UTEP Football Position Breakdown: Safeties
Aug. 4, 2009
This is the eighth in a series of articles previewing the 2009 UTEP football team. The Miners will start fall drills on Thursday, Aug. 6.
UTEP assistant coach Jim Clark is frank when assessing the play of his safeties in 2008.
"In general, I didn't think we did a good job at all," he said. "When you rely on three true freshmen - and I'm not saying we put all of our eggs in one basket - but that's a lot. We were counting on some guys who just didn't pan out. And that's because our depth wasn't as good as it should have been. So as far as last season goes, it was disappointing."
Three players were added to the mix in hopes of shoring up the situation for 2009. Braxton Amy, UTEP's leading tackler in 2007, returns after missing the entire '08 campaign with a torn ACL. Clarence Ward has been moved from corner to safety. And DeShawn Grayson comes in as a highly-touted freshman.
There's no questioning Amy's talent. He was a Sporting News Freshman All-American in 2006, and he racked up 112 stops in 2007. The great mystery surrounding Amy is whether he can make it through a season injury-free.
"I'm the lone holdover [from the defensive coaching staff] who knows what Braxton Amy can do on the football field," Clark said. "He is a heck of a player, and with him in our lineup we are a better team. We've got to knock the rust out of him in camp. We've got to get him into a little bit of tackling again. We've got to get him to move around and change direction, because we've got to keep him healthy.
"I want him to walk onto that field when we play Buffalo [on Sept. 5] with a fire in his eyes, ready to go. That's my goal for Braxton Amy."
Ward started the last seven games of the 2008 season - four at left corner and three at right corner - while posting 31 tackles, two interceptions and four pass break-ups. This year marks the final collegiate go-round for the well-traveled Ward, whose career has taken him to Florida State, Texas Tech, Santa Rosa Junior College and now UTEP.
"If you look at our depth at corner with Melvin Stephenson, Cornelius Brown, Dustin Bell and Antwon Blake, the smart move was to use Clarence at safety," Clark said. "He played there earlier in his career. He's tall enough and he has good coverage skills."
Clark gushes over the potential of Grayson, an All-State player as a sophomore at Rancho Verde High School in Riverside, Calif. Grayson went through spring ball earlier this year, accelerating his development.
"That kid is going to be a really special football player when all is said and done," Clark said. "He is very athletic, he can cover and he knows his zone responsibilities. He tackles well and he's going to give you 100 percent effort."
Martel Strange (nine tackles in '08) has been moved back to corner, leaving Bakersfield College transfer Brandon Miller as one of the top reserves at safety. Miller was a second team Southern California Football Association choice a year ago after posting 29 stops at Bakersfield.
"He has spent the whole summer learning the coverages," Clark said. "He is a big, good-looking kid who is going to hit you. He's a good tackler and he's physical."
"I want them to get on every possible special team and compete for a starting job on there," Clark said. "Those two kids are probably my favorites because of their work ethic. They have done the job both on the field and in the classroom (both are members of the Conference USA Commissioner's Academic Honor Roll)."
Cromartie-Smith is UTEP's top returning tackler with 77 stops in 2008. He earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors and finished the season strong with 26 tackles over the final two contests.
"He's fast, he's athletic, and he's going to knock you down hard if he gets the chance," Clark said. "We're really lucky to have him. He fits the defense perfectly at the Miner spot. Coach [Osia] Lewis has really tweaked the structure of his defense to help Da'Mon out and benefit him more. And personally, I expect him to be the leader of the defense and a leader in camp."
Jeune also went through spring drills after transferring from Moorpark Junior College, where he was a second team All-Conference player.
"This kid is a headhunter," Clark said. "He's going to come work in those alleys, running downhill, trying to knock somebody's head off. And he plays sideline to sideline. He's going to run across the field to hit you."
The new kid on the block is Richard Spencer, who was regarded as the no. 35 safety in the country by ESPN.com coming out of the same high school as Cromartie-Smith and Grayson - Rancho Verde in Riverside, Calif.
"I expect that in the next year or two, this kid is going to be a heck of a football player," Clark said. "He loves the game of football. I'm excited to see what he can do in camp."