The UTEP Miners finished the season 4-8. A 1-5 start doomed Aaron Jones and Co., even when the Miners seemed to right the ship, they couldn't sustain success late in the year. Bummer.
Let's look at the Miners 2016 and beyond.
We harp on this because it's critical, what's the identity of a program? In other words, beyond the "core values" and marketing, what does a program do well? What do they do that makes them special, potent, or hard to deal with? If a program isn't intentional about what it wants to do, it's just hoping things go right and hope ain't a strategy.
For Sean Kugler's era at UTEP the offensive identity has been clear: physical run game to eat clock and wear opponents down. Kugler wants a game manager at quarterback who makes the right throws, get out of bad plays, don't get UTEP beat. Defensively the hire of Tom Mason brought the 3-4 to El Paso and with it an aggressive defense that brought pressure 60 to 70% of the time. He also promised a defense that created turnovers and took shots rather than waited on opponents.
Offensively in 2016 the Miners had several pieces, a great running back, good offensive line, and very good tight ends. What UTEP lacked, at least initially, was a quarterback that was, given the situation, 1) accurate or 2) able to avoid the crippling mistake. That issue was addressed later in the season with the promotion of Ryan Metz at quarterback. Metz was better than his predecessors and actually posted the highest QB rating for a UTEP quarterback since Trevor Vittatoe's sophomore year.
Defensively, UTEP was actually better than average, 40th in the FBS, stopping the pass. They lagged behind stopping the run, however, allowing 5.3 yards a carry. When you're allowing a first down every two carries, we suppose your opponent may not feel the need to throw.
UTEP's move to the 3-4 didn't result in the pressure on the quarterback that Mason or Kugler were looking for, the Miners produced their lowest sack total since 2013 and eight less than 2015. The Miners also finished 19 tackles for loss shy of last year's total. Again, their lowest since 2013. For the second season in a row the Miners finished with a net negative in turnover margin at -5. The last time the Miners took more than they gave in terms of turnovers was 2014's bowl season.
We've thought the UTEP comp, at least with Kugler at the helm, should be San Diego State under Rocky Long. The Aztecs obviously have certain advantages both in conference affiliation and geography, but it's more the style of play to which we're referring. Rocky Long has turned San Diego State into a Mountain West power by instituting a power run offense and a physical defense. They rely on finding hidden gems and developing them, particularly on the offensive line. The key is they line up and come at you. SDSU has finished outside the top 30 in rush offense just once in Long's tenure. He did similar things at New Mexico until the Lobo administration got tired of going bowling and canned him at the first opportunity. They won three games total the next three years, so they brought in Bob Davie to do the same thing Rocky Long was doing. Back to SDSU, they aren't out-scheming anyone, the Aztecs physically beat on people. Just ask Houston.
UTEP can do something similar. Kugler's shown he can find an develop lineman (more on that later) that can control the line of scrimmage. He can find serviceable backs or better to carry the ball. UTEP needs to find a quarterback/game manager and learn to stop the run defensively, the latter is easier said than done. It may not be exciting but it can be ruthlessly efficient.
On a side note, Kugler may need more than wins to save himself in El Paso, he'll need to draw interest from an increasingly distant fan base. Attendance is moving in the wrong direction. For a school like UTEP that relies on ticket sales and gameday revenue in lieu of diminishing TV payouts, a near 6,000 person loss in attendance is a big deal.
Ending on a high is always a good thing and for UTEP the win against a bowl bound North Texas was a nice way to end the year. The Miners basically did what they wanted to offensively. Hayden Plinke showed the athleticism that could translate to the next level. Ryan Metz was 12-17 for 177 yards two touchdowns and no picks. Aaron Jones ran for over 300 yards. If it was his swan song in a Miner uniform you couldn't ask for a better ending. Jones had already etched himself throughout the UTEP record book and cemented his legacy as one of the best backs in the country by running around, over and through the Mean Green.
In a four game stretch of blowouts the Miners played Army at home in front of the biggest Sun Bowl crowd of the season. The Black Knights looked like the four horseman had returned in a 66-14 romp over UTEP. Army ran 73 times for 426 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. The Black Knights played keep away from UTEP, essentially beating UTEP at UTEP's game. The offensive results weren't terrible, but there weren't enough plays or possession to keep up with Army's keep away as the Black Knights possessed the ball for 41 minutes and ran twice as many offensive plays as the Miners.
What Answers Do we have?
The Miners have answers that may not be available next year due to NFL possibilities. Aaron Jones is technically a junior, but he doesn't have much left to prove and with his injury history and the wear on his body a jump to the NFL seams prudent. Someone will be getting a very good back who, unlike most of his contemporaries, has played in a pro-style offense.
