Opponent: @ Texas-El Paso Miners
Last Year's Record: 2-10
Coach: Sean Kugler
Game 2: September 6th
1. Showers at Full Strength. QB Jameill Showers should be the quarterback for UTEP. Originally a Texas A&M signee, Showers is looking to rebound off of last year where he was injured quite a bit. Showers is a good reason why sometimes you question whether or not a transfer is going to have the impact that you hope that he has. Highly rated coming out of high school, Showers was passed over by Johnny Manziel and Showers obviously wanted to play. Sometimes, when a coach chooses a player, there's a reason why that works out. Texas Tech fans hope that Mike Mitchell is the exception, but a lot of times, transfers don't meet the expectations of the fans.
2. Jones Leads the Way. RB Aaron Jones is maybe the team's best player on offense or defense. Just a sophomore, he rushed for 811 yards on the year and as a team, UTEP likes to run the ball, running 184.7 yards a game. Senior Nathan Jefferey will also be in the mix as he ran for 532 yards, while Showers had almost 200 yards rushing on the year.
3. Replacing the Defense. Defensively, there's a lot to replace because there's only 5 starters returning and lots of JUCO defensive linemen. Actually seven of them, which makes Texas Tech's four JUCO defensive linemen seem inadequate. The JUCO star of the defensive line class is Alex Villareal, who originally signed with Oklahoma St.
4. Rushing the Passer. UTEP will have problems getting after Texas Tech as they only had 13 sacks on the year. I'm guessing that UTEP's success against Texas Tech will be largely determined by their ability to put pressure on Davis Webb. For the year, UTEP only had 13 sacks on the year. Roy Robertson was just a sophomore and had 3.5 sacks, but every other player other than linebacker Anthony Puente was a senior last year. Again, that's a lot of help that's going to be needed on the defensive line.
5. Flipping the Script. UTEP really needs to flip the script a bit as they only scored about 22 points a game and allowed almost 40. That's a big differential to overcome in just one year and it makes sense why Kugler needed to go after some JUCO talent. Much like Texas Tech, it was simply necessary, especially with the graduation of so many defensive linemen. There just wasn't any depth. There should be an uptick on the offense, after a year in Kugler's system, Shower's isn't bad by any means and he's got some talent. It will be interesting to see how much the offense improves and if the running game can be a top 25 running game, which is where I think Kugler wants the team to be.
Q&A with Miner Rush:
Much thanks to Alex Nicolas of Miner Rush for answering some questions about UTEP.
1. It's year two of Sean Kugler, what's your general impressions thus far?
I think the task at hand when he took over things was deeper than just X's and O's, and Kugler has done a great job of building a foundation of simple character, and accountability that he wants to be pillars of this program.
With that being said, his first full recruiting class was full of needs to improve the X's and O's part with an influx of size, and talent along both offensive and defensive fronts. I think he has done a great job of building this thing literally from the ground up using his own style both schematically on the field, and discipline off it with a no nonsense approach.
It seems as if the ship is righted in the proper direction as far as the little things of a program, but then again we are in the middle of June in his second season so time will tell if this thing is fully righted once wins and losses are magnified when the lights flip on in late August.
Overall, I've been impressed with his leadership, and smart decision making when it comes to on field personnel, and discipline situations, and no matter how his tenure at UTEP ends, he has proven so far that he can handle a tough situation by pushing guys every day, and continuing to build his wanted brand of UTEP football and not changing no matter what everyone else says.
He did make a bold statement while introducing this year's recruiting class by saying if the program isn't turned around in three seasons he will walk with no pay, (would have one year left of his contract at that point), pretty bold though respectable to put that statement out there to a starving fan base, but one of the reasons I think Kugler is the right guy.
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Miners?
Strengths were minimal in a 2-10 season so I guess we will start there.
