Season Preview: UTEP

Opening Statement

Repeat after me: "2017 is over. It will never happen again." That's our mantra Miner fans. That's also the reality. The calendar drones on and everyone responsible for the 0-12 debacle is gone. The head coach? Gone. The assistants? Out. The athletic director? See ya. Even interim re-tread Mike Price is donezo. 

It's a new day in El Paso and hope springs eternal. Dana Dimel, in spite of our initial hesitancy, might be the right fit for a tough gig. He's a proven college operator who's excelled in remote locations. He's hired a competent staff, and he's got the support of an AD who wants to transform the athletic program and may have the fundraising acumen to do it. 

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TEP fans should be excited about the offensive transformation the Miners are undergoing. Gone are the days of the antiquated ground and pound, enter a new "conventional" offense that will play with more pace and utilize RPOs and spread the field. The Miners ran an FBS worst 58 plays per game last season, one of only two teams to average less than 60 offensive snaps per game. Brent Pease's offense required a collective physical advantage that UTEP couldn't maintain. Under Dimel and new offensive coordinator Mike Canales, we'll certainly see a more modern approach that creates more space and utilizes individual skills. 

In a sport where the quarterback is King, Dimel went out and found one that might be a difference maker in Kai Locksley. Locksley has the size, athleticism, and arm to put the fear into CUSA defensive coordinators. UTEP's offense hasn't generated fear since Aaron Jones was roaming the Sun Bowl. If Locksley isn't the answer, then incumbent Ryan Metz should benefit from new offensive coordinator Mike Canales' expertise and Dimel's ability to generate yardage.

At running back, Quadraiz Wadley is back after an injury-shortened 2017. He and local product Josh Fields will provide whatever rushing attack along with the quarterback position. Treyvon Hughes moved to running back in the spring and at 237, is a load and change of pace from the smaller backs.  

The receiving corps is relatively deep with Terry Juniel, Kavika Johnson, Warren Redix, Erik Brown, Eddie Sinegal and Walter Dawn. Receiver might be the most well-rounded position on the team, but with bad quarterback play, they were deprived of opportunity. Only Juniel caught more than 20 passes last season among the returning options. Dawn is an undersized playmaker who's been shuttled between running back, receiver, and the bench for two seasons, but when he gets the ball in his hands he tends to make things happen. 

Two newcomers should play roles as well. Three-star receiver Justin Garrett from Cerritos College is a vertical threat and three-star recruit Andrew Nwachukwu is a bigger, more physical target from Wylie.

Competent quarterback play makes the receiving group exponentially better. 

Anytime you lose a second round pick and All-American like Will Hernandez; there will be an adjustment. Aside from Hernandez, the Miners lose two other key contributors. They do however have a steady force at center in Derron Gatewood with 22 starts. 

Tackle is much more defined than the interior with Greg Long returning from injury, Rueben Guerra expected back in the fall, and Jerrod Brooks in the mix. Inside the guards are in flux, Markos Lujan and Bijan Hosseini both saw action, albeit briefly last year. The Miners signed eight linemen in February including Tyler JC transfer Tres Barboza. Expect several of the newcomers to get the chance to compete for playing time.

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Experienced assistant Mike Cox takes over a UTEP defense that underwhelmed in 2017, not unlike the rest of the squad. The Miners will build from the front back with some interesting prospects on the defensive line. The move to an even front should benefit the Miners overall with the depth at the position and the individual talents of the players. 

Trace Mascorro played a considerable role as a true freshman, moving inside and outside, he'll play defensive end, a position that better fits his skill set. Asking a true freshman to compete on the line of scrimmage is rarely a great idea, but Mascorro proved to be the most consistent down-lineman in UTEP's stable last season. Mike Sota will play opposite Mascorro. Sani Buckingham has the size to play anywhere across the front, and Dedrick Simpson is on the all hotel lobby team as well. 

Inside the Miners will call on Denzel Chukwukelu and Chris Richardson. Richardson played extensively as a redshirt freshman in 2016 but was an academic casualty on the eve of 2017. 

UTEP's linebackers are undergoing a significant shift in scheme from the 3-4 alignment to the 4-2-5. There will be fewer on the field, and their responsibilities will be dramatically different. The Miner 'backers will player either a Mike or a Will, with both used inside the box, but the Mike in a 4-2-5 is a more traditional run plugger and the Will fitting more of a hybrid role depending on the front four's alignment. 

Dylan Parsee jumps off the film and played the best of the group in the spring game. Jamar Smith is a downhill thumper who should play well in traffic. Kalaii Griffin and Barron Wortham will also get reps. The Miners will be without playmaker Alvin Jones for the first time in recent memory, his nose for the ball will be missed. 

The Miners will rely on three safeties in their new defense, with a boundary safety, a wide or deep safety, and a hybrid most analogous to a strong safety who can play more in the box. Again, the move to the new alignment makes sense given the talent on hand. UTEP's safeties are deep and versatile with Michael Lewis and Kahani Smith returning. Newcomer Justin Prince from Long Beach City College is a downhill punisher who should see the field as well. 

At corner, Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly return with Justin Rogers providing depth. Needham was honorable mention All-CUSA in 2017. He and Beverly have nice length to matchup with bigger receivers. 

Specialists

Placekicking was a disaster in 2017 with Miner kickers connecting on 42% of their field goal attempts. Watch the end of the Western Kentucky game for an idea of how bad it was. Kickoff specialist Brady Viles is back; he hit a 53 yarder against Arizona last season. 

These days if you want a punter you go to Australia to find one and UTEP did just that with Mitchell Crawford. The specialist's room is a league of nations with an Aussie, a Brazilian, and a guy from El Paso. 

Not that anyone will be returning kickoffs anymore, but Terry Juniel was pretty good at it in 2017. He had a lot of chances. 

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Derron Gatewood - Center

A two-year starter and Rimington Watch List designee, Gatewood gives the Miners stability in the center of the offensive line. 

Trace Mascorro - Defensive End

Starting at nose guard as a true freshman in Norman isn't easy, but Mascorro was up to the task all season. He made All-CUSA Freshman team last year. 

Nik Needham - Cornerback

A three year, 30 game starter and Honorable Mention All-CUSA last year, Needham is second in UTEP history in pass breakups. 

The Schedule

Best Case: Kai Locksley is as explosive as we hope and the Miners catch a couple of conference opponents in his wake. 4-8.

Worst Case: Northern Arizona is the only shot they've got but a win is a win. 1-11.

Closing Statement

For Dimel, year one is about changing the culture in El Paso and installing his schemes. After 2017, expectations can't be much more than that. He's already started going about the process of transforming the roster, finding pieces that fit, and recruiting fresh talent. The Miners handcuffed themselves last season with their offensive philosophy and inability to adapt. 

Adaptation was a hallmark of Dimel's offense at K-State. He also sat at the right hand of Bill Snyder, the master architect who transformed a laughing stock in a remote location into a Big 12 power. We hope Dimel can do something remotely similar for UTEP in CUSA.

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