The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 117 UTEP.
Previewing UTEP’s Offense for 2014:
When UTEP’s skill position players were healthy and whole in the first half of the season, the Miners’ run-oriented attack was humming.
Most of the key pieces are back, led by quarterback Jameill Showers, who transfered from Texas A&M after finding himself behind Johnny Manziel. Showers played well before separating his shoulder in the seventh game. He completed 57 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions despite playing behind an offensive line that struggled to protect him.
Showers has to find a new No. 1 receiver after Jordan Leslie, who was on track to make a run at every school receiving record, transferred to BYU. Senior Ian Hamilton is the likely new top target after catching 25 passes a year ago. Malcolm Trail and Jarrad Shaw, along with tight end Eric Tomlinson, will also be a big part of the passing attack.
A Sean Kugler offense, however, starts with the running game, and Aaron Jones returns after a spectacular freshman debut — 90.1 yards per game, first among freshmen nationally — that was cut short by injury after nine games. Senior Nathan Jeffery has been productive when healthy.
The line returns three starters, but they are all changing positions as the Miners look to get bigger. Jerel Watkins and Kyle Brown, athletic but smallish for what UTEP is trying to do in the middle, are moving from guard to tackle, and center Paulo Melendez is moving to guard. UTEP should be 10 pounds heavier per man on the line than it was last year, but this is still the area of concern.
Previewing UTEP’s Defense for 2014:
UTEP’s been bad on defense for a decade, and last year may have been a new low point. Last spring, the Miners switched to a 3-4 under defensive coordinator Jeff Choate, but he left the program in April. They then made the move to a 4-2-5 under Scott Stoker, who was hired away from Sam Houston State.
They spent most of the fall looking confused. UTEP ranked 12th in Conference USA in total defense (468.3 ypg) and was especially bad against the run. The Miners gave up 6.2 yards per rushing attempt (119th in the nation) and allowed 18 rushes of 30 yards or more. They also tied for last the league with only 13 sacks. There wasn’t much that this defense did well.
End Roy Robertson-Harris, perhaps the best athlete on the team, will lead an otherwise young line. The back seven is far more experienced. Linebacker Anthony Puente and several defensive backs with starting experience in last year’s revolving door are back, led by corners Adrian James and Ishmael Harrison and safeties Dashone Smith, Devin Cockrell and Wesley Miller.
Previewing UTEP’s Specialists for 2014:
The Miners weren’t very good at kicking last year, but they still felt good enough about Jay Mattox (7-of-15 on field goals) that they didn’t recruit another placekicker. Punter Mike Ruggles (40.0 yards per attempt) was solid enough, but the star of the special teams is kick returner Autrey Golden, who was among the national leaders in both return average (27.6) and touchdowns (two).
As long as the Miners stay healthy at the offensive skill positions, they should score enough points to keep them in most games. That happened for the first part of last season, but they didn’t win many games because the defense was so porous.
A combination of a second year in the system and a host of experience in the back seven should lead to improvement on defense, but it will have to be dramatic for UTEP to win six games and challenge for a bowl.