Needham’s development helps fuel improvements on defense

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Needham’s development helps fuel improvements on defense

Defensive back Nik Needham has a team-best six pass breakups in his last two games.

Defensive back Nik Needham has a team-best six pass breakups in his last two games.

File photo

Defensive back Nik Needham has a team-best six pass breakups in his last two games.

File photo

File photo

Defensive back Nik Needham has a team-best six pass breakups in his last two games.

Jeremy Carranco, Sports Editor

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If there has been one bright spot lately for the Miners on their current 0-7 season, it has been the defensive improvement.

Coming into the season, many expected senior linebacker Alvin Jones to lead the charge, which he certainly has. Jones, brother of UTEP’s all-time leading rusher Aaron Jones, leads the team with 25 solo tackles, with five tackles for losses, two sacks and a forced fumble.

Meanwhile, junior defensive back Nik Needham has been a star for the defense as well, being a big part of the Miners’ strong defensive showing against WKU on Oct. 7. Needham earned a season-high five pass breakups, with five total tackles against the Hilltoppers.

As a team, the Miners held the defending Conference USA champions to 282 yards of offense and 15 points—a surprise effort from a defense that allowed a combined 1,396 yards and 139 points in the three games prior.

In the Miners’ last game at Southern Miss on Oct. 14, Needham earned four tackles and the UTEP defense held the Golden Eagles’ offense to 14 points through three quarters before falling 24-0.

Needham graduated from Buena Park High School in California, where he was a 2013 first-team All-Freeway League honoree and helped the Coyotes post an 8-3 overall record (4-1 league record). He played defensive back and wide receiver during the 2013 high school season and hauled in 39 passes for 877 yards (22.5 avg.) and five touchdowns. On defense, he averaged 87.7 yards per game and tallied 38 tackles (31 solo/7 assisted), with three tackles for losses and two interceptions.

“In high school, I played receiver as well. I went both ways. I did kickoff returns and punt returns, but I felt I was stronger on defense,” Needham said. “I love getting interceptions and batting the ball down to get the crowd hyped. It raises our intensity as a team on defense.”

Needham is looking for his first interception since 2015, when he picked off FAU’s Jaquez Johnson for his first and only interception as a Miner.

In his third season at UTEP (2014 redshirt), Needham reminisced about the process of landing with the orange and blue after high school.

“I always went to camps and tried to get my name around to college coaches,” he said. “I really wasn’t a high-rated player coming out of high school, so UTEP gave me my only chance with their offer.”

As a freshman in 2015, Needham ranked fifth on the  team with 54 tackles (28 solo/26 assisted), and led the team with 11 pass breakups and 32 tackles on passing plays while starting in all 12 contests.

Some of the most notable performances for the defensive back came with victories against UTSA and North Texas. Needham earned a career-high nine tackles during the five-overtime win at UTSA, and capped the 2015 campaign with an eight-tackle, two-pass breakup performance over North Texas.

In 2016, as a sophomore, Needham registered 38 tackles (25 solo/13 assisted), two tackles for loss, an interception, six pass breakups, one blocked kick and a shared sack. His most notable performances came against Texas Tech and rival New Mexico State.

Against the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Needham recorded a season-best six solo tackles. Against the Aggies, he posted six stops, one tackle for loss, a shared sack and a pass breakup in the overtime victory.

“Looking back on my first two seasons, I just remember learning so quick because the coaches and players brought me in like a family while also teaching me the basics,” Needham said. “Alvin (Jones) and the seniors, coach (Darrius) Bell (cornerbacks), coach Mason, they’ve all taught me the game and how to work hard.”

Despite the rough season for his team in 2017, Needham is on pace to finish near his career high in tackles, already totaling 30 (12 solo/18 assisted) through seven games for an average of 4.28 tackles per game. In his record-setting freshman season, Needham averaged 4.5 tackles per game.

“I think he’s (Needham) one of the best defensive backs in the conference, if not the best,” said defensive coordinator Tom Mason. “He’s really grown up in the last year as a defensive college back, I really think he’s a next-level guy. I’ve put a lot of guys in the NFL and he’s one of those guys that’s got what it takes.”

For his recent performance on the field, Needham was named to the Pro Football Focus week seven Conference USA team of the week with a grade of 88. Southern Miss’s Draper Riley earned the highest grade of 93.1, according to senior analyst at Pro Football Focus, Steve Palazzolo.

“I just have been listening to my coaches and doing my job,” Needham said. “We have to stay technically sound and fundamentally sound, so that’s what we (defense) have been doing.”

The Miners earned some much needed rest last week with their bye week. With conference foe UTSA coming into the Sun Bowl this Saturday night (Oct. 28), the Miners will quickly have to get their game faces back on if they want to pick up their first win of the season.

UTSA is averaging 256.8 passing yards, which ranks 48th in the nation, and 204 yards rushing for 30th in the nation. The Roadrunners average 33.4 points per game, which sits at 41st in the country.

“We’re going to go out there and do what we’ve been doing,” Needum said. “We need to execute our plays so things turn our way.”

Needham and the Miners are set to kick off against the Roadrunners at 6 p.m.