UTEP Football Position Breakdown: Cornerbacks
July 28, 2009
This is the second in a series of articles previewing the 2009 UTEP football team. The Miners will start fall drills on Thursday, Aug. 6.
There are two schools of thought for why the UTEP defense should be markedly better in 2009.
One theory is that the Miners are ready to take off after taking a year to adjust to coordinator Osia Lewis' 3-3-5 scheme. Another theory says that the Miners can't help but be much-improved with 18 upperclassmen - including 12 seniors - in their preseason defensive two-deep.
Nowhere is the outlook brighter in terms of experience than at the cornerback position, where coach Allen Johnson will likely utilize a four-man rotation that includes three seniors.
While the Miners may have had their ups and downs defensively in 2008, Johnson came away largely pleased with the performance of the cornerbacks in his first year with the Miners.
"They've made tremendous strides from before I got here until now," Johnson said. "They've matured and they have a better understanding of what it takes to play the position.
"While they may not have done as well as I would have liked them to [last season], they did do well," Johnson added. "We had some moments where we didn't play like we were capable of, but for the most part they did a great job."
UTEP had an honorable mention All-Conference performer in Cornelius Brown, who led the team with three interceptions. That gave him seven picks over the last two seasons, and he needs just three as a senior in 2009 to tie for ninth place on the school's career list.
"Cornbread is probably one of the most talented corners in Conference USA," Johnson said. "He has great ball skills, great cover skills, he has a high football IQ and he's a leader. I think he expects to be one of the best corners in the country. He worked extremely hard this summer to try to get to that level, and he's going to be fun to watch this year."
Backing up Brown at right corner will be Antwon Blake, who saw extensive action as a true freshman last season and produced 11 tackles and three pass break-ups in 10 games.
"Antwon had shoulder surgery right after the season and didn't go through spring ball, but he's going to play and he's going to be really instrumental on special teams," Johnson said. "He's a very physical tackler, he has great ball skills and he can cover. He's just young right now. His IQ is getting up there. He's a guy who, down the road, will probably be better than all of the guys we have here right now."
Stephenson led all cornerbacks with 38 tackles last season. Interestingly, 24 of those stops came on the road, including 13 over the final two contests at Houston and East Carolina.
"Melvin has probably made the most improvement of all the corners as far as strength and speed," Johnson said. "He has always been fast, but he has a much better understanding of how to play the position, and he's playing with a lot more intensity. He's playing with a great deal of confidence and he knows what to do."
Bell had a humbling start to the 2008 season, improved as the year went on and was productive in the spring.
"That just shows the type of character he has to go through what he did last year and overcome it," Johnson said. "He has stayed positive, and he's probably in the best shape of his career right now. He's going to be a quality backup player. We're going to use him in long down situations where we'll have three corners on the field because he's quick and fast and he can cover."
Just like it's time for the UTEP defense to step up this fall, it's time for the corners to make their mark in Conference USA.
"All four of these guys are going to play, and all four are going to be contributing in special teams," Johnson said. "They understand that, and they are going to accept the challenge and run with it. It's time for their hard work to pay off and for them to show people in the conference that they're good football players."