The run game became a staple of the offense last season thanks to freshman running back Aaron Jones who ran for a UTEP freshman record of 811 yards, complemented by senior to be Nathan Jeffery who battled nagging injuries last year, but is a very, very capable back, just ask Sooner fan.
Jeffery averaged four yards a pop on 133 attempts in 10 games which was a disappointment for a promising junior year after a breakout sophomore year for Nate.
Jeffery along with Aaron Jones could very well be the best running back duo in the C-USA this season, of course health and offensive line permitting.
Though having to replace two veteran starters from last year, and a shuffle of the three returning starters on the O-line, make a possible strength in the running game a total enigma right now in the summer with so many un-proven and young lineman waiting in the wings for reps once camps starts.
That will make the offensive line a potential weakness right now with a starting left guard spot up for grabs with a group of un-proven and non-game-tested freshman fighting for the job.
Another possible strength is the leadership, and overall ability of quarterback Jamiell Showers.
Once again the offensive line will come into factor in how effective he can be as Showers was knocked out of the Rice game last season, and subsequently missed the rest of the season.
Showers can make any throw from the pocket or on the run, and has the ability to make plays with his feet when things break down, but protection, and production from multiple pass catchers were absent for most of last season and will be needed to supplement his ability in the pocket.
He looked way more comfortable and fully healthy in the spring, being more comfortable along with fellow senior tight end Eric Tomlinson will certainly be a huge security blanket for Showers.
Tomlinson has a solid 6'7 frame and hauled in 34 catches a year ago, ranking third in the conference among tight ends, and will be a key target in the passing game again this year.
He doesn't do anything to special, just a hard nose guy who knows how to get open, makes the play and gets hard earned YAC that is a huge strength in the Miners double and even triple tight end looks they show.
Autrey Golden is one of the best kick returners in the nation, ranking 10th nationally in per kickoff return average last year with two 100 yard returns for scores as well, this is pretty bold, but Golden will return kicks in the NFL one day, Miner fans want to see him get more carries out of the backfield.
Weaknesses are dotted all over the defense, glaring the brightest within the front seven.
UTEP struggled with pass rush on third downs last year, only racking up 13 total sacks, and had a tough time with simple tackling technique. UTEP totaled 44 tackles for loss, while their opponents racked up 65 TFL's in 2013.
From my observation in the spring game, the tackling has improved by leaps and bounds, but the depth in the front seven is a glaring hole most coaches in the C-USA know very well about.
Creating turnovers are also a weakness; UTEP only had 12 takeaways, and were -6 in turnover margin last year, the defense looked better in that department in the Spring Game, but those spring stats won't count come September 6th.
UTEP uses a 4-2-5 scheme which relies heavily on the front seven to make plays either behind the line of scrimmage or at the line, something UTEP did not well at all giving up 7.4 yards a play on defense.
UTEP lost a four year starter and a pair of NFL rookie free agent signees to graduation, along with two other key veteran senior contributors on the defensive line, so the biggest weakness on defense lies in the front seven.
There are some returning players (Anthony Puente MLB), (Nick Usher DE), (Geno Bresolin NT), (Alvin Jones LB) who showed flashes of potential, but way too many unknowns to say this area has improved even a notch from last year.
Another weakness was the lack of depth in what turned out to be a depleted secondary once the season ended.
The secondary maybe UTEP's most experience position group, but guys like Jameel Erving, Wesley Miller, Devin Cockrell, and Traun Robinson have to be healthy and on the field for any type of success to come out of what could be a very much improved secondary.
The glimpses of success the defense had last year was when the secondary was healthy at full strength, and all the moving parts in Scott Stokers defense will have to be in place in order for improvement to show from a year ago.
Lastly, UTEP's kicking game is just flat out horrible, place kicking that is.
Mike Ruggles is a solid punter, but UTEP does not have a consistent leg to grab points once drives stall inside the red zone, heck even inside the 35. I did not see any improvement in the spring, but you have to be competitive in games for kicking to be a factor right?
