing the load, UTEP averaged 122.3 yards rushing and 4.0 yards per carry last season.
"We had four running backs average 4.2 yards or better," Connelly said. "That's a pretty good stat. As an offensive line coach, an efficient run is three yards or more. But we have to get better in critical situations. We have to be a better short-yardage goal line team in terms of production.
"We need to emphasize it more, put our guys in those situations and build the mental toughness aspect of it. At some point you have to throw out the fundamentals and the techniques and it needs to be about me and you. It has to become the mentality that `I'm going to beat the guy in front of me and win that battle one-on-one.'"
Four starters return in the offensive line, with one notable exception - Robby Felix, who started all but two games at center over the last four seasons and is now with the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL.
If there was one positive to be gained from the mild stroke that Felix suffered following the SMU game last November, it was the fact that Tanner Cullumber acquired some much-needed experience while starting the final two games in his place. And Cullumber did a more than competent job, helping the Miners put 37 points and 464 yards on the board in a narrow loss at Houston.
"Tanner was thrown into a volatile situation as an underclassman and handled it very well," Connelly said.
The unexpected playing time for Cullumber might have erased any question marks that would have accompanied the Miner O-Line heading into 2009.
That's because the other four spots in the line feature a total of seven players who have started games at the collegiate level.
There's Mike Aguayo at left tackle, Cameron Raschke and Anthony McNac at left guard, Rod Huntley and Colby Meek at right guard, and Will Osolinsky and Alex Solot at right tackle. All are either juniors or seniors.
With Aguayo and Huntley the likely starters at left tackle and right guard respectively. three key position battles are shaping up for the fall.
Cullumber will be pushed by redshirt freshman Eloy Atkinson at center.
"I feel very confident with Eloy Atkinson," Connelly said. "He had a great first year here, had a very productive spring training and has done well in summer conditioning. Tanner has had the very best spring and summer since he has been at UTEP. Both of those guys have grown up in a hurry."
McNac and Raschke will compete at left guard.
"Cameron brings a lot of experience, but he missed all of spring ball [with knee scope and shoulder reconstruction] and Anthony had a chance to improve his status and his confidence," Connelly said.
Osolinsky and Solot are the contenders to start at right tackle.
"Will was having a great spring and unfortunately broke his leg, and Alex got most of the reps when he went down," Connelly said. "They will have a tough battle in camp."
Connelly thinks 6-4, 285-pound junior college import Lance Evbuomwan is capable of making a splash in a depth chart crowded with veterans.
"He is a very athletic offensive lineman," Connelly said. "He has very good feet, and he's a natural pass protector. He has to build the confidence of putting his hand in the ground and being an every down offensive lineman. He will have the opportunity to compete with [redshirt freshman] Britt Mitchell at the left tackle position."
All the competition could make for a great O-line and a great Miner offense this fall.
"I feel good about our two-deep across the board," Connelly said. "We're going to continue to get better."
2009 UTEP Offensive Line Outlook
Starters Lost: Robby Felix
Newcomers to Watch: Eloy Atkinson (FR), Lance Evbuomwan (JR)
Keys to Success: "We have to come together as a unit and have great communication. We need to have the attitude that we'll do whatever it takes to be successful, whether it's running or passing the ball. We have to be successful in everything that we do and establish the mindset that we'll be the best offensive line in Conference USA and move the chains." - Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Bob Connelly