UTEP Season Preview: Life After Aaron Jones

The seat in El Paso is getting pretty hot under Sean Kugler. After a 2014 bowl birth, the Miners haven't been able to get over the top even with the most prolific running back in UTEP history. Now Kugler must fashion together an offense around Ryan Metz at quarterback and a very good offensive line, but without a number of very good skill players who graduated. 

Offensive coordinator Brent Pease has something to work with in Metz, but the Miners will be on option three or four at running back thanks to injuries. UTEP is also replacing its top two tight ends and leading receiver You can build around the talent the Miners return up front. Will Hernandez might be the best guard in college football and several other pieces are are very good up front. But UTEP's margin for error is slim with their lack of playmakers at the skill positions. Life in CUSA is hard when you can't score points and that will be the Miner's struggle in 2017. 

Defensive coordinator Tom Mason enters year two in El Paso and is hoping for better results from a defense that lacked identity and physicality last season. On film the Miners lacked urgency as well, they didn't run to the football. The reason for the lack of urgency could have been confusion new scheme causing hesitation or lack of buy in. You hope it's the former. The Miners return a lot of their defensive line components but they're switching them out for younger, bigger, arguably more athletic options. Mason will need his new look defensive line to gel and his talented linebackers and secondary to play with their hair on fire more this season. 

You can win playing good defense and running the football. The Miners are close to doing both, but far enough away that we have real doubts of them doing either. 

Key Numbers

Scoring Drive % Touchdown Drive % Scoring Drives % Allowed Touchdown % Allowed 3rd Down % Turnover Margin Total Adjusted Run Rate (Nat'l Rank)
0.336 0.299 0.474 0.358 41% -5 -0.004 (67)
  • Scoring Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in points.
  • Touchdown Drive %: Percentage of offensive drives that end in touchdowns. 
  • Scoring Drives % Allowed: Percentage of drives allowed that ended in points. 
  • Touchdown % Allowed: Percentage of opponent's drives that end in a touchdown. 
  • 3rd Down %: Offensives success on 3rd down. 
  • Turnover Margin: Total number of giveaways minus total number of takeaways. 
  • Total Adjusted Run Rate: Taking the national average of yards per carry and yards allowed per carry and comparing that to the relative team. Teams that end up with a plus Total Adjusted Run Rate average 8.4 wins per year. Teams with a negative Total Adjusted Run Rate average 5.5 wins per season. The top 20 teams in Total Adjusted Run Rate Averaged 9.7 wins per season over a five year period. 

Quarterbacks

The Miners started last year with Zack Greenlee at quarterback before moving to Kavika Johnson for the Texas game and finally landed on Ryan Metz. All three of those players are still on the roster but the UTEP depth chart is dramatically different. Metz is now the starter and firmly in place, Greenlee is the backup, perhaps not firmly in place, and Johnson is a wide receiver. 

 Ryan Metz

Ryan Metz

UTEP may have found something in native El Pasoan Metz. He's the reason UTEP is ranked where they are. After an up and down redshirt freshman season, Metz took a huge step forward in 2016. His completion percentage jumped five points to elite levels at 64%. Add to that Brent Pease's offense which requires quarterbacks to make pro-throws and uses extensive shifting and motion. While a lot of classic spread/air raid offenses are predicated on quick, short, horizontal, high percentage throws, UTEP's offense doesn't provide those opportunities.

On a different note, Metz took his preseason demotion to transfer Greenlee in stride, his maturity and leadership both came to the forefront. UTEP will need those characteristics to continue to develop with the loss of Aaron Jones and his record setting ability. 

Greenlee on the other hand played well in the Miners' opener against rival New Mexico State, however his production and efficiency quickly dropped off. If Greenlee throws for a reasonably high percentage, it'll be the first time he's done so in his career both at UTEP and previously at Fresno State.  He's had just one season of 50% completions. He also got a little reckless with the football, which is more of a mortal sin to Sean Kugler than any accuracy issues. 

Another local product, Mark Torrez, put pressure on Greenlee in the spring. He was particular effective in the spring game going 4-5 for 58 yards. If you're looking for a potential future starter, look at Alex Fernandes out of Vandergrift high school in Austin. Fernandes was a three star recruit who threw for over 2,900 yards as a junior, and while his production tailed off as as senior, he appears to have a bright future. 

Running Backs

UTEP starts its first season in while in the year of our Lord 2017 A.J. - "After Jones." For three seasons Aaron Jones was the catalyst of UTEP's offense. Good or bad, everything ran through Jones. Jones is a Green Bay Packer now, in his wake are a number of players who will try to fill his shoes. 

Quadraiz Wadley was first in line to replace Jones, but a shoulder injury will keep him out of service in 2017. Wadley's absence means that the task now falls to one of three or four basically unknowns. Kevin Dove, a sophomore from El Campo gives the Miners a big back at 250 pounds. He played most extensively vs. Florida International with four carries and 21 yards. Dove had back to back 1,900 yard seasons at El Campo and scored 59 touchdowns in his high school career. We'd like to see Dove run with more purpose, using his 250 plus frame as a hammer. He seems to anticipate contact too much and plays smaller than his massive build. 

