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The big 2015 UTEP football guide: The power of identity

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The 128-team countdown's team of the day: a Miners program that knows exactly what it wants to be.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. The power of identity

Freshmen become sophomores, and injuries usually heal. That's the best news one can deliver for UTEP. There's no massive talent infusion, but after fighting through depth issues in 2013, the Miners will be more experienced, deeper, and (probably) healthier. They are bigger in the trenches, even deeper at running back, and more experienced in the secondary, and last year's new systems are no longer new.

I could have batted 1.000 in intramural softball if I was disciplined enough. I bat left-handed, and when I came to the plate, someone on the defense would yell "LEFTY!" and everybody would shift toward right field. I would then poke a single down the left field line. It worked every time. But then I'd get cocky, swing away, and fly out to shallow right.

With experience, solid coaching, and the memory of a disastrous 2013 season still fresh, UTEP was the one of the most disciplined singles hitters in college football last year.

No team seemed to know what it was more than the Miners. I mean that mostly as a compliment. Understanding your strengths, your weaknesses, and your mortality will give you the best chance of succeeding without pride getting in the way.

In head coach Sean Kugler's second year in El Paso, he took into battle a team that had a couple of good running backs, a single receiver, and decent defensive speed. He figured out how to go 7-6. Against teams that were more athletic and/or deeper, the Miners played to their strengths, slowed the pace to a crawl, and prepared to take advantage of mistakes.

It was the formula Paul Rhoads used to pull upsets and go to three bowls in four years at Iowa State. It can keep you in a lot of games and set the table for upsets or near-upsets -- UTEP lost to Texas Tech by just four points (which seemed more impressive at the time) and narrowly lost at Western Kentucky. It also gets you blown out from time to time.

UTEP's cautious, opportunistic style resulted in a winning Conference USA record, the program's second bowl bid in nine seasons, and four rather non-competitive losses. If opponents didn't make enough mistakes, the Miners couldn't create opportunities on their own.

Kugler knew what he was getting into. The former UTEP offensive lineman spent two decades coaching for Florida high schools, UTEP (mostly under Charlie Bailey, who went 19-48-1 from 1994-99), the Detroit Lions, Boise State, the Buffalo Bills, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He mastered the art of coaching offensive linemen, and in two years he has coached like a lineman plays: smart, physical, ready to take the pounding.

Kugler did a hell of a job. But a style that includes almost no margin for error will fail as often as it succeeds. Rhoads, after all, is both a respected coach and a guy with a 29-46 record in Ames. The long-term trick will be figuring out how to draw enough depth and athleticism to give his squad a bit more of that margin. And to find a quarterback.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 4-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 90
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug at New Mexico 94 31-24 W 64% 8.1 92%
6-Sep Texas Tech 82 26-30 L 18% -21.3 13%
13-Sep New Mexico State 124 42-24 W 75% 15.8 100%
27-Sep at Kansas State 26 28-58 L 4% -42.0 0%
4-Oct at Louisiana Tech 35 3-55 L 1% -52.4 0%
11-Oct Old Dominion 108 42-35 W 48% -1.1 68%
25-Oct at UTSA 109 34-0 W 97% 45.2 100%
1-Nov Southern Miss 110 35-14 W 41% -5.3 83%
8-Nov at Western Kentucky 50 27-35 L 36% -8.4 27%
15-Nov North Texas 125 35-17 W 96% 42.0 100%
21-Nov at Rice 86 13-31 L 10% -30.2 1%
29-Nov Middle Tennessee 87 24-21 W 42% -5.0 47%
20-Dec vs. Utah State 52 6-21 L 16% -23.7 1%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 25.4 88 29.9 77
Points Per Game 26.6 84 28.1 77

2. Punching your weight

There are two ways to look at UTEP. First, there's the "everything worked or nothing worked" perspective.

  • Average Percentile Performance (7 wins): 66% (average score: UTEP 35, Opponent 19)
  • Average Percentile Performance (6 losses): 14% (average score: Opponent 38, UTEP 17)

Of UTEP's 13 games, eight were decided by at least 15 points. And considering the slow tempo UTEP insisted on, 15 points is like 24 points for a more fast-paced team like Bowling Green or Western Kentucky.

Perspective No. 2: UTEP pounded bad teams and got pounded by good teams.

