UTEP returns 2/3 of their defensive line from 2016, however, the Miners are set to remake their front three. The Miners are going younger, bigger, and more athletic up front and the change could be huge for UTEP's hoped resurgence.
Size up front in Tom Mason's 3-4 alignment is critical. The Miners have that in starters Christian Richardson, Denzel Chukwukelu, and Christian Buckingham. Chukwukelu and Buckingham are both 6-4 and north of 290 pounds. They fill in at the end positions for last years' starters Mike Sota and Gene Hopkins. Christian Richardson starts at the nose, where he made two starts in 2016 and earned CUSA All-Freshman designation.
Those three and the rest of the group have been the talk of camp, dominating scrimmages and team sessions. They've been dominant even against UTEP's top offensive line, which is considered one of the best in CUSA.
The new look line is a by-product of some creative recruiting efforts by Sean Kugler and his staff. Chukwukelu played defensive tackle at Rockwall Heath. UTEP was the only school offering him in spite of his size and natural strength. At Heath, Chukwukelu played at his best in big games with a dominant performance in the 6A playoffs and a great performance against Euless Trinity in the season opener of his senior season.
Richardson came to El Paso via California and was a walk-on initially. He's since earned a scholarship. He an intuitive player, who uses his hands well. Buckingham was also a find, after spending last season at El Paso Community College after playing high school football in Korea of all places by way of American Samoa. Buckingham's two brothers play at UTEP as well. Buckingham is a very good edge setter, possessing the strength to hold up against the run.
The defensive line is the most important defensive position in college football. Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Dabo Sweeney will beat a path to the door of a potential showstopper on the defensive front. Saban has turned his front into the land of giant, freakish monsters. A good defensive front can be a spread killer, as coaches commit fewer resources to stopping the run and rushing the passer.
For schools down the food chain like UTEP, the five stars aren't within reach. The Miners and just about everyone else has to be smart and grow their own monsters. Kugler has a keen eye for both offensive and defensive front talent. The evidence is on the offensive front where he's put together a good room, increasing the size and athletic ability. Those giants weren't ready made, plug and play when they showed up on campus, Kugler found and built.
The defensive line prospect we're excited about is Keith Sullivan. He's all of 6-7 and has grown from 235 to 260 pounds. Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Boise were among the schools that recruited Sullivan out of Aldine Davis. His grades scared off those potential suitors but UTEP hung on. Now that patience is rewarded as Sullivan is eligible and ready to make an impact.
The other by-product of replacing starters with younger players is that depth is now ready made. Sota and Hopkins were both starters last season and now provide strength in the reserve defensive line.
Watching UTEP in 2016, at least on the defensive side, the Miners didn't run to the football well. Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's axiom is lineup right, run to the football, then lineup and do it again. Defense is an effort industry. UTEP didn't produce in the effort department last year. That's either a product of confusion or player not buying in. With Mason's defense in year two, the confusion component should lessen. The Miners seem to be buying into the attacking, physical style of Mason's defense. This young front is as big and athletic as any in recent UTEP memory. They came to El Paso after various, at times foreign, pit stops, but they could the catalysts to a better defensive year.