T.K. Powell is recovering from an injury that held him out of last season but should be ready to go for the fall. He filled in for Jones in 2015 after Jones' knee injury. Powell is a walk-on from Fort Worth and is the most all-around skilled back of the group. Redshirt freshman Ronald Awatt from Frenship who had 2,000 yards rushing as a senior, got some looks in the spring. He's very good in space, how he plays when the acreage closes down is the question. 

The most exciting prospect may be El Paso native Josh Fields. Fields signed in February as a three-star prospect out of Americas High School. Head coach Sean Kugler made Fields a priority, targeting him since his sophomore year. Fields drew interest, though not offers, from Stanford, Texas and Colorado. He ran for 2,477 yards his senior season. Fields has some dog in him, never giving up on a run, running through tackles, constant leg movement. He'll be given a chance to play for the Miners early. He could be special in a couple years. 

Receivers

Oh UTEP, we want to rank you higher but we have questions. Serious questions. The biggest of which is who replaces Cole Freytag. Freytag was undeniably Ryan Metz' favorite receiver and led Miner receivers with 36 catches and a 72% catch rate. After Freytag, there's Eddie Sinegal a game breaker local product who sat out the spring with some academic issues. If he's back that answers some questions. 

Terry Juniel is a very good return man, and was Honorable Mention All-CUSA as a punt returner. He caught nine passes last year but also suffered a 47% catch rate. Warren Redix was the second leading returning receiver from 2016. He caught just twelve passes last season, and caught 57% of his targets last season. 

The two most interesting options are converted quarterback Kavika Johnson and former running back Walter Dawn. Johnson is considered one of the better athletes on the roster, who will be a receiver full time for the first time in his career. Dawn played running back last season as well as slot receiver. He's dangerous with the ball, though his size could be an issue outside of the slot. 

Tyler Batson a senior caught five passes last year but with a below 50% catch rate.  

Tight End

UTEP has to replace not only Hayden Plinke but Kent Taylor as well. Plinke was the best tight end in the state last season and parlayed that into an NFL contract. Taylor was a former five star recruit who went to Florida and Kansas before coming to UTEP.

To replace their depth chart, UTEP is looking to two transfers: David Lucero from Boise State by way of Arizona Western and Josh Weeks from BYU. Lucero looks to be the most polished pass catcher of the two. Weeks set all kinds of records as a prep player in Arizona before heading to BYU where he played sparingly. 

Sterling Napier is in his fourth year in UTEP's system and is the best blocker of the group. Augie Touris saw action in three games last season and didn't register a catch. Sani Buckingham played in five games last year and used primarily as a blocker. 

Offensive Line

UTEP may have the best interior lineman in college football in Will Hernandez. When you watch the tape from 2016 the first thing you notice is that when UTEP needed yards, they went left - behind Hernandez. He's a bull in a bar ditch. He erases people. Hernandez has started all 37 games in his UTEP career and was First Team All-CUSA and an AP All-America. 

 Will Hernandez

Will Hernandez

At center Derron Gatewood out of Permian is a nice player who can play guard as well. Freshman All-CUSA performer Greg Long will be counted on at left tackle and Jerrod Brooks will play on the right edge. At 6-6, 330 pounds Brooks has ideal size and started five games last season. He's also added 30 pounds this offseason. We'll see how that weight sits. Long made four starts as a true freshman. 

At the other guard Derek Elmendorff should plug in. Elmendorff has seen his playing time go down over the course of three years to the point that last year he didn't get a start. His weight has continued to go up at the same time. 

Part of Sean Kugler's grand plan has been to create a line factory in El Paso. He has the depth and size he's been looking for. Markos Lujan and Tanner Stallings give the Miners solid reserves, Stallings started the last seven games at center in 2016. 

Defensive Line

The evolving UTEP defense enters year two of Tom Mason's 3-4 alignment. UTEP's line was one of the more passive groups in the FBS. As a unit the defensive line managed just six sacks. Right now the group remains void of playmakers. UTEP will look for production from their linebackers, but the defensive line can pitch in and help. We just wonder who? UTEP will have a fresh look with several 2016 starters moving to backup roles in favor of younger players. 

UTEP has two distinct flavors of defensive ends. On one side 300 pounder Chris Richardson plugs in with Mike Sota backing him up. Richardson made All-CUSA Freshman last season and improved as the season went along. He started the Miners' last two game. He has good upside. Sota made nine starts at defensive end last season. At 285, he's a load as well. 

On the other side, the lighter side, Christian Buckingham is penciled in as the starter. He runs about 250 pounds and played high school football in Korea. Behind him veteran Gene Hopkins provides experience with five starts in 2016. Buckingham and Hopkins will provide better pass rush options than their counterparts on the other side. If you're looking for improvement Buckingham might the 

Inside Denzel Chukwukelu is an intriguing prospect at 6-4 and close to 300 pounds. Chukwukelu solidified his standing with a good spring. Physically he's got everything you need, the question will be can he play with the proper leverage to stifle the run inside. Behind him defensive end Sky Logan moves inside to give the Miners a more athletic, attacking option. 

