UTSA’s defensive backs know how to pick their spots


Conference USA quarterbacks Ryan Metz of UTEP, Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel and Nick Mullens of Southern Miss share a dubious distinction they would like to forget.

Collectively, one team is responsible for more than half of their total interceptions — UTSA.

SATURDAY ON ASN: Xxx Xxx (click logo for local listings)
SATURDAY ON ASN: Old Dominion at UTSA, 7 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

Of Metz’s six interceptions this season, four came against UTSA on Oct. 3. Mullens has thrown seven interceptions with UTSA picking off three. UTSA intercepted Driskel twice bumping his season total up to four.

Three quarterbacks. A total of 17 interceptions. Nine of them by UTSA.

Even more eye-opening? UTSA played UTEP, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss in consecutive weeks.

Nine interceptions in three games. All nine compliments of four members of UTSA’s secondary.

UTSA safety Michael Egwuagua picked off Metz midway through the third quarter, returning it 40 yards for a touchdown. A week later he put UTSA in scoring position, picking off Driskel and returning it to Louisiana Tech’s 15-yard line. He also picked off Mullens a week later.

On consecutive fourth quarter drives by UTEP, the end result was UTSA sophomore safety Nate Gaines picking off Metz. Gaines’ first pick was in the end zone, taking UTEP points off the scoreboard. On UTEP’s next possession there was Gaines again. Intercepting the ball deep in UTEP territory, Gaines took it to the Miners’ 15. He lateraled the ball to Egwuagua who scored UTEP’s third defensive touchdown of the game.

Senior corner Bennett Okotcha derailed two of Southern Miss drives, picking off Mullens twice. His second pick led to a UTSA field goal. Against the Golden Eagles Okotcha also had five tackles.

Senior cornerback Trevor Baker missed the first four games of the year: verse Arizona, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Colorado State. In those four games UTSA didn’t register one interception. Baker returned to the field for the UTEP game and that was when the interception parade started.

“We feed off of him,” said Egwuaga of Baker. “His first game back was when we got into a frenzy.”

In the first quarter Baker picked off Metz in the red zone, taking UTEP points off the scoreboard. Baker also had two pass breakups and a tackle in his season debut. A week later he recorded one of the two interceptions thrown by Driskel.

The impressive showing in the past month by UTSA’s secondary has much more to do with than just the return of Baker.

Back in March during spring practice many members of the UTSA defense placed an emphasis on spending time with each other off the field. They hung out together, played video game together, ate meals together.

“We wanted to build chemistry amongst ourselves,” Egwuaga said. “We made it a point that we were going to be a family on and off the field. We go to know the guys that had our back each and every play; that the guy next to you would be there for you.”

Building chemistry didn’t come by singing Kum Bhagya. They were frank and didn’t beat around the bush.

“We were honest with each other,” Okotcha said. “We all had to take criticism and improve. Our chemistry is stronger this year than (any other year I’ve been here).”

In addition to chemistry, film study has made a vast improvement in the secondary.

“When (players) get older they understand how valuable film is,” said Jeff Popovich, UTSA’s cornerbacks coach. “Watching film helps players get better. Also, by studying the offense and what are they doing, it helps with what we as a defense are doing. Players go from memorizing what they have to do into recognizing what the defensive scheme is and why they are in the scheme. Once they do that they can play ten times faster.”

The best advice Okotcha has gotten this year is giving attention to every detail. In turn, Popovich calls Okotcha a perfectionist; a student of the game.

“We watch every single rep,” Popovich said. “We even have a camera that gets a back angle to see technique and foot work. His feet have gotten better, he takes better angles and has a better understanding of what the receivers are doing.”

While relying on athletic ability his first two years, Egwuagu film study has changed the speed of the game.

“The game has slowed down for him,” safeties catch Perry Eliano said. ”When you blend great athleticism with be able to disect plays before they are able to happen, that is a strong attribute of Michael.”

Last week UTSA held North Texas quarterback DaMarcus Smith to only 104 yards passing. They didn’t get an interception.

They comes in bunches, which means Old Dominion quarterbacks David Washington and Shuler Bentley better be on their toes Saturday.

Above: UTSA’s Nate Gaines has two of UTSA’s nine interceptions, fifth in Conference USA. (CourtesyJeff Huehn/UTSA Athletics)
Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand is a freelance writer based in Ocala, Fla.