UTEP got to a bowl game in Sean Kugler's second season at his alma mater, finishing the campaign with seven wins. With Kugler's imprint fully established on the program, the Miners loo to replicate last season's success behind one of Conference USA's most productive running games and an opportunistic defense.
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Previewing UTEP’s Offense for 2015
The one big question that surrounds a UTEP team that returns key personnel on both sides of the ball is what it will do in the passing game, particularly at quarterback.
Sophomore Mack Leftwich, the son of offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich, redshirted last season after starting at the end of the 2013 season and will likely emerge from a three-way battle to take over from the graduated Jameill Showers. It will be new group of receivers as well, but UTEP wasn’t particularly good in the passing game last season and still went 7–6.
The good news is that four returning offensive linemen, led by C-USA All-Freshman guards Derek Elmendorff and Will Hernandez, and fullback Darrin Laufasa will be protecting Leftwich. More important, they will be opening holes for star running back Aaron Jones in an attack that starts and ends with power rushing. Jones was second-team all-conference last year after rushing for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had 237 in the opener against New Mexico and also had 144 against Big 12 opponent Texas Tech.
When UTEP does throw, the big targets will be Autrey Golden, who switched from tailback to featured receiver in the middle of last year, and tight end M.J. McFarland, who started four games for Texas in 2014 before graduating and transferring. Beyond that, UTEP has virtually no pass-catching experience. Tyler Batson, Donovan Walker and Jaquan White lead the chase for the second receiver role, while transfer Hayden Plinke also figures to be a big target as a backup tight end.
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Previewing UTEP’s Defense for 2015
After struggling horribly on the this side of the ball for most of a decade, UTEP built its surprising winning season in 2014 around its defense. Five key members of the front six in the 4-2-5 defense return — linemen Roy Robertson-Harris, Nick Usher and Gino Bresolin as well as linebackers Jimmy Musgrave and Alvin Jones. Safeties Da’Shone Smith and Devin Cockrell are also back.
Even at corner, where UTEP lost both starters from last year, there is a deep group of players with significant experience, led by Ishmael Harrison and Traun Roberson.
After a brief midseason swoon last year, the defense rallied and played better down the stretch to help the Miners get to a bowl. This group only figures to get better in the third year of defensive coordinator Scott Stoker’s system. After forcing just 12 turnovers in 2013, the Miners got 21 last season and ranked third in the league in turnover margin (+0.69 per game).
Previewing UTEP’s Specialists for 2015
Golden is a player to watch, as his six career kickoff return touchdowns are one short of the NCAA record. Junior college transfer Terry Juniel was brought in to address an anemic punt return game. UTEP had all sorts of gaffes when it was punting the ball last year but largely fixed the issue at midseason when placekicker Jay Mattox took over the punting duties. UTEP’s net improved by almost 10 yards per punt after the move, and Mattox should again handle all kicking duties.
In just three springs, coach Sean Kugler has built exactly the team he wants at his alma mater: An offense that pounds the ball up the middle, a stout defense that makes plays and a squad that avoids penalties and turnovers. UTEP’s problems have come when it runs into teams with a similar mentality and better personnel, which happened in four of the six losses last season and figures to happen in the first game of the season at Arkansas. These Miners, though, should be better than last year, and for the first time since 2006, they’re building off a winning season.