A critical year for Sean Kugler starts on the field tomorrow as the Miners take the field for Spring Practice 2017. With a lot of questions, here's what we'd like to see by early April.
Aaron Jones is gone. I repeat, Aaron Jones is Gone
The transcendent Aaron Jones has left the program for the NFL. Godspeed Aaron, you've earned it. After we all have cake in the break room we'll need to figure out where UTEP turns next at running back. The good news is there are options in all varieties and sizes. The bad news is none are named Aaron Jones.
Look for UTEP to turn to Quadraiz Wadley first. Wadley a sophomore from Kennedale was second on the team in rushing last season. 168 yards was good enough for second on the team. Such was the shadow that Aaron Jones cast.
After Wadley there are a bunch of guys who'll vie for carries including T.K. Powell and Kevin Dove. Dove is a real thumper at 250 pounds. Powell, a former walk-on, exploded in a game against Louisiana Tech two years ago, but has yet to be heard from again.
Can anyone or any combination of backs replace Jones' production? This next month will go a long way in figuring that out.
Aside from Jones, the Miners also lost Hayden Plinke and Cole Freytag who were one and two in receptions in 2016. If you count Jones, the Miners lose three of their top four receivers from last season, not that the Miners were all that explosive in the passing game, but they're starting over.
Eddie Sinegal is the best place to start, but UTEP will need more than the El Paso native to give defensive coordinators sleepless nights. Sinegal provided a nice option for Ryan Metz opposite Freytag.
Another El Paso native, Warren Reddix played in six games last season accumulating twelve catches and three touchdowns.
Kavika Johnson, the former quarterback turned running back turned wide receiver, is now listed at receiver. He's one of the more gifted athletes on the roster and might be able to make a transition to pass catcher.
Walter Dawn, undersized fire plug, showed the ability to make big plays in the run, pass, and return game last season. He scored three times against UTSA, twice via rushes, once on a reception. He's a handful in the slot and through scheme or package plays.
At tight end JC transfer David Lucero comes in from Arizona Western and Josh Weeks is a grad transfer from BYU. Weeks set all kinds of records as high school player in Arizona but that didn't translate at BYU. Lucero meanwhile might be a sleeper and more athletic that Plinke. Sterling Napier is back but he's always been more of a blocking threat than a catching threat.
The Miners head into year two of Tom Mason's 3-4 transition. There are pieces that seem to fit, but overall the 2016 results didn't give a ton of hope. But we're excited to see some of the younger pieces grow and develop.
Pieces like Jayson VanHook, who made nine starts and earned All-CUSA Freshman honors. VanHook will have a full offseason to put some weight on his frame. VanHook had 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack to go along with 36 tackles in 2016.
All everything Alvin Jones, brother of Alvin, has come along way since coming in as an undersized corner. He heads into his senior year as the clear leader of the Miner defense. He's joined by VanHook and former JC transfer Dante Lovilette who was a thumper at inside linebacker.
At nose guard, Denzel Chukwukelu should move in to rotation along with Chris Richardson both are sophomores. If they can fill in for early graduate Gino Bresolin, UTEP could have a huge 3-4 need locked in.
The secondary was young and under fire in 2016, that might help UTEP in 2017. Justin Rogers saw action at corner as a true freshman starting four games near the end of the season. He's joined by Nick Needham who started twelve games as a sophomore and fellow sophomore Kalon Beverly started eight games. They're all back at corner, giving UTEP one of its deepest units.
Mason has some tools to work with and we'd expect year two in the system for most of his frontline players will bring improvement.
For all the attacking possibilities the 3-4 brought, the Miners created a total of fourteen sacks in 2016, good enough, errrr bad enough for 118th in the FBS (just ahead of Texas Tech). Almost half those sacks came from Nick Usher's 5.5. Usher has graduated leaving a void that someone needs to fill.
A healthy Alvin Jones might help, he was limited to eight starts in 2016. Perhaps VanHook makes a leap as a full-time starter, should he win the job. UTEP needs to use the spring to find some pass rushing options either individually or via scheme to take some stress off their secondary.
Depth, Depth, Depth
Defensively UTEP has some interesting options with their frontline players, but depth is an issue.
UTEP loses three seniors off the linebacking two-deep and they'll count on young players to be ready to fill in.
On the defensive line, they return a number of guys, but lose Bresolin and backup Brian Madunezim. Neither were particularly productive, but they were the best options the Miners could muster. Can UTEP find three defensive lineman that can produce, let alone backups who can fill in without a significant drop off?
In the secondary the Miners graduated a starter at free safety and a backup at strong safety. Plus freshman backup free safety Kolbi McGary is no longer on the roster.
On offense UTEP lost both tackles, and while they have some experienced options, beyond Jerrod Brooks and Greg Long, they'll be young and inexperienced at tackle.
If you're looking for playmakers at receiver and tight end then chances are you don't have enough options to give your depth chart much...depth.
Injuries are going to happen, Kugler needs to assess his roster to determine if any of the unknowns can contribute.
It's a big spring for Kugler and company, leading into a bigger 2017. It's doubtful he gets another shot if things don't improve.