Praise Amaewhule hits a new level for UTEP football
Three years ago, with the UTEP defense at its nadir and in need of a transformation, the Miners hit up two disparate ways to change their fortunes.
The first way was the busy road. They loaded up on transfers, most from junior colleges, and that worked out surprisingly well as they hit on player after player.
The other way was a path less traveled: They took a player no one else wanted. UTEP gave lightly recruited Praise Amaewhule a chance when no one else would.
As 2021 has unfolded, with the Miners taking a swing at going to 4-1 on Saturday at home against Old Dominion, they have a chance to have their best defense in more than a decade. UTEP is doing it with a starting lineup that has 10 transfers, eight straight out of junior colleges, and Amaewhule.
"God had a place for me," the fourth-year sophomore said. "I guess he didn't want me to get seen by the Nick Sabans, the Ohio States. He wanted me to be a hidden gem, he wanted me to come to UTEP.
"I was never the biggest guy in high school. We'd have power-five scouts coming in, scouting dudes, I'd never get a look. It pushed me to be better. I played with a lot of heart, going out and proving guys wrong each and every day.
"It couldn't have worked out better."
UTEP would certainly agree. In last week's victory over New Mexico, the Miners' 6-foot-3 siege engine with an 82-inch wing span had a program record seven quarterback hurries, most of which led to throwaways that cut his sack totals but not his effectiveness.
"He's really turned it up," coach Dana Dimel said. "The bigger the game, the bigger he plays. I thought his best game was New Mexico State, now his best game for sure was New Mexico. It seems like for the bigger games he gets himself up and ready to play."
Teams win in Conference USA by landing players who probably shouldn't be in Conference USA. Amaewhule fits that mold and it's hard to figure why so many programs missed on him.
His high school, Katy Taylor in the Houston area, is on the beaten path of recruiting and he was productive there, a captain in his senior year.
While he was skinny by defensive end standards when he arrived at UTEP in 2018, leading to a redshirt season where he did play the last four games, those long arms showed he had tools to develop. He now weights 245 pounds.
To be sure, most teams didn't have a reference Dimel had. When Dimel was at Wyoming in the last 1990s, he found a skinny but long-armed diamond-in-the-rough named Patrick Chukwurah, a native Nigerian from Texas who wore No. 23. He went on to play 12 years in the NFL.
Chukwarah is the player Dimel sites when asked what he saw in Amaewhule that no one else did.
"The 82-inch wingspan, the upside, I don't know how Praise slipped through the cracks but he did," Dimel said.
Even though UTEP was recruiting Amaewhule only against a handful of historically black universities and a few other FCS programs, the Miners put the press on him.
"One day I was in class, coach Dimel walked in with the squad, like I had killed somebody and they were the feds," Amaewhule said with typical colorfulness. "He came in with coach (Scotty) O'Hara, (former) coach (Mike) Cox, (former) coach (Jake) Waters.
"They told me they liked the way I played, they wanted to bring me in for a visit. I came out, they showed love, I loved the community. It looked like a place I could make a life, I could build a future. UTEP made me who I am. They needed someone to come in and build a culture and I wanted to do that."
On the field that's meant a steady ascent. In 2019 he was on the C-USA all-freshman team when he led UTEP with three sacks. He had a program three and a half sacks in one game last year against Louisiana Tech, when he also had a lineman record four pass breakups (all were batted down at the line). He finished the eight-game season with seven sacks.
This year UTEP has switched to a 4-2-5 defense aimed to get a bigger pass rush and against New Mexico Amaewhule was more and more unblockable as the game went on.
"With this four-man front I knew I had a lot of freedom to rush," he said. "We went in with a plan to stop the run, make them one dimensional, then after that it was a lot of fun. We were able to get after the quarterback, which is what we love to do up front."
Dimel said that's something Amaewhule shows all week, not just Saturdays.
"He loves to practice, that's what I love about him," Dimel said. "He works extremely hard in the weight room and he's become a positive leader on our football team, a vocal leader on our football team."
Always one to see the bigger picture, Amaewhule expects the UTEP defense is going to keep improving.
"It's a puzzle piece," he said. "We feel like we've got the pieces of the puzzle, so we have to know where each piece goes.
"It's about having that mentality, having guys know we are really a great team when we all play together. We're not good when we play selfishly, but when we all play individuals to a team, 11 guys doing their job, we're a wrecking ball, wrecking offenses."
That's happening with more and more frequency as UTEP begins C-USA play in position to make a run.
Old Dominion at UTEP
What, when, where: Conference USA opener, 7 p.m. Saturday, Sun Bowl
TV, radio: ESPN+, KLAQ 95.5 FM
Records: UTEP is 3-1, Old Dominion is 1-3
Line: UTEP by 5.5