  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ top 60): 14% (record: 0-4 | average score: Opponent 42, UTEP 16)
  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ No. 61-100): 34% (record: 2-2 | average score: Opponent 27, UTEP 24)
  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ No. 101+): 71% (record: 5-0 | average score: UTEP 38, Opponent 18)

(Here's your regular reminder that the percentiles are opponent-adjusted, so while it may seem like a no-brainer that UTEP would fare better against bad teams, the degree to which the Miners played better or worse was unique.)

UTEP was a pretty awful good team, but the Miners may have been the soundest bad team in the country. They punched their weight. There are worse things in the world than this, though it did require playing quite a few bad teams to reach bowl eligibility.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.81 89 IsoPPP+ 91.0 89
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.6% 55 Succ. Rt. + 91.7 101
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.1 74 Def. FP+ 99.0 77
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.5 63 Redzone S&P+ 96.6 75
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 15.1 ACTUAL 12 -3.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 108 93 99 89
RUSHING 35 59 70 58
PASSING 120 121 125 106
Standard Downs 68 55 85
Passing Downs 114 128 91
Q1 Rk 48 1st Down Rk 114
Q2 Rk 99 2nd Down Rk 99
Q3 Rk 109 3rd Down Rk 109
Q4 Rk 117

3. Ground, pound, and slow it down

If you recognized one name on last year's UTEP offense, it was probably Jameill Showers, the Texas A&M transfer and two-year UTEP starter. That makes sense, but it's also misleading -- the quarterback had as little as possible to do with UTEP's offense.

Two stats tell you everything you need to know:

  1. Adjusting for down and distance, only eight teams ran the ball more frequently; three were service academies, and three others (New Mexico, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech) have option-heavy offenses. That leaves two: Boston College and Minnesota.

  2. Adjusting for run-pass ratios, no team operated at a slower pace than UTEP, which ran frequently, rarely ran out of bounds, and took its sweet time getting back to the line of scrimmage.

UTEP was a slow, run-happy team, both because it wanted to be and because it had to be -- the passing game was awful. And considering the loss of both Showers and the only three receivers/tight ends to catch more than six passes last year, that probably won't change.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Jameill Showers
159 286 1858 12 6 55.6% 13 4.3% 5.9
Mack Leftwich (2013) 5'10, 190 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7583 44 75 458 2 2 58.7% 10 11.8% 4.6
Garrett Simpson 6'7, 250 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000
Ryan Metz 6'4, 205 RSFr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7500
Kavika Johnson 6'1, 205 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7826

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Aaron Jones RB 5'10, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8094 241 1328 11 5.5 5.3 41.1% 4 3
Nathan Jeffery RB
114 531 5 4.7 3.7 35.1% 1 0
Jameill Showers QB
80 393 4 4.9 3.3 43.8% 0 0
Josh Bell FB
52 256 4 4.9 4.9 32.7% 1 0
Autrey Golden RB 5'11, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8053 15 101 0 6.7 9.1 46.7% 1 0
David Hamm RB 6'0, 220 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7982 14 96 0 6.9 6.6 42.9% 1 1
Darrin Laufasa FB 6'1, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7752 14 41 1 2.9 1.4 35.7% 0 0
Jeremiah Laufasa RB 6'0, 215 Sr. NR NR 9 65 1 7.2 4.7 55.6% 0 0
Jacob Martinez RB
7 16 0 2.3 0.7 14.3% 0 0
Treyvon Hughes RB 6'1, 225 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8433