Linebackers

Year two of UTEP's 3-4 transition should be better than year one. If anything the linebacking corps of the Miners should be a strength. Inside Alvin Jones and Donte Lovilette are both playmakers. Jones is as active as any linebacker in CUSA or the state for that matter. Lovilette is a downhill thumper who made a huge impact last season after transferring in from the JC ranks. 

 Donte Lovilette

Donte Lovilette

Behind Jones and Lovilette the Miners are scrambling a bit. Ventura JC transfer Kalaii Griffin will be counted on to provide depth. Griffin is a converted safety and we'll see how he adjusts nearer the line of scrimmage. Treyvon Hughes converts from running back to inside linebacker and tries to recover from an injury that cost him 2016. 

The Miners lost both starters on the outside but look to be better athletically on the edge. Lawrence Montegut will step in on one side and the other side should be a battle between Jayson VanHook and Dylan Parsee. VanHook was named All-CUSA Freshman in 2016. He can be an explosive player, but he was sidelined this spring with academic issues. Parsee, also a sophomore, played in ten games last season. 

Wake Forest grad transfer Julian Jackson will be on campus this summer and ready to contribute. Jackson is a rare edge athlete and can be an elite pass rusher. With him in the rotation, the Miner linebacking corps can go from good to dangerous. 

Secondary

We've said this before, but we're not sure what purpose UTEP's defense served in 2016. The Miners allowed opposing QBs to throw for a 142.9 rating and 26 touchdowns. UTEP only mustered six picks by comparison. 

 Kalon Beverly

Kalon Beverly

There's talent here, just not production. Nik Needham is a skilled and long corner who's got a ton of experience. He's got nineteen starts under his belt and led the 2016 defense with eleven pass breakups. On the other side Kalon Beverly has seventeen starts. Both Needham and Beverly give the Miners good size on the edge. Justin Rogers started four games at corner near the end of the season and made the All-CUSA freshman.

At safety Devin Cockrell recovered from an injury that cost him his 2015 season to play all twelve games in 2016. He's a thumper in run support, in the pass game...well he's a thumper in run support. Cockrell is a real asset on special teams as well. Redshirt freshman Broderick Harrell provides depth for Cockrell. 

Michael Lewis will get the first crack at free safety. The junior from tiny Trinity, Texas has bulked up this offseason after redshirting in 2016. JUCO transfer Kahani Smith will push Lewis for playing time.

Specialist

Alan Luna is a pretty good punter. He was named Honorable Mention All-CUSA last season. He averaged 41 yards a punt, boomed a 69 yarder and hit nine of 50 yards or more. 

At kicker the Miners lose Jay Mattox, a pretty reliable weapon. They'll look to a couple of unknowns - either Andrew Zubia or Jason Filley - to fill the void. Both are local products, Filley from Coronado and Zubia from Franklin. Zubia kicked at NAIA Benedictine College before coming to UTEP last fall. 

UTEP has options at the return positions. Terry Juniel averaged a healthy 9 yards a punt return and eighteen yards on kickoff returns. Sophomore Walter Dawn was effective on kickoff returns as well. Eddie Sinegal has experience in the return game as well. 

2017 Schedule

Best Case

Ryan Metz continues his efficient development. The offensive line helps make replacing Aaron Jones an easier chore. The revamped defensive line and experienced linebackers help the defense to be efficient at stopping the run. The Miners get to five wins and perhaps sneak into a bowl.  

Worst Case

The Miners miss the playmakers they lost from 2016, including Jones, Hayden Plinke, Cole Freytag, et al. The defense continues to play passive. UTEP can't keep up with the pace and space teams in the league and struggle to find three wins. 

 

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@ Oklahoma Loss

Miners open the season in a body bag game vs. the Top 10 Sooners. 

Just survive boys, just survive. 

Rice Pick'em

UTEP catches Rice coming off a bye week. 

This game is a must win for both schools. 

Arizona Loss

This is a winnable game as PAC 12 'Zona comes to the Sun Bowl. 

A win here and you've got a signature moment. A loss looks just like all the others. 

@ New Mexico State Pick'Em

The Battle of I-10 in Las Cruces. 

A Miner win would be their 9th straight over their rivals to the West. 

@ Army Loss

The Black Knights humiliated the Miners in El Paso last year. 

Can UTEP defend the Flexbone any better? Probably not. 

Western Kentucky Loss

The Toppers make their first trip to El Paso. 

Miners just try to keep it close. 

@ Southern Miss Loss

Miners travel to USM. 

Gonna have to score in bunches to keep up. 

UTSA Loss

Runners and Miners played an epic 5 OT thriller in 2016. 

Miners can keep it close. 

@ Middle Tennessee Loss

Another game vs.  CUSA East team that can score. A lot. 

@ North Texas Pick'em

Last year UTEP drubbed the Mean Green in El Paso. 

Can they pull off an upset in Denton?

Louisiana Tech Loss

Miners have lost four straight to the Techsters. This year makes it five. 

@UAB Win

No telling how good UAB will be, but the Miners should handle business on the road. 

Prediction 3-9

The Roundup...