Ten UTEP Football Storylines to Follow This Offseason After the Spring Game
The Miners football squad wrapped up their spring practices last week and will turn their focus toward getting better during the rest of the offseason, thus preparing for the 2021 season. For fourth-year head coach Dana Dimel, this fall will be an important one to prove that this program is on the right track.
Here are ten storylines to follow this offseason:
1. UTEP doesn't have a QB battle, yay!
For the first time since the Miners had Jamiell Showers over the course of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the program doesn't have a debate on who will man the quarterback position. Redshirt sophomore Gavin Hardison is UTEP's certified starter after proving he could do it over a pandemic-shortened season where he threw for 1,419 yards over seven games in 2020. There's room for him to grow and get better. The coaching staff still is adamant that Hardison can scramble outside the pocket too, which is something we will need to keep an eye out for. Bottom line, there's a lot more optimism around the quarterback spot than there's been in years.
2. Turnover wasn't nearly as high, thus returning more experienced players
Speaking of returnees, the Miners' coaching staff only had to evaluate a few starting positions up for grabs this spring. The lack of players leaving the program really helped UTEP in the long run. They managed to return 11 starters on offense and nine on defense all while having a new offensive and defensive coordinator. Dave Warner (OC) and Bradley Dale Peveto (DC) joined the program this spring, and both coaches didn't change much of what the Miners were doing schematically on either side of the ball. Having that consistency year after year is something that the program hasn't been able to tout.
3. Running back is the most talented position group... again
As highlighted in the spring game, redshirt senior Quardraiz Wadley was back in action for the Miners and totaled 66 rushing yards along with a touchdown for his return to the gridiron following opting out of the 2020 season. Wadley rejoins a running back group that includes All-C-USA Freshman Deion Hankins, experienced speed back Ronald Awatt and up-and-comer Willie Eldridge. Hankins and Wadley—when both healthy—could be a really tough 1-2 punch to stop.
4. Wideouts are set. What about the tight ends?
The depth that the Miners are continuing to build at the wide receiver position is encouraging, led by sophomore Jacob Cowing and senior Justin Garrett. Sophomore JUCO transfer Tyrin Smith was a name that stood out to Dimel over the spring season. But how about the emergence of two-way player Dennis Barnes? Not only was Barnes batting down passes defensively in the spring game, but he also caught a couple of passes on offense.
Now it's time to focus on the tight end position. There are three names that pop out as potential starters for this spot—redshirt junior Rashad Beecham, junior Trent Thompson and redshirt freshman Zach Fryar.
5. Offensive line has the experience and will be held accountable
Long gone are the days when we called UTEP's offensive front young and inexperienced. Through the past two seasons, we watched this offensive line grow up and gain valuable experience. Fortunately for UTEP, the line is relatively young too. Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Byers, redshirt sophomore Elijah Klein and redshirt sophomore center Andrew Myer have two or more seasons of eligibility left with the team. You add all-conference guard Bobby DeHaro, a redshirt junior from Montwood, to the mix and you feel pretty confident about what the front can do. At the same time though, injuries to the offensive line have hurt this team in the past. During Dimel's first season, the offensive line was pretty much wiped out due to injuries. Besides the unforeseen, this front is Dimel's best and most experienced. They will have a large task all year to protect Hardison and create opportunities in the run game.
6. Who will be Hardison's backup at the QB spot?
One thing that the spring game didn't solve is who will be Hardison's backup at the quarterback position. Anyone that watched the North Texas game last December might suggest that it's a no-brainer, Calvin Brownholtz is the backup. In the 45-43 season finale loss to the Mean Green, Brownholtz completed 10-of-26 pass attempts for 196 passing yards, along with two passing touchdowns, 114 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns and four interceptions.
However, there are three others that are in the mix for the backup gig. Senior Isaiah Bravo has been on the roster for a few years now and knows the system well. JUCO transfer Kevin Hurley, a junior from North East Mississippi Community College, is a dual-threat quarterback that could also enter this conversation. And don't sleep on true freshman Jakolby Longino, a three-star prospect from Missouri City, Texas, who is 6-foot-3 and a lefty gunslinger that can throw and scramble.
Another thought: Brownholtz would make for a noble change-of-pace quarterback for this group. Maybe he plays more snaps than we initially think.
7. Defensive line has the potential to be great
If the running back position is the most talented position at UTEP right now, the defensive line is easily the deepest on the squad. Their 1's and 2's are filled with guys that have solid playing experience. The defensive line is anchored by All-C-USA defensive end Praise Amaewhule, who is coming off a special season where he totaled 7.0 sacks and nine pass breakups. Their two interior standouts in junior Kelton Moss and redshirt sophomore Keenan Stewart are back. Junior Jadrian Taylor will complete the defensive line as the pass rusher opposite of Amaewhule on the four-man front. Their second-string group is impressive too—Josh Ortega (redshirt senior, Montwood), Jalen Rudolph (redshirt freshman), Michael Ike (freshman), Sione Tonga'uiha (freshman) and Armonie Brown (freshman).
8. Which players fill the two spots at cornerback?
The UTEP secondary really needs to make strides this upcoming season as they face a league that has grown more pass-happy as the years have come along. There will be some shuffling for the secondary that we will see right away. Redshirt junior Ty'reke James will be a starter at the safety spot, alongside senior Justin Prince. Then, there's a three-way battle for the two cornerback spots. Junior Dennis Barnes might assume one of the starting roles at corner, leaving a competition between Kansas State grad transfer Walter Neil Jr. and returning starter Josh Caldwell. If Barnes plays both ways like Dimel plans for, Neil Jr. and Caldwell could each assume starting roles at the cornerback position, while the defense rotates Barnes in throughout the game.
9. How good is UTEP's depth?
For this question, I guess we'll have to wait and see. Injuries are almost inevitable. Guys might even leave the team for all we know. But depth is the key for this squad. They are older, more experienced and are starving to win consistently. As it stands, the backups for most position groups appear to be more experienced than before. However, we won't know the full extent of UTEP's depth until they are battle tested.
10. This is the best chance for the Miners to start the upcoming year 3-1 (or better)
2021 Football Schedule
|August 28, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Away||NM State||Las Cruces, N.M.|
|September 4, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Home||Bethune-Cookman||El Paso, Texas Sun Bowl|
|September 11, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Away||Boise State||Boise, Idaho|
|September 25, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Home||New Mexico||El Paso, Texas Sun Bowl|
|October 2, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Home||Old Dominion||El Paso, Texas Sun Bowl|
|October 9, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Away||Southern Miss||Hattiesburg, Miss.|
|October 16, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Home||Louisiana Tech||El Paso, Texas Sun Bowl|
|October 30, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Away||Florida Atlantic||Boca Raton, Fla.|
|November 6, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Home||UTSA||El Paso, Texas Sun Bowl|
|November 13, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Away||North Texas||Denton, Texas|
|November 20, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Home||Rice||El Paso, Texas Sun Bowl|
|November 27, 2021 (Saturday)||TBA||Away||UAB||Birmingham, Ala.|
The way the schedule shapes up could be really favorable for the Miners. The start to the year is extremely winnable, including a trip to Las Cruces, a home contest against an FCS squad and a game against New Mexico. There's no reason the Miners shouldn't finish non-conference play 3-1. Their C-USA home schedule is a toss-up. They should beat an Old Dominion team that didn't play football in 2020, but games against LA Tech, UTSA and Rice will be tougher to get wins. If the Miners are able to steal a few winnable road conference games, six-or-better wins seems favorable for the program.