According to Pro Football Focus, All-American guard Will Hernandez, also a junior is the third fastest riser among all prospects heading to the 2017 draft. He is among the best interior players eligible for the draft. Like Jones, Hernandez has played with his hand on the ground and gone after people. No finesse spread technique here, Hernandez is a mauler. Watch the Texas game and see him decimate Longhorn defensive tackles.
On another side note, and we promise we're going to stop side notes, Hernandez is a the prototype for the type of player that Kugler and his offense can DEVELOP. Hernandez was an unheralded recruit out of Las Vegas Chaparral High School. Hernandez redshirted, hit the weight room and grew into a starter and eventually an All-Conference and All-American. Kugler won't find four and five stars waiting on him, heck, three stars would be a luxury, but UTEP must find raw talent and build players.
Ryan Metz appeared to come into his own after starting the second half of the season. He completed 64% of his passes and 14 touchdowns to just four picks. The Miners were much better offensively with Metz at quarterback and he's seems to have grown into the position after playing inconsistently as a redshirt freshman.
Alvin Jones continues to be productive, even if injury caused his production to fall of from 2015. A healthy Jones in 2017 is a huge plus for the Miner defense. He's joined by Dante Lovilette who'l be in his second season after transferring from Kilgore. He's a thumper and a tackling machine.
At receiver rising sophomore Eddie Sinegal returns after a very productive freshman season at both receiver and on special teams. Single signed with UTEP in 2014, but sat out due to academic issues. Those have apparently cleared and he give the Miners something they are short of, a deep threat.
We also like rising sophomore Jayson VanHook at outside linebacker. In limited duty VanHook had 36 tackles include 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack. His production was enough to be placed on the CUSA All Freshman team. He's got a good frame to build on for additional weight without sacrificing explosiveness.
What answers do we need?
The most obvious are the whether Jones or Hernandez return next season. Assuming neither do, those are huge voids. UTEP has a variety of backs coming back, none of whom have been anywhere near as productive as Jones. Kevin Dove at 6'0 250 is a thumper. Walter Dawn is the change of pace/3rd down option. Quadraiz Wadley brings them most experience back in terms of carries.
Assuming Hernandez leaves, that would leave just two returning starters along the vital offensive front, including both tackles.
Two of the biggest holes are positions that are somewhat unique to UTEP's offensive approach. Fullback Darrin Laufasa graduates as does do it all tight end Hayden Plinke. Their replacements will be critical.
On defense the Miners will be looking for a replacement for outside linebacker Nick Usher who was surprisingly effective in 2016, leading the Miners in sacks. Silas Firstly graduates from the other OLB position opening up the competition for the spring.
UTEP needs to upgrade along the defensive front, generally. The move to the 3-4 meant different players in roles and some round pegs in square holes. Mason won't have much more time to turn this unit into the aggressive, ball hawking unit he'd like. As important the front will need to grow to be more stingy against the run,
The Miners 2017 non-conference schedule doesn't do them any favors. UTEP travels to Norman for a paycheck game to open 2017 then welcome PAC-12 South member Arizona to the Sun Bowl. 'Zona will be looking for to rebound off a terrible 2016. The Miners then travel to rival New Mexico State, not an easy destination for UTEP squads. They then round out their out of league slate with a trip to West Point and emerging Army.
9/2 @ Oklahoma
9/23 @ New Mexico State
9/20 @ Army
*Disclaimer: It's recruiting, this will all change. 17 year olds are fickle, odd, often times dumb, humanoids. This list is accurate as off the date of posting. We apologize that we lack a crystal ball or a sorting hat to deal with the changes or make them permanent. Regardless, everyone loves your team, and your recruits are so much better than everyone else's. Never forget that.
UTEP is currently ranked 126th according to Scout. That's not great, but that's also been par for the course under Kugler. The Miners signed three JC players last week, two are rangy safeties and much needed. The two Refugio kids are interesting, Mascorro is a highly productive 2A player at defensive tackle, he may move to defensive end or even outside linebacker. Herring was just named the 2A defensive player of the year. Fernandez comes from emerging Austin area power Vandergrift.
|Scout Rank||Scout Rank / Name||Pos||Pos Rank||Ht||Wt||40 Time||School||Status|
|NR||Kalaii Griffin||S||6'3"||220||Ventura||Sign NLI|
|NR||Kahani Smith||S||6'2"||180||Riverside||Sign NLI|
|NR||David Lucero||TE||6'5"||230||Arizona Western||Sign NLI|
|NR||Trace Mascorro||DT||6'1"||260||Refugio, TX||Committed|
|NR||Kobie Herring||ILB||6'1"||220||Refugio, TX||Committed|
|NR||Alex Fernandez||QB||6'4"||193||Austin, TX||Committed|
|NR||Cutter Leftwich||OL||6'3"||275||El Paso, TX||Committed|