Let's all agree to just forget about UTEP's 2017 season, act like it never happened. Before we do though, let's remind everyone how bad it was. 0-12, the worst scoring average in college football, the 119th worst defensive scoring margin, two head coaches, two offensive coordinators, and perhaps the worst season in UTEP history.
Enter Dana Dimel and a new, refreshing regime, bent on bringing a winner to the Sun City. What do the Miners need to accomplish this spring? Well, a lot, but we can narrow down to a few, critical areas.
What did Dana learn?
Dana Dimel's been here before. He was a hotshot head coach who came to Houston to revitalize the Cougar program. The rebuild never got off the ground, and Dimel left to find himself working as an assistant at Arizona and Kansas State. What effect does failure have on a man? For Dimel he says the episode at Houston cause him to withdraw and reflect, never really searching for redemption in another head coaching job. When UTEP opened, for the first time since Houston, Dimel put himself out there again and landed the job.
Has time been a teacher for Dimel? Can he use the lessons learned along the way to see that his failures in Houston don't happen again? We'll all tune in to find out.
In many ways, Dimel is a safe choice. He's older, arguably wiser, and he's been sitting at the feet of Bill Snyder, perhaps the most celebrated program architect in modern football. He's also been around Rich Rodriguez, one of the pioneers of the run-based spread offense. Dimel is respected in the coaching community, and he's able to bring in a competent staff, and he's an experienced operator. He knows what works and doesn't work at the college level.
Whether the talent exactly fits his scheme and what he wants to do in year one is what he'll need to ascertain over the next few months. UTEP's fatal flaw, well, one of many, was their inability to adapt. The Miners had one offensive speed, and it was pedestrian at best. They weren't explosive or surprising most Saturdays. UTEP has to hope Dimel's offensive background and coaching experience can make them harder to deal with.
Finding a quarterback and figuring out what to do with him
College football is a quarterback's game. If you have one, chances are you'll be pretty good, if you don't, hang on for a bumpy ride. Dimel's K-State offenses consistently produced efficient quarterbacks where none seemed to exist. That might be the definition of "quarterback friendly." Note we didn't say aesthetically pleasing.
Given Dimel's history, the quarterback will be asked to run far more often than in Sean Kugler's offense. The quarterback designed run game is a staple of his offense as Jesse Ertz, Daniel Sams, and Collin Klein have all rushed for 800 yards or more, with Klein and Ertz putting up 1,000-yard seasons since 2011.
Dimel's offensive approach is run first, which UTEP fans are probably not excited to hear about, but using the quarterback as a real run threat pressures the defense to at least account for him in the run game. The approach is a clock eater that grinds defenses down to create big plays. Kansas State fans grew to dislike Dimel's methodical approach, but the strategy wasn't without success. The Wildcats averaged 30 or more points in six of his eight years.
Don't expect an aerial assault, not close to it. Snyder made a strategic decision to go against the Big 12 grain and counter the pace and space tendency of most league foes with a methodical pace that kept Kansas State (hopefully) ahead of the chains and more importantly kept offenses off the field. In his last three seasons running the Wildcat's offense, K-State quarterbacks completed less than 55% of their passes and were last or next to last in league passing each year. For UTEP fans all of this must be sounding familiar.
UTEP has choices at quarterback depending on what the staff is looking for. Ryan Metz is experienced but has been injury prone. Former Texas signee Kai Locksley has the measurables and athleticism, but spent most of his FBS career playing receiver. Mark Torrez showed flashes of athleticism in his brief time at quarterback in 2017, but he also showed the inconsistency of a younger player.
Job one or at least one-A must be figuring out the quarterback position and who can execute the offense efficiently. Dimel can then shrink his playbook and start working up an offensive identity that can win games, at least a couple games.
This is something no one can define, but one that every coach emphasizes when he takes over a program. Culture is a top to bottom, communicated, directive that informs the way a team interacts off the field, how they work on it, where accountability comes from, their attention to detail, even how they lift weights. Culture starts with the first meeting and setting up clear expectations and raising the bar of expectations.
For the first time since 2012, Sean Kugler isn't preparing for spring ball in El Paso. Kugler tried to rebuild UTEP into his image, with physical, bully ball based on monstrous offensive lineman and the use of those beautiful but endangered species: fullbacks and tight ends.
What is Dimel's cultural footprint? Dimel's spent more time with Bill Snyder than most folks would probably want to so he knows how a maniacal wizard with unworldly attention to detail operates. Google "Bill Snyder butter" and enjoy a coach's crusade to monitor his team's every move. Dimel also knows what it takes to when in a place that doesn't have a natural recruiting base and competes against giants week in and week out.
He'll change the routines, bring on his strength guy, clear the decks and open competition to all comers to get playing time. That energy alone will push the Miners in the weight room and on the practice field. Dime's job one will be to establish the expectations for how his team performs for 2018, five months before they take the field.
Depth and Strength on the Defensive Line
Let's end on a high note. Last year we wrote an article about UTEP's young, athletic, defensive line and how they might be the hidden gem of the roster. We wrote that article in August, literally a few days later injuries and academics reshaped the front. Injury is the mother depth, and 2017 forced UTEP to play a lot of young talent. The Miners used eight different configurations last year.
First and foremost, Trace Mascorro gained valuable experience in the interior of the line as a true freshman. He earned Freshman All-Conference accolades. Mascorro is versatile enough to play inside or on the edge. Dedrick Simpson made four starts as a true freshman as well. Keith Sullivan, at 6-7, 260-pound defensive end played in eight games as well.
Add to that Sani and Christian Buckingham who played across the defensive front and Denzel Chukwukelu, who started seven games at both defensive end positions. Then there's Mike Sota who made nine starts in 2016 and contributed in 2017 after a position change. Senior Luke Elsner started two games in 2017 before suffering an injury.
Junior Chris Richardson sat out last season due to academic issues after starting two games as a redshirt freshman in 2016.
The Miners have eight or nine players, each with legitimate FBS size, who mix and match in 2018. Those options should excite new defensive coordinator Mike Cox as he installs his system this spring.