UTEP football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Miners, best players and season prediction.
One step forward, two steps back. UTEP is still seeking sustained prosperity under fourth-year head coach Sean Kugler.
Last season was supposed to be the one that the Miners put together back-to-back winning years for the first time in a decade. However, it wasn’t meant to be, as injuries and poor offensive execution kept the team from achieving its goal.
Kugler, never one to be content with the status quo or a retreat, made swift staff changes this offseason. The headliners were a couple of seasoned vets, offensive coordinator Brent Pease and defensive coordinator Tom Mason.
Pease is stepping into the classic good news, bad news scenario in El Paso. On the one hand, star RB Aaron Jones is healthy again after missing most of last season to a foot injury. No. 29 is the undisputed face of the program, running behind a big and nasty O-line. But on the other hand, Pease, a former quarterback himself, inherits a shaky situation behind center. The 2015 starter, Mack Leftwich, is out following shoulder surgery, and the successors have yet to show they’re ready to effectively lead an offense and absorb some heat from Jones. On a brighter note, UTEP will be the landing spot for Fresno State transfer Zack Greenlee.
The defense, though flawed on the perimeter, has a chance to be salty in Mason’s debut season.
The Miner D has been tougher than the narrative in Kugler’s tenure. Now, Mason wants his defenders to think less and react more, maximizing all of their energy and athleticism. The face of the movement will be another Jones, Aaron’s twin brother Alvin, who was everywhere for the Miners a season ago. He’s headed to the All-Conference USA Team at breakneck speed , but he’s going to need more help, especially from the team’s unproven defensive ends and cornerbacks.
The upcoming season at UTEP is all about recapturing the momentum it had in 2014, when it won a surprising seven games. Even at a school with a fervent fan base, Kugler knows that momentum—and attention spans—can be fleeting. It’s imperative that the school that suffered through eight straight losing campaigns from 2006-2013 avoid the start of another skid by returning to the postseason this fall.
What You Need to Know About the UTEP Offense
For Brent Pease, UTEP represents his seventh stop as an offensive coordinator over the past two decades. He knows various wrinkles and personnel traits, and he knows what buttons to push to keep an offense moving the chains. In El Paso, though, an incomplete attack is going to challenge Pease.
The Miners boast one of Conference USA’s best ground games now that RB Aaron Jones is back to operate behind an assertive offensive line. But the team will remain predictable and one-dimensional if quarterback play doesn’t improve.
Pease has a trio of choices behind center: Incumbent Mack Leftwich is rehabbing after shoulder surgery. Ryan Metz threw more picks than touchdowns in relief last year. Zack Greenlee was playing for Fresno State last fall. And Kavika Johnson has a long way to go as a passer.
Whoever does step up will gain access to a promising receiving corps, led by WR Jaquan White and TE Hayden Plinke, that welcomes back last season’s top five performers.
Biggest Key To The UTEP Offense
Under new management. The Miner offense will have new leaders in 2016, namely veteran coordinator Brent Pease, who was hired to give the unit an identity. The new guy in El Paso is facing a lot of key decisions, none bigger than who to start at quarterback. Junior Mack Leftwich makes the most sense, but recent shoulder surgery has shelved him for the year. Sophomores Kavika Johnson and Ryan Metz duked it out in April, with the latter earning a slight edge that he’ll carry into the summer. The wild card is Fresno State graduate transfer Zack Greenlee, who started five games in 2015, including a six-TD effort against Hawaii.
What You Need to Know About the UTEP Defense
When the Miners hired longtime veteran Tom Mason to coordinate the defense, it signaled an end to the 4-3. Hello, bigger linemen and a need for more linebackers. When blowouts versus Power Five opponents are stripped from the equation, UTEP has quietly played a sound brand of defense the past couple of seasons.
In league games, they ranked No. 4 in Conference USA total D a year ago. Not bad. And they could rise higher now that Mason is set to turn his best athletes loose. The Miners will be one budding star, LB Alvin Jones, and a bunch of complementary parts in 2016.
There’s a high ceiling at safety, with Devin Cockrell and Dashone Smith, and Gino Bresolin has nose tackle locked down.
But true progress will be defined by the amount of havoc UTEP can create off the edge and from the secondary. In 2015, the team had just 12 takeaways and 22 sacks, numbers that belie its tenacity and athleticism.
Biggest Key To The UTEP Defense
Learning different roles. With the hiring of Tom Mason as defensive coordinator, UTEP will shift to a 3-4 alignment. And with the 3-4 means a bunch of undersized linemen have now moved back a level to linebacker. In fact, just two of the dozen or so Miners listed as linebackers, BUCK Alvin Jones and MIKE Cooper Foster, actually played the position a year ago. The other frontrunners to start, Nick Usher and Silas Firstley, played end in 2015.
UTEP Will Be Far Better If …
a competent quarterback emerges from the mix. The Miners face a mess of problems in Sean Kugler’s fourth season. But many of them can be controlled if the team has better balance on offense to complement the running of Aaron Jones. UTEP used three quarterbacks in 2015, finishing 100th nationally in passing efficiency. In games that those QBs threw more than one touchdown pass, the team went 4-1. One or fewer? The Miners went 1-6.
Best Offensive Player
Junior RB Aaron Jones. Jones is the centerpiece of the Miner attack, the one player who most looks as if he has no business being in a Conference USA stadium. He’s both workhorse and show horse, doing whatever is necessary to carry the UTEP offense. It was no coincidence that the team’s offensive output, from scoring to yards per play, plummeted in 2015, a season in which Jones missed the final 10 games to a foot injury.
Best Defensive Player
Junior LB Alvin Jones. Jones was fantastic a season ago, flying all around the field to make stops for the Miners. And he might be even more impactful this fall as UTEP moves to a 3-4 base that’ll give additional responsibilities to the linebackers. Jones isn’t very big at 5-10 and 220 pounds, but he’s fast, tough and instinctive, the ingredients of a defender who’ll again pile up big numbers from the BUCK position.
Key Player to a Successful Season
The starting quarterback. Last year’s starter, Mack Leftwich, is out with a shoulder problem. Can Ryan Metz or Zack Greenlee make Leftwich’s surgically-repaired shoulder a non-issue? UTEP is pleased with the progress of its defense, and it has a true offensive frontman in RB Alvin Jones, who’ll run behind a big and physical line. The Miners’ missing link for earning a postseason bid is behind center, where the team hasn’t had a true playmaker since Trevor Vittatoe’s sophomore season in 2008.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Miners flip last season’s mark by going 7-5. The staff has been reshuffled, with upgrades at both coordinator spots, and the Jones brothers, Aaron and Alvin, headline a decent corps of talent in El Paso. If this squad can remain relatively healthy, there’s every reason to believe it can lock up a winning season by the end of November by navigating a schedule featuring 10 opponents that finished below .500 in 2015.
Sept. 24 vs. Southern Miss. The Miners will kick off the Conference USA portion of the slate with this visit from the Golden Eagles, one of the two opponents on the schedule that bowled a year ago. Southern Miss will still ring up points on offense, but the defense will be more vulnerable after the graduations of a number of key players. If RB Aaron Jones can light up that D in an MVP performance, it’s liable to be a launching point into a tissue-soft second-half schedule.
2015 Fun Stats
– Yards per carry: UTEP 3.9 – Opponents 5.0
– Turnovers: UTEP 23 – Opponents 12
– Yards per play: UTEP 4.9 – Opponents 6.8