Quietly sitting on the hot seat is UTEP's Sean Kugler, the former UTEP lineman and NFL assistant who has put together back to back losing seasons. The Miners lost a record setting back in Aaron Jones but may have found a quarterback. So which way will they go? We make the argument for both better and worse.
The Miners will be Better...
If Ryan Metz is 2016 Ryan Metz. In many ways the 2016 Miners will be Ryan Metz' team. No longer is there Aaron Jones to carry the ball and the load. Metz performed well, in the constraints of UTEP's offense. If UTEP is going to be better in 2017, they'll need Metz to perform to 2016 standards in an offense that will inevitably change. Looking at Metz 2016 season compared to 2015 you see that he made huge strides in both completion percentile rank and interception avoidance percentile. In 2015 Metz was a redshirt freshman playing significant snaps for the first time and it showed. UTEP will now need Metz to take a bigger role and push the ball downfield, increasing his yards per attempt and yards per play. If he can do all that and still complete passes and avoid interceptions at an elite rate UTEP will be better, no doubt.
If year two of Tom Mason's defense shows fruit. Tom Mason brought his 3-4 to UTEP in 2016 and the change was painful to watch at times. Mason had a pretty good run at SMU as his defenses showed improvement year to year until the bottom fell out. His first year with the Mustangs his group ranked 119th in total defense, only North Texas was worse. By his 4th year the Mustangs were a top 30 defense and even as the slide happened they were top 75 until the 2014 disaster when June Jones was fired and Mason was promoted to interim head coach.
Mason's 2017 unit will have better talent at all three levels. Denzel Chukwukelu and Christian Richardson gained valuable experience on the interior of the defensive line as first year contributors. So did Mike Sota, Sky Logan and Gene Hopkins on the outside. Alvin Jones, Dante Lovilotte, and Jayson VanHook are playmakers at linebacker even if none have ideal size. In the secondary, Nick Needham, Devin Cockrell, Kalon Beverly and Justin Rogers all return plus the majority of the two-deep. The Miners actually played the pass well last season, ranking 41st in pass defense and. UTEP's defense is going to be better in 2017.
If we get to know the receivers better. UTEP hasn't had a game breaking receiver in a couple of years. Hayden Plinke was a nice fit, but he's gone as is leading receiver Cole Freytag. In 2017, right off the bat, Eddie Sinegal needs to be on the field. He had academic issues in the spring, his absence would be huge. From there Terry Juniel, Kavika Johnson, Brandon Moss and Warren Redix or some combination of new contributors need to step up. Look for Moss to be a prime candidate, at 6-3 and possessing elite track speed, he can be a real threat. Redix is another El Paso kid who has ideal size the quickness to do damage in the slot. If a couple of these guys emerge, the Miners will be better.
UTEP will be worse if...
The running back by committee doesn't work out. The Miners will miss Aaron Jones, no doubt. When the career leading rusher graduates it's going to be a hit. The running game will always be a staple of the Sean Kugler approach. Losing Quadraiz Wadley for the season doesn't help. All the candidates are unproven. If no one steps up, or a group of backs don't pick up the slack, the Miners will struggle in 2017.
If UTEP's defense can't stop the run. Every great defense is predicated on stopping run. Last season the Miners ranked 96th in rush defense. Go back and watch the Army game and see how a team gets manhandled vs. a ground game. Seven teams averaged five plus yards a carry vs. UTEP last year. Louisiana Tech ran for almost nine yards a pop. If you can't stop the run you can't win football games or at least you can't win unless you're going to score way more than a UTEP offense typically pieces together.
If anything happens to Ryan Metz. We mentioned that Ryan Metz needs to replicate his 2016 season in order for UTEP to have a shot in 2017. If anything happens to Ryan Metz, the Miners will be hoping one of their backups, probably Zack Greenlee, does something they've never done, i.e. complete more than 50% of their passes. There's hope in Vandergrift freshman Alex Fernandes, who has the sort of frame that can add weight and the arm to make most throws. He looks like a candidate to be the quarterback of the future as long as that future is a couple years away. In the mean time, UTEP needs to keep Ryan Metz healthy.