Things have not gone well for UTEP head coach Sean Kugler, who has led his alma mater to an 18-31 record in his first four seasons. He does have quite a bit of experience to work with this fall, but also must replace the program’s all-time leading rusher on an offense that struggled mightily throwing the football in 2016. The defense also needs to improve if the Miners want to get back to a bowl game and take some of the heat off of their head coach.
Previewing UTEP Football’s Offense for 2017
UTEP is in a different situation from the previous two years, as it enters the season settled at quarterback but looking for a running back to replace the school’s all-time leading rusher Aaron Jones.
Junior quarterback Ryan Metz completed a long climb to the top of the depth chart with steady improvement, and he and whoever takes the featured tailback role in a run-first offense will lean on a big, talented, experienced line led by All-America guard Will Hernandez. The other four linemen all have starting experience. The questions will be with the tackles — sophomore Greg Long and junior Jerrod Brooks — but they are the type of physical specimens coach Sean Kugler promised to feature when he arrived five years ago.
Replacing Jones, who rushed for a school-record 1,773 yards (on an impressive 7.7-yard average) in 2016, will probably fall to true freshman Josh Fields after projected starter Quadraiz Wadley went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in the spring. Fields, a local product, was the top prospect in the Miners’ 2017 recruiting class.
Most of the wide receiving corps is back, though UTEP will have to lean on a new tight end to replace last year’s leading pass catcher Hayden Plinke, and that will probably be junior college transfer David Lucero. Warren Redix, Eddie Sinegal, Tyler Batson and Kavika Johnson are part of a receiving corps that is deep but is still looking for a big-play dimension.
Previewing UTEP Football’s Defense for 2017
UTEP is hoping a big group of returnees can hasten the rebuilding, which is a normal state of affairs on a defense that has been among the nation’s worst for more than a decade.
This is second year of a switch to coordinator Tom Mason’s 3-4 system from a 4-2-5, and the Miners are a lot more set at the back end than on the front seven. Star safety Devin Cockrell is the leader of a secondary that returns three starters, and the other one, safety Michael Lewis, started two years ago before missing 2016 to an academic-related redshirt.
The Miners have a pair of veteran inside linebackers in Alvin Jones and Dante Lovilotte. Where they need improvement — after the team managed only 14 sacks and 11 takeaways in 2016 — is from their outside linebackers, a group that consists of several converted defensive ends.
The defensive line looks to be a revolving door, and a young one at that, with sophomores Gene Hopkins, Denzel Chukwukelu and Chris Richardson likely to get the first cracks.
Previewing UTEP Football's Specialists for 2017
Only two FBS teams made fewer field goals than UTEP last year (five) — and the Miners actually had a good placekicker, Jay Mattox. They now don’t have a placekicker who has appeared in a game. The search will continue through the summer. Other than that they are set. Alan Luna is a proven commodity at punter. Terry Juniel largely fixed the punt return game last season, and Walter Dawn should be a solid kickoff returner. UTEP’s coverage units usually excel.
The Miners could take the field with 15 players with starting experience (the good news) returning from a team that was 4–8 (the bad news). The party line is that improvement in the second year of new offensive and defensive systems, combined with a more settled quarterback situation, will get the team back to a bowl for the first time since 2014. The fear is that a tougher schedule, both in and out of conference, the loss of one of their all-time greats in Jones and a lack of proven playmakers on both sides of the ball will result in another losing season.
National Ranking: 120
C-USA West Prediction: 6
(Alvin Jones photo courtesy of UTEP Athletics)