UTEP Football Position Breakdown: Linebackers
Aug. 5, 2009
This is the ninth in a series of articles previewing the 2009 UTEP football team. The Miners will start fall drills on Thursday, Aug. 6.
Last year's results were a mixed bag for the UTEP linebackers. On one hand, Adam Vincent put together an exceptional season, ranking second in Conference USA in tackles with 9.2 per game. Vincent teamed with Nu'uese Punimata to form a solid senior tandem. Landon Goodwell, Anthony Morrow, Royzell Smith and Brian Wilkins all had their moments of greatness in starting assignments over the course of the season.
But, as UTEP defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Osia Lewis puts it succinctly, "All of it wasn't good enough because we didn't go to a bowl and we didn't have the kind of numbers we want to have as a defense."
Fast forward to 2009, where the Miner linebackers and the defense in general are seeking redemption.
UTEP needs to find replacements for Vincent, who started every game at middle linebacker last season, and Punimata, who started 11 contests at left side linebacker. While Lewis said all linebacker positions are "wide open" entering the fall, Smith is the projected starter on the right side, and Roddray Walker is atop the depth chart on the left side. Wilkins is the early favorite to man the middle linebacker spot.
Smith appeared in seven games a year ago before his season was cut short with a broken collarbone in the Tulsa game. He had 25 tackles on the year.
"Royzell is probably the best athlete of the group," Lewis said. "He is fast becoming a much better linebacker. He is one of two guys in our rotation (Jamie Irving is the other) who played linebacker both in high school and here, and it shows because he does some things naturally. I have been really impressed with what he's done in the spring and in the weight room. He is bigger and stronger than he has ever been, and I expect big things."
Walker played a little bit of safety in 2007 after transferring from New Mexico Military Institute, and will be looking to make a bigger dent in the defense his senior year. He missed the 2008 campaign with a shoulder injury.
"Roddray brings athletic ability," Lewis said. "He really got in there this spring and did a good job. He's better suited to be a linebacker in this scheme. He can run and change directions and he's knowledgeable about the game."
Like Walker, Wilkins is hoping for a banner senior year after contributing 22 stops in 2008.
"Brian is a big guy (6-2, 240 pounds) who has played a lot of football around here," Lewis said. "His size and speed give him an advantage, and if he takes advantage he can be the guy [at middle linebacker]."
Morrow is Walker's chief competition at left side after ranking sixth on the team in tackles with 44 last season. He opened the year at left safety for seven games before moving to right side linebacker for the final five.
"Anthony has the speed and the instincts you want in a linebacker," Lewis said. "It's now just a matter of him putting it together. It should be a good competition between him and Roddray."
Greg Holleman is listed as third-string on the left side, although there's no telling when he will be back as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury. He was credited with 17 tackles last season.
"He was really coming on and doing some good things," Lewis said. "His upside was unlimited, but the injury set him back."
Joining Wilkins on the two-deep at middle linebacker are Irving and Justin Hickman.
Irving earned a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team after contributing 10 tackles in eight games.
"Jamie's best football is ahead of him," Lewis said. "He is a really instinctive player for his size (6-0, 225). He plays tough. You can tell he has played linebacker his whole life. He has done a good job in the weight room coming off a shoulder injury to get his weight down."
Hickman is a highly decorated transfer from the College of DuPage. He originally signed with New Mexico out of high school when Lewis was on staff.
"He has been a really good football player everywhere he has been," Lewis said. "He is big with good speed and good change of direction. He has really good instincts in there. He was regarded as one of the top 50 linebackers in the country in high school, and we're glad to have him here."
Springer has proven to be a quick study after playing strictly on the offensive side of the ball earlier in his football career. "He has really impressed me," Lewis said. "He learned all three linebacker positions [in the spring]. He's ready to get in there and mix it up."
Reynolds compiled seven tackles in 10 games of action in '08.
"He has kind of had a black cloud around him - he has been hurt," Lewis said. "He was banged up all spring with a toe injury. It's really important to keep him healthy because he can help with our depth and on special teams. He's a strong kid who plays really hard."