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Ian Hamilton WR-Z
54 27 579 50.0% 19.5% 53.7% 10.7 235 10.9 54.0
Autrey Golden RB 5'11, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8053 48 31 263 64.6% 17.3% 45.8% 5.5 -111 5.4 24.5
Aaron Jones RB 5'10, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8094 40 30 293 75.0% 14.4% 40.0% 7.3 -60 6.4 27.3
Eric Tomlinson TE
31 19 134 61.3% 11.2% 48.4% 4.3 -98 4.3 12.5
Jarrad Shaw WR-X
28 14 174 50.0% 10.1% 60.7% 6.2 -4 6.2 16.2
Josh Bell FB
16 9 64 56.3% 5.8% 50.0% 4.0 -48 4.2 6.0
Katrae Ford TE
15 6 43 40.0% 5.4% 73.3% 2.9 -38 2.8 4.0
Nathan Jeffery RB
10 7 67 70.0% 3.6% 50.0% 6.7 -16 7.1 6.3
Jaquan White WR-Z 5'11, 190 Jr. NR NR 8 4 95 50.0% 2.9% 0.0% 11.9 44 N/A 8.9
Darrin Laufasa FB 6'1, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7752 7 5 16 71.4% 2.5% 71.4% 2.3 -43 2.4 1.5
Malcolm Trail WR-Z
6 3 64 50.0% 2.2% 66.7% 10.7 26 10.2 6.0
Tyler Batson WR-X 6'0, 195 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7719 6 1 11 16.7% 2.2% 50.0% 1.8 -8 2.1 1.0
Cole Rogers TE 6'4, 225 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 4 2 25 50.0% 1.4% 50.0% 6.3 0 6.0 2.3
Cole Freytag WR-Z 6'2, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 2 0 0 0.0% 0.7% 100.0% 0.0 -3 N/A 0.0
Jeremiah Laufasa RB 6'0, 215 Sr. NR NR 1 1 30 100.0% 0.4% 0.0% 30.0 19 N/A 2.8
Daniel Siller WR 6'1, 200 Sr. NR NR
Brandon Moss WR 6'3, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000
Elliott Oldham WR 6'3, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7633
Terry Juniel WR 5'10, 170 So. 2 stars 0.7483

4. The leading returning wideout had 4 catches

When Showers missed time with injury in 2013, really bad things happened. Mack Leftwich got the job and did little with it -- he completed a higher percentage of passes, but they didn't go anywhere, and he took sacks on one of every nine pass attempts.

Leftwich was just a freshman. He took a redshirt in 2014 and could emerge ready to lead a decent offense, at least if he beats out big Garrett Simpson, redshirt freshman Ryan Metz, or incoming Kavika Johnson. Whoever wins the job will have won a reasonably competitive contest, which is good.

The winner will still need receivers. And UTEP's returning wideouts combined to catch just five of 16 passes for 106 yards last year. Jaquan White caught a 75-yard bomb against UTSA last year and caught three other passes for 20 yards; that makes him the default go-to guy. Sophomore Tyler Batson boasts a decent recruiting pedigree, and Kugler signed two JUCO receivers as an acknowledgement of need. So there might be options.

If UTEP can at least pretend to throw, the running game should be fine. The Miners weren't incredibly efficient on the ground, but leading rusher Aaron Jones is back after not only carrying 19 times per game but also serving as the de facto No. 2 receiver in a checkdown-heavy offense. Combining carries and targets, UTEP tried to get Jones the ball about 22 times per game, and he gave them 122 yards per game as a thank you.

Senior Autrey Golden and sophomore David Hamm each showed some potential explosiveness in reserve roles, and between those two, Washington State transfer Jeremiah Laufasa, and incoming freshman Treyvon Hughes, at least one high-caliber backup should emerge.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 100.8 3.28 3.11 39.5% 76.6% 14.7% 136.5 7.3% 1.6%
Rank 68 26 84 61 14 12 25 110 1
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Jerel Watkins LT 42 2014 2nd All-CUSA
Jerome Daniels RT 6'3, 295 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 14
Will Hernandez LG 6'3, 320 So. NR N/A 13
Eric Lee C 6'1, 295 Sr. NR N/A 13
Paulo Melendez RG
13
Derek Elmendorff RG 6'3, 310 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7585 11
Chris Thomas RG 6'4, 315 Jr. NR 0.7000 1
Chris Thummel LT 6'4, 280 So. NR N/A 0
Dewan Edmonson LG
0
Erik Ramirez C 6'3, 285 So. NR N/A 0
Josh Silvas RT 6'4, 350 Sr. NR N/A 0

5. Identifying an inefficiency

In a recent advanced stats manifesto, I mentioned the need for examining causes of inaccuracy in recruiting rankings and determining which positions are over- or undervalued. I'm pretty sure that when we go down this road, we'll find that one can build a strong offensive line without four-star recruits.

You hear from a lot of people that weight training and position coaching make more of a different on the offensive line than in any other area, and UTEP's success could be an affirmative example. Kugler was a bit of a lineman whisperer as an assistant coach, and OL coach Spencer Leftwich (father of Mack) has led lines everywhere from Pitt to Tulsa to New Mexico State.

