The UTEP football team’s defensive struggles last season can be traced as much to who wasn’t on the field as to who was playing.
The safety position in particular was hard hit by injuries, as two projected starters entering fall camp, Broderick Harrell and Justin Prince, combined to appear in just four games.
Harrell hasn’t played in a game for the Miners since earning a start in the 2018 season finale against Southern Miss. He suffered a torn Retinaculum in his ankle two weeks prior to the start of 2019 fall camp and missed the entire campaign. Prince was on his way to a banner year (27 tackles in the first four games) last season before breaking his foot when it got caught in the turf on a goal line play at Southern Miss.
Following an intense rehab, Harrell and Prince are back this spring and have impressed the Miners’ new secondary and safeties coach, Josh Brown.
“Both of them are extremely hard workers,” Brown said. “Both of them want to be great. And when you want to be great and you have a work ethic, usually it turns out pretty good.”
Last year Harrell underwent surgery and was in a cast for eight weeks. The ankle didn’t heal quite fast enough for him to return late in the season.
“It was hard on me because mentally I wanted to play,” he said. “I had never missed a season like that. I wanted to play with my brothers and I felt like I could help them out a lot.”
Prince had a wicked premonition that playing on the M.M. Roberts Stadium turf would bring disaster.
“I prefer grass but the crazy thing is, at the Friday walkthrough the day before the game, I said the field was pretty bad,” he said. “So I wished a little bad luck on it and I paid the price.”
Prince managed to avoid surgery, but the recovery process was no less grueling and he’s still not quite at 100 percent (though he’s close).
“I spent a lot of time in the training room,” he said. “That was basically my second home.
“I’ve played through injuries before, but this one really set me back. I just knew I had to trust the process.”
Fortunately, Harrell and Prince could lean on one another during their year without football as both teammates and roommates.
“We’re similar; we like a lot of the same things,” Prince said. “We look the same, we have the same stature [Harrell is 5-11, 210 pounds; Prince is 5-10, 200 pounds]. He got hurt first last year. And then I got hurt. It’s weird. It was probably meant to be that we’re both on the field at the same time.”
“We both had a good spring last year and we both got hurt, so that brought us a little bit closer,” Harrell said. “He’s my brother off the field. I love him.”
Now, Harrell and Prince find themselves in the odd position of returning to the field and being thrust into the role of elder statesmen in the UTEP secondary.
“We’re basically the older guys with J. Rog [Justin Rogers] and Champ [Michael Lewis] out of the program now,” Prince said. “So we have to bring the young guys up and set the example every day in the meeting room and on the practice field.”
Last year Harrell and Prince were understudies to Rogers, who became the first Miner to post an interception in four separate seasons since Quintin Demps (2004-07).
“He taught us how to be 100 percent accountable every day, and how to lead,” Harrell said. “He studied the game like it was homework, like it was a book.”
“He’s really football smart and he was always teaching me the game,” Prince said. “Just sitting next to him in film, asking questions all of the time and seeing what he saw on the field was huge.”
While they’re taking on more of a leadership role this year, Harrell and Prince are also continuing to learn from their new position coach Brown, who was formerly an accomplished defensive coordinator at Cal Poly.
“He’s a great guy,” Prince said. “He’s trying to make things simpler for us. He’s done a really good job with teaching us techniques that will make it easier in our coverages.”
“He’s taught me a lot in three weeks,” Harrell said. “New techniques, but he also taught me to trust in myself more and believe that I’m a better athlete than the guy lined up across from me.”
Brown watched a lot of film on the 2019 Miners after accepting the job in early February. It sounds like he’s got a good handle on his personnel after only five spring practices.
“As a secondary, the defensive backs in general, we need to improve on our man technique,” he said. “I think they’re pretty good zone players, and we’ve gotten pretty good reactions and breaks off of the quarterback. But our man technique has got to continue to get better, and we’ve got to continue learning how to play all the different combinations of man.”
Last year, UTEP’s pass break ups dropped from 41 to 33, and the Miners collected only five interceptions as a team for a second straight year. Getting both of those numbers up will be paramount to an improved defensive effort in 2020. Brown is fully aware of that, and he’s working on it.
“What we do every day before practice is we get out here and we do our wiffle ball drills,” he said. “And all we’re working on is punchouts for 10 minutes with wiffle balls. We’re up to 15 or 20 punchouts and five or six interceptions from just the safeties in five practices. We’re keeping track of them and we’re making an emphasis of getting the ball out. Pass breakups and interceptions are key to our success as a defense.”
The Miners are counting on vast defensive improvement this fall. And if that happens, Harrell and Prince are sure to play a big part in it.
“No limits,” Harrell said. “There aren’t any expectations and there are no limits. We’re trying to blow it out of the water next year.”
Fans can renew their UTEP Football Season Tickets, or request new season tickets for the 2020 season now; renewals will be accepted online until April 10, by calling (915) 747-6150, or by visiting the UTEP Athletics Season Ticket Office, located in Room 109 of the Brumbelow Building next to the Don Haskins Center, Monday thru Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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