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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
C-USA West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Sean Kugler, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Patrick Higgins | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Stoker
A blurry quarterback picture for coach Sean Kugler’s first season at UTEP didn’t clear up, but it became much more interesting in late February when junior Jameill Showers announced he was transferring from Texas A&M after backing Johnny Manziel in 2012. Showers, who did not start a game during his time in College Station, immediately became the favorite to take over what had been a wide-open quarterback competition. Sophomore Blaire Sullivan, who started two games last year, had been considered the leader during the spring, however.
Whoever ends up under center will lead an otherwise veteran unit, albeit one that is coming off its worst season in almost a decade. The Miners will be transitioning to a two-back offense after nine years of Mike Price’s one-back scheme.
The big weapon is junior halfback Nathan Jeffery, who had spectacular moments when healthy last year. Jeffery rushed for 177 yards in the first three quarters of the opener against Oklahoma before sustaining a hamstring injury that nagged him for two months.
Three returning offensive line starters — tackle Brander Craighead and guards Jerel Watkins and Kyle Brown — join a veteran (and deep) tight end corps that should be a bigger factor in the passing game this season.
All but one of the receivers return, including last year’s statistical leader Jordan Leslie, who averaged 19.1 yards on his 51 catches and scored six touchdowns.
After finally making some tangible improvement last season following six years of misery, the defense now starts over with a new system.
The strength will be up front. The defensive line features five seniors, led by end Horace Miller and tackle Germard Reed.
There is also a star in the back in safety Richard Spencer. After blowing out his knee four games into his senior season — when he had established himself as UTEP’s best player — Spencer was granted an extra year by the NCAA. He’ll have to anchor a secondary that must replace a pair of graduated cornerbacks. Junior college transfer Nick Gathrite and junior Adrian James, returning from an injury that cost him almost all of 2012, are the likely starters.
Middle linebacker A.J. Ropati is the one veteran linebacker in a corps that will be the defense’s biggest question mark.
UTEP has traditionally excelled in coverage and in the return game. Look for Autrey Golden to be a weapon on kickoff returns after averaging 28.3 yards a year ago. The Miners, however, went through spring with zero punters, and incumbent placekicker Steven Valadez will have to win a competition to keep that job after an inconsistent 2012. There will be a cattle call of true freshmen to battle for punting duties and to challenge Valadez at kicker. On a new-look team, kicker and punter rate as the biggest mysteries.
A softer non-conference schedule (New Mexico, Colorado State and Texas A&M replace Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ole Miss) and a revamped league schedule that includes five C-USA newcomers should give the Miners a chance to be competitive in Kugler’s first year. Much will depend on how quickly the new staff can implement new schemes on both sides of the ball.
A good start in a manageable first four games, when UTEP will probably be leaning on Jeffery and its tight ends, will be a key. An offense that struggled last year returns most of its big names, but a defense that was much better loses most of its starters, resulting in an upcoming season that is hard to predict.
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