UTEP Miners 2016 Preview and Prediction
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#92 UTEP Miners
C-USA West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Sean Kugler, 14-23 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Pease | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Mason
UTEP just missed out on bowl eligibility last season, something the Miners accomplished in head coach Sean Kugler's first season in 2014. A team featuring 15 returning starters will try and get back to the postseason, but to do so will need to stay healthy and finish at least .500 in Conference USA play.
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Previewing UTEP’s Offense for 2016
The UTEP offense is always going to be conservative and run-oriented under coach Sean Kugler, but after a season of struggles at the quarterback position and a general lack of production overall, Kugler brought in a new coordinator in Brent Pease to liven things up. Pease’s first task is to sort out a quarterback battle between Ryan Metz, who showed a high ceiling but also made mistakes last season, and Fresno State graduate transfer Zack Greenlee. That will likely be settled in the final week of August.
Whoever wins the quarterback derby will have a veteran group with which to work, starting with franchise running back Aaron Jones. A preseason all-conference selection a year ago, Jones’ injury in the second game started a downward spiral for the team. The junior is in position to become the school’s all-time leading rusher this year. He’s back and healthy, as are fullback Darrin Laufasa, the top two receivers in Jaquan White and Tyler Batson, productive tight end Hayden Plinke and four starters on an offensive line that led Conference USA in fewest sacks allowed.
That line, though, could have three new starters. Tanner Stallings is a junior college recruit targeted to be the new center, and a pair of sophomores in guard Derron Gatewood and tackle Jerrod Brooks could be ready to step up. The 6'5", 330-pound Brooks looks the most like an NFL player on the roster. The other side should be the same in senior tackle Jerome Daniels and junior guard Will Hernandez.
Previewing UTEP’s Defense for 2016
UTEP is going through about as thorough of a scheme change as there is, moving from a 4-2 built around man-to-man coverage to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Tom Mason. There are eight players returning with starting experience, but some of them will be in new places as ends shift to outside linebackers in the new scheme. This will feature some combination of Luke Elsner, Nick Usher, Silas Firstley and Lawrence Montegut, who will join last year’s leading tackler Alvin Jones at linebacker. Stephen Forester is in line to be the other inside linebacker.
The secondary features a group of veterans in safeties Devin Cockrell, back after missing last season to injury, and Dashone Smith, and sophomore cornerbacks Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly. UTEP’s pass defense was very poor last year but did get better as the year progressed and Needham and Beverly improved.
Nose guard Gino Bresolin will be a third-year starter in the middle of the line, but UTEP is starting over at the end positions. For the most part, the Miners are moving tackles, players who haven’t seen much of the field, to the outside. Brian Madunezim and Mike Sota will get the first crack at the positions.
Previewing UTEP’s Specialists for 2016
The Miners return a pair of proven commodities in placekicker Jay Mattox and punter Alan Luna, who will look to build on solid seasons. Terry Juniel was recruited out of junior college last year to fix the anemic return games but then missed the season to injury. He’s back and will be the top return man.
After a season torn apart by injuries, a veteran and experienced UTEP team looks to be well positioned for a quick bounce-back, but the Miners can’t absorb the health issues they had a year ago.
The other questions are finding a quarterback and adjusting to new systems. If that goes well, they could contend for a Conference USA West title. If they have the injuries they did a year ago — when 17 players were lost for the year at some point — they won’t.