UTEP Football Season Preview

El Paso, TX -

Bowl or bust; that’s the mindset for UTEP heading into the 2017 season with a local flare to this year’s team.  The Miners roster consists of 28 players from the Borderland, which is an anomaly in today’s game of college football.

“There are outstanding football players here in El Paso,” said head coach Sean Kugler. “We’ve worked really hard to target those players and keep them at home so they can play in front of the home folks.”

UTEP does lose a local product in running back Aaron Jones, who decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft after a record-breaking season in 2016. Jones was drafted in the 5th round (182nd overall pick) by the Green Bay Packers.

How to replace Jones, create big plays in the passing game, and stop the run on defense is the challenge for Kugler and the Miners in 2017, as he enters his 5th season as head coach. UTEP is coming off back-to-back losing seasons under Kugler, who is just 18-31 (11-21 in Conference USA) as head coach, with one bowl appearance back in 2014.

“Anytime you’re coming off a losing season there’s a sense of urgency, but the biggest thing I noticed in the spring is the kids are grasping the system,” said Kugler. “We changed both coordinators last year. I probably underestimated how much of an impact that would have. This year in the system, guys are no longer figuring out where to line up and what the calls are. They are out there playing football and having fun. I think that will translate into this year.”

Getting off to a fast start is crucial for the Miners if they plan on bowling in December. UTEP will open the season September 2nd at Oklahoma on national television, followed by their home opener September 9th against C-USA foe, Rice. The Miners will then host Arizona on a Friday night, September 15th, before making the 40-mile trip up Interstate 10 to take on rival New Mexico State on September 23rd. UTEP closes out the month of September on the road at Army September 30th, who hammered the Miners at the Sun Bowl last year, 66-14.

The Offense (5 Returning Starters)

The strength of the offense is up front in the trenches. The offensive line is the best in C-USA led by left guard Will Hernandez, who was named to the 2017 Outland Trophy (awarded to the best interior lineman in college football) Watch List. Hernandez is projected to be a 3rd-5th round draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Who will run behind Hernandez and this stout offensive line is the biggest question heading into fall camp. Quadraiz Wadley was in line to shoulder most of the load, but will miss the entire season with a shoulder injury. That leaves sophomores TK Powell and Kevin Dove, along with two freshmen in former Americas High School running back Joshua Fields, as well as Ronald Awatt. You very well could see two local freshmen in the Miners backfield with Fields at running back, and former Oñate standout Forest McKee at fullback.

Former Andress High School gunslinger Ryan Metz will enter the 2017 season as the presumptive starter at quarterback for UTEP. Metz began the 2016 season as the backup to Fresno State transfer Zack Greenlee, but took over the job against Louisiana Tech in Week 5. Metz completed 64.7% of his passes in 2016, throwing for 1,375 yards and 14 touchdowns. Metz will have to take a big step forward in his junior campaign, with a young receiving core that includes another couple local players in juniors Kavika Johnson Jr. (Mayfield High School) and Warren Redix (Montwood High School).

The game plan on offense will be no secret. The Miners will look to chew the clock and run the football, all while playing keep-away from their opponents’ offense. Look for offensive coordinator Brent Pease to create more big plays through the air as well, off of play-action.

The Defense (7 Returning Starters)

Defensive coordinator Tom Mason switched the defensive scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2016, and another season under Mason should see improvements. The Miners gave up 210 rushing yards per game last season. Opponents averaged nearly 35 points per game against this defensive unit.

If the defense is to take a step forward in 2017, senior linebacker Alvin Jones will have to be the catalyst. Jones led the Miners with 93 tackles (44 solo) last season, on his way to earning All-Conference USA second team honors. Middle linebacker Dante Lovilotte, who was second on the team with 89 tackles (38 solo), also returns to this unit.

Up front, UTEP has to do a better job at plugging up holes and getting after opposing quarterbacks. The Miners recorded just 14 sacks in 2016, ranking dead last in that category. Defensive end Mike Sota has shown flashes off the edge, but the biggest jump must be made by sophomore Denzel Chukwukelu. The 6’4, 295lbs defensive tackle will be the biggest key to the Miners stopping the run.

Takeaways are the name of the game for UTEP’s secondary. Miners’ defensive backs didn’t record an interception until the 6th game of the season in 2016. Of course, the lack of a pass rush didn’t help matters. Experience is back in the secondary with senior safety Devin Cockrell, as well as junior cornerbacks Kalon Beverly and Nik Needham.

Special Teams (1 Returning Starter)

UTEP will likely ask Alan Luna to not only be their punter again this season, but their kicker as well. Luna earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors in 2016, averaging 41 yards per punt including 15 inside the 20-yard line. Luna was named to the 2017 Athlon Sports Preseason All-Conference USA 4th Team.

The Outlook

The way I see it, winning 6 games and getting back to a bowl game will be a real challenge for UTEP. The Miners only have 5 home games on the schedule this season, so this team will have to figure out how to win on the road (1-4 in 2016). If UTEP can find a way to get 3 wins in the first month of the season, take care of business at home against UTSA, and win a couple games on the road in C-USA play, Kugler will have the Miners back in a bowl game for just the second time in eight years. If they stumble out of the gate, it could be another long season in El Paso.

Don't Miss

Trending Stories

Latest News