3. Who are two of the best players to watch on offense and defense for UTEP?
UTEP's two best offensive players are the aforementioned Nathan Jeffery and Aaron Jones.
Jones can just flat out fly once he hits an open hole, I would like to see more plays designed for him out of the backfield in the flats and on downhill screens, but when the offensive line is moving cats around up front, Aaron Jones is able to hit hole and explode with his elite elusiveness.
Jeffery is a little more of a bruiser, but is very dangerous in the open field, and has elite vision that separates him from most backs.
Kugler told me last fall Jeffery is able to execute some run plays other backs in the stable can't even come close to, and I think that goes back to his vision, and instincts you just can't coach. Jeffery will have a chip on his shoulder after a disappointing season last year.
Defensively, Devin Cockrell emerged as a serious force in the secondary.
At safety, he lead the teams in tackles last year as a true freshman, which typically isn't good, but Cockrell can play all three of the UTEP safety positions, and by the end of the season was making plays in front of him inside the second level at a consistent rate.
He has the size of a corner, but the heart of a linebacker, and does what Kugler wants his defenders to do, fly around and make plays.
His next steps in being a true impact starter in my opinion are being more of a ball hawk, and creating more turnovers since he his always around the ball. But the talent, and experience in the scheme is clearly there for a dude who is barley going to be a sophomore.
Junior defensive end Roy Robertson lead the team in sacks with 3.5 last season, at 6'7 255 lbs he has the ability to create havoc with his speed that supplements his size, but outside of him, UTEP will have a bunch of un-proven youngsters that will relied upon along the defensive line.
Though he only had 3.5 sacks last season, Robertson became a force towards the end of the last year in pass rush, and was double teamed frequently at that point of the season.
With so many injuries on the defensive side of the ball last year, Robertson was the Miners only constant defensive producer with six tackles for loss, Robertson really learned to use his size and speed towards the end of the season, and will be a game plan focus for C-USA offensive coordinators this year.
BONUS. This has nothing to do with football, but how is the downtown revitalization going with the new ballpark downtown? I read the Grantland article about the stadium and am interested on how our West Texas brothers and sisters are doing.
One of the highlights of my summer has been to watch competitive affiliated baseball while drinking a beer in a downtown setting; the El Paso Downtown Revitalization has been picture perfect in the first couple of months.
Recently there was a Jerry Seinfeld performance on a Friday night, followed by George Lopez on Saturday, all next door to a four game home stand in the ball park.
Walking downtown that weekend gave you a sense of being in Austin, or Houston during a festive weekend, and I think that the ball park is just the beginning of a trend of increased tourism, and top notch events making their way to the 915.
Even with public debate, old, abandoned buildings are starting to be demolished in favor of what I think would should be high rise condos, or business buildings that would bring more jobs, and financial stability to that area, showing how serious the progress is with the recent moves of weeding out the old buildings.
Things are headed in the right direction with a planned arena downtown as well in the next four to five years, and I applaud all the powers at be for modernizing an old West Texas treasure which is Downtown El Paso.
From the Spring:
Head coach Sean Kugler was pleased with the spring game performance and that the team has taken a step in the right direction:
"It was a good day," second-year UTEP head coach Sean Kugler said. "The offense did a good job in short yardage and goal line. We had a couple of red zone scores, but all in all I kind of liked the entire spring [for the defense]. They have really taken a big step forward. They're making plays and they're playing with energy, but the thing I get excited about is they're causing turnovers and turning them into points. They have been consistent throughout the spring, so my hat goes off to the entire defense, coach [Scott] Stoker and the staff."
Kugler also talked a bit about the defense:
"Tackling first, and they have been doing an outstanding job of that," Kugler said. "Assignment and alignment [have been better], and I knew that would improve by having a full spring under their belt. But mainly, they're playing with passion and energy. They have been doing that on a daily basis, and that's what defense is all about."