2020 UTEP Football Forecast: Time To Talk Miner Football
Editor's note: Sports are constantly evolving on a daily basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making a lot of the 2020 season still uncertain. This story is part one of an offseason series preview for the Miners' upcoming season with the idea that the season takes place as scheduled.
Miners head coach Dana Dimel hasn't shied away from his plans on a five-year complete rebuild for a football program that has been in the dumps for a long, long time. The problem is, the coaching staff is now embarking on year three and the future appears more dubious than ever.
UTEP is 2-34 over the last three seasons and the program has just one FBS win (Rice, 2018) in three years. Dimel is 2-22 at UTEP after taking over an 0-12 team back in 2017. However, there's no moving on after this year. Dimel's contract is fully guaranteed for five years and the athletic program isn't in the financial position to make any changes until his contract is done.
Questions are flying all across the board. How many games can this team actually win? Who will be the quarterback? Can the defense improve its inconsistencies from last year?.... Is there any hope for this rebuild?
Let's break it all down and preview the upcoming season.
2020 UTEP FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
- Sept. 5 TEXAS TECH
- Sept. 12 at Nevada
- Sept. 19 at Texas
- Sept. 26 NM STATE
- Oct. 3 BYE
- Oct. 10 at Louisiana Tech*
- Oct. 17 SOUTHERN MISS*
- Oct. 24 at Charlotte*
- Oct. 31 NORTH TEXAS*
- Nov. 7 FIU*
- Nov. 14 at UTSA*
- Nov. 21 UAB*
- Nov. 28 at Rice*
Home games in BOLD
*Conference USA game
Wait, wait a minute. The Miners face Texas Tech, Nevada and Texas to begin the season before hosting NM State, whom they haven't beaten in four years. Woof!
Lousiana Tech, Southern Miss and Charlotte—all teams coming off winning records in 2019—leadoff UTEP's Conference USA slate in October. To finish the season, the Miners host North Texas (Oct. 31), FIU (Nov.7) and UAB (Nov. 21) and visit UTSA (Nov. 14) and Rice (Nov. 28). The problem with this schedule is it's almost impossible to pinpoint an exact win total. And as I wrote back in January, it's still conceivable that UTEP finishes winless in 2020.
A look back at 2019
|8/31/2019||Houston Baptist||El Paso, TX||W 36-34|
|9/7/2019||at Texas Tech||Lubbock, TX||L 3-38|
|9/21/2019||Nevada||El Paso, TX||L 21-37|
|9/28/2019||*||at Southern Miss||Hattiesburg, MS||L 13-31|
|10/5/2019||*||UTSA||El Paso, TX||L 16-26|
|10/19/2019||*||at FIU||Miami, FL||L 17-32|
|10/26/2019||*||Louisiana Tech||El Paso, TX||L 21-42|
|11/2/2019||*||at North Texas||Denton, TX||L 26-52|
|11/9/2019||*||Charlotte||El Paso, TX||L 21-28|
|11/16/2019||*||at UAB||Birmingham, AL||L 10-37|
|11/23/2019||at New Mexico State||Las Cruces, NM||L 35-44|
|11/30/2019||*||Rice||El Paso, TX||L 16-30|
College Football Sports Reference measures each team's SRS (Simple Rating System), which is a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The Miners finished third-worst (127 of 130 FBS) in SRS at -8.52. They had the second-worst strength of schedule in the nation and managed to only beat Houston Baptist last year. UTEP's offense scored 19.6 points (119th), averaged 1.2 turnovers and racked up just 334 total yards of offense per game. Defensively, the Miners allowed opponents to score 35.9 points (119th), yielded 431 yards and gave up an average of 2.3 touchdowns per game.
Between Kai Locksley (1,329 passing yards) Brandon Jones (628 yards) and a bit of Gavin Hardison (355 yards), the quarterback group was a revolving door. Hardison came in sparingly and gave fans a little more to hope for in the future. Younger offensive talent like Jacob Cowing, Deion Hankins and Reynaldo Flores gives one hope for the skill positions. Still, 2019 felt a whole lot like Dimel's 2018 campaign, where there simply wasn't a lot to be excited about.
It was an uncharacteristically rocky offseason for UTEP's active transfer portal. They lost the following starters: Tre'Shon Wolf (WR), Devaughn Cooper (WR), Greg Long (OL), Mitchell Crawford (P) and Sione Tupou (LB).
In addition, they lost some other reserves like defensive tackle Tiano Tialavea and linebacker Joe Jay Smith. Losing two talented receivers like Wolf and Cooper sets the receiving corps back. Seeing Derron Gatewood graduate and Long transfer out thins out the depth at offensive line. Tupou racked up 38 tackles last year and integrated himself as a routine starter for the Miners by the end of the year. And losing Crawford? The Australian punter (39.6 average) transferred away to Michigan State for his graduate season as well, leaving the Miners without a punter for 2020.
The offense: What direction will this team take?
UTEP's offensive direction can be looked in both a glass half full and glass half empty manner.
