UTEP Football Position Breakdown: Defensive Line

July 30, 2009

This is the fourth in a series of articles previewing the 2009 UTEP football team. The Miners will start fall drills on Thursday, Aug. 6.

In 2004, the UTEP football team made its first bowl appearance under coach Mike Price with the defense racking up 42 sacks.

But the sack totals dropped in each of the next three seasons - to 29 in 2005, 22 in 2006 and 16 in 2007. And two of those campaigns ended with the Miners staying home for the holidays.

Last year didn't produce the third bowl bid of the Price era, but it did produce a substantial improvement in the sack department, as the Miners hiked that number to 23.

That was big news for the UTEP defensive line and great news for the Miners in general, as they continue to build a championship defense to go with their title-worthy offense.

"I think our guys came out and grasped what we were trying to do up front," said DeChon Burns, who is entering his second year as UTEP's defensive line coach. "As they learned, they got more comfortable in our scheme and they got better. We need to continue to improve."

UTEP has a veteran group of defensive linemen heading into the 2009 campaign, as four of the Miners' top six players are seniors. Two of the seniors - Aaron King and Steve Riddick - enter the fall listed atop the depth chart at left end and nose tackle, respectively.

King and Tory Robinson - Riddick's backup - are players to watch in their final year with the Miners, as junior college transfers typically take a year to pan out.

"I expect them to be a lot better," Burns said. "It is such a drastic change for a juco player coming from a two-year school to a four-year school."



Both King and Robinson had their moments in 2008, with King in particular emerging late in the year. He supplied 23 tackles, four tackles for losses and three quarterback pressures on the season.

"Aaron brings athleticism to the table," Burns said. "He is a strong young man with good explosion and long arms. He had a good spring. We had to hold him back some when he hurt his shoulder, but he was coming on strong prior to the injury."

Robinson contributed 12 stops a year ago.

"We asked Tory to play nose, so he was not only making the transition from a four-man front to a three-man front but also to playing inside," Burns said. "He was doing things technically and fundamentally that he hadn't done before. Everything was catch-up for him, from defensive concepts to conditioning to workloads and work ethic."

Robinson will likely spell Riddick, who started every game at nose tackle last season and led all defensive linemen with 32 tackles - including 4.5 for losses.

"Steve has done a phenomenal job," Burns said. "I have been pushing him and he has been pushing himself. He lost about 15 pounds and has gotten himself into the best shape of his career. He is very dedicated, working out two times a day and watching film. He is a consummate leader and I expect big things from him. Towards the end of last season he was getting double and triple teamed by people. That's a good thing."

Joining King and Riddick as a projected starter is junior Robert Soleyjacks, who tied for second in the country in fumble recoveries with four while adding 28 stops a year ago.

"I like what he's done," Burns said. "He was a quiet worker last year. Obviously he found a way to be around the football. We fixed some of the technical things that he wasn't during right during the offseason and spring ball. He's a bookend for us."

Senior Chris Moore and sophomore Bernard Obi are the top reserves at left end and right end at this point.

Moore had his most productive outing of the 2008 season in the next-to-last game at Houston, where he posted three tackles and a pass break-up.

"Chris was a swing guy a year ago, playing end and nose," Burns said. "He lost 20-25 pounds and worked on his speed and technique this offseason. He is playing with some fire and intensity, realizing that this is his last year."

Despite missing three games with a shoulder injury as a freshman, Obi turned in a 15-tackle season to earn a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team.

"If Bernard does what he's supposed to do, I expect him to pick up where he left off," Burns said. "He has the work ethic and he plays the way you want him to - fired up with a never-ending motor."

Burns is also looking for contributions from Landon Goodwell - another senior - as well as redshirt freshmen Austin Shaffer and Greg Watkins.

"Landon is going to make the transition back to end," Burns said. "He is athletic and has found a way to be around the football, causing sacks and fumbles. Austin can be a swing guy as well. He learned to understand the speed of the college game as a redshirt. He's hungry to be on the field, and he comes from a Permian High School program [in Odessa, Texas] where they expect to do big things. Greg has made the switch from linebacker to end. He's athletic, long and quick. He will be interesting to watch."

Help could also come from a couple of transfers - Jamie Fehoko, who comes to UTEP via the College of San Mateo, and Isaac Tauaefa, who originally enrolled at Air Force. Fehoko had 13 tackles for losses and seven sacks last season.

If the Miner defensive line takes another step forward in 2009, expect the five seniors to play a major role.

"They understand what it takes to go after it and play hard," Burns said. "They've been around and they realize you can't play on three quarters of a tank. You have to play wide open with your tank filled up, and you have to play every play like it's your last.

"They're taking ownership in this front and pushing each other on and off the field, in the weight room and the meeting room. When you have that kind of mentality floating around, good things tend to happen."

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