Thinking positively, sure, there's some optimism about the younger talent. Sophomore quarterback Gavin Hardison is the projected starter this year. Sophomore receiver Jacob Cowing led the team last year with 550 receiving yards as a true freshman. Even young tailback talent like redshirt freshman running back Hankins now has a year of experience under his belt. We'll also get a first glimpse this year at younger linemen like sophomore Andrew Meyer and freshman Jeremiah Byers.
Mixing the younger talent with some of the experienced players on offense could be appealing too. Running back Quardraiz Wadley is back for his senior year after suffering a season-ending injury last year. Wideouts Justin Garrett and Walter Dawn Jr. have been serviceable in the past years too. Linemen such as junior All-Conference selection and El Pasoan Bobby DeHaro, senior Darta Lee and sophomore Elijah Klein give some hope to anchor the team's front line.
The downside to the offense? Uncertainty.
There's some notable talent on the offense but the problem is that (1) most of the talent is unproven at the Divison I level, starting at the quarterback position, and (2) the coaching staff will be tasked at putting all the right personnel on the field while still trying to remain competitive in games. Even if the offense has some individual talent, it will be tough to respond positively after the tough three-game start.
For me, it starts at the quarterback position. Since 2015, UTEP has started eight different quarterbacks. Only two of the eight passed for over 1,000 yards in a single season. None of the eight quarterbacks lasted an entire season at the position. It's an uphill battle for Hardison to start off. He showed some flashes last year, throwing for 355 yards as a reserve quarterback. Improving on his accuracy is a must this offseason. He lacks the mobility that Dimel looks for in a quarterback, but maybe with an offseason program that caters to his development, Hardison can grow his dual-threat capabilities. Freshman TJ Goodwin spent last year developing in the quarterback room and coaches rave about the Houston native. The downside last year was his lack of size. Maybe after gaining some more weight and working on his craft this offseason, he can pressure Hardison midseason for the starting job? Or, maybe Dimel goes after a late summer transfer to come in as a dual-threat gunslinger.
This might be another run-first team. Aside from Wadley and Hankins, the Miners have El Pasoans Reynaldo Flores and Joshua Fields still on their depth chart. They can go four-deep in their running back group and not miss a beat. Dimel predicated a lot of his offensive success in his first year off ball control and clock management, though it didn't translate to much success in the wins column. But if this team establishes a tough ground game and controls time of possession, they will at least give the defense a bit more relief to not get worn out.
Bottom line: UTEP needs to score points. Averaging just 19.6 points per game last year can't happen again this year. If you're the coaching staff, let the young guys make mistakes. Let them fail. But coach them well, put them in positions to win and give them opportunities this year that will translate to momentum for 2021.
The defense: Switching to a 4-3 and putting 2019 aside
Possibly the biggest disappointment of last year was the Miners' struggling defense that took a significant step back from Dimel's first year. It led to defensive coordinator Mike Cox and the staff switching to a 4-3 scheme. They lost seven starters from last year including their top three tacklers (Michael Lewis, Justin Rogers and Adrian Hynson).
The defense could be constantly changing this year too.
The Miners went JUCO heavy for the 2020 recruiting class, as Dimel sought immediate starters to that he could plug and play right away. Sophomore Praise Amaewhule (5.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks in 2019) is possibly the star of the defense, with some significant upside to him as a pass-rusher. Aside from him though, the defensive line is a bit inexperienced. Similarly, the linebacker group will look onto Jayson VanHook, Stephen Forester and Jerome Wilson Jr. to lead the way, but might dip into their JUCO linebackers like Tyrice Knight and Gary Theard as the season goes on.
Perhaps the brightest spot defensively comes at the defensive back group for the Miners. They return their two most productive players from years past in senior Josh Caldwell and junior Justin Prince. Plus, they will finally bring back Broderick Harrell, a Kugler recruit, who has been battling injuries for the majority of the past two years. If they can solidify Dy'vonne Inyang as the true nickelback, their defensive back group might shape out nicely.
For the special teams, the Miners return junior kicker Gavin Baechle, who nailed 13-of-16 field goals last year (22-of-22 extra points) and has All C-USA upside this year. They still need to fill the void at punter during this offseason, though.
Bottom line: UTEP needs to get better at creating turnovers, pressuring the quarterback and getting back to where they left off in 2018. Last year, the Miners forced 0.8 turnovers per game. They were also among the bottom teams in the country with only 12 sacks. Dimel and Cox are determined at getting the defense back to how the regime started back in 2018. And a lot of their success really hinges on the offense. The young defense needs to be as fresh as possible and can't be expected to save the team left and right. Because of the difficult schedule, this will be a true test among the coaching staff to try and turn things around defensively.
Prediction: Just hang in and hope
Don't get me wrong, UTEP is a program where most coaching staffs face an uphill battle trying to win football games. Excitement is at a newfound low, both among fans and in recruiting hype. No matter what happens this year, Dimel will stay put for next year too. This year's goal is in plain sight, yet strenuous: reenergize the fanbase, unleash young talent and hope for some momentum entering next year.