In 2014, UTEP started three low-two-star recruits and two unrated recruits -- with only one returning starter -- and kept opponents out of the backfield as well as anybody in the country. UTEP ranked 12th in Stuff Rate (run stops at or behind the line) and first in passing downs sack rate and pushed opponents around in short-yardage situations (14th in Power Success Rate).

Despite the loss of all-conference, four-year starting tackle Jerel Watkins, it's hard to worry about the line. Five players with starting experience return, size isn't an issue (average size of the eight returnees: 6'3, 306), and, well, this staff has a track record.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.03 124 IsoPPP+ 92.2 93
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 39.9% 51 Succ. Rt. + 107.5 38
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.5 60 Off. FP+ 98.0 88
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.5 75 Redzone S&P+ 102.5 52
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 22.0 ACTUAL 21.0 -1.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 39 70 50 93
RUSHING 79 97 79 102
PASSING 15 49 19 74
Standard Downs 102 65 116
Passing Downs 30 34 29
Q1 Rk 22 1st Down Rk 77
Q2 Rk 35 2nd Down Rk 120
Q3 Rk 116 3rd Down Rk 58
Q4 Rk 115

6. Get them before they get you

As conservative as I've made UTEP sound, you might assume the Miners boasted some extreme bend-don't-break defense. Wait for your opponent to make a mistake, and then pounce, right?

Not the case. UTEP lacked acceptable size/quality up front but had decent speed, so defensive coordinator Scott Stoker decided the best approach was to attack instead of just getting pushed around all the way down the field.

The result: a defense that struggled mightily against the run and gave up big plays but invaded the backfield with regularity. And after a slow start, the Miners figured out how to made a passer awfully uncomfortable. UTEP managed only two sacks in the first five games, then recorded 23 in the final eight, including four against Southern Miss and Utah State.

The Miners allowed 161 gains of 10-plus yards in 2014 (34th in the country), but 76 of those went for 20-plus (118th). They were great on passing downs, but in trying to force passing downs, they got gashed a few times per game.

Honestly, the more I write about and study the nature of efficiency vs. explosiveness, I think this is the best approach to take. But it does require you to succeed in a good percentage of the risks you take.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 84.9 3.06 3.74 40.7% 75.0% 19.1% 152.4 6.3% 9.9%
Rank 121 83 105 89 104 69 7 33 23
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Nick Usher DE 6'3, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7785 13 31.5 5.5% 6.5 3.0 0 0 2 0
Roy Robertson-Harris DE 6'7, 255 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7000 13 27.0 4.7% 8.5 3.5 0 3 3 0
Maurice Chavis DT
13 25.0 4.4% 5.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Gino Bresolin NT 6'2, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7478 13 19.0 3.3% 2.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Cooper Brock DE
13 18.5 3.2% 5.0 3.0 0 0 1 0
Silas Firstley DE 6'1, 265 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) NR 13 13.5 2.4% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Alex Villarreal DT 6'4, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7000 12 8.0 1.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Luke Elsner DE 6'3, 240 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7000 6 3.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Vince Czerniewski NT 6'0, 290 Sr. NR NR
Devante Richardson NT 6'2, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) NR
Christian Harper NT 6'4, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7785
Joseph Kraemer DE 6'3, 245 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8117
Sky Logan DL 6'2, 285 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7583
Demarcus Womack DT 6'3, 335 Jr. 2 stars 0.7500








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Alvin Jones WLB 5'11, 215 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7300 13 41.5 7.2% 9.0 1.5 1 3 0 0
Anthony Puente MLB
12 32.5 5.7% 2.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Jimmy Musgrave MLB 6'0, 240 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7333 13 24.0 4.2% 3.5 2.0 1 0 1 0
Trey Brown WLB 6'0, 215 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7000 12 23.5 4.1% 5.0 2.0 1 0 0 0
Matthew Heard MLB 6'3, 225 Sr. NR NR
Cooper Foster WLB 6'1, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000
Lawrence Montegut LB 6'1, 220 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7893
Justen Tatum LB 6'1, 240 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7859








7. An all-angles pass rush

UTEP had a strong pass rush despite no particularly strong pass rusher. No Miners finished with more than 3.5 sacks, but seven had at least two, and five of those return, as do five of the eight players who had at least three non-sack tackles for loss (including linebacker Alvin Jones, who was a freshman missile).

So it's reasonable to assume that last year's strengths will be this year's strengths. What about last year's weaknesses? UTEP got shoved around by decent run-blocking teams, and that will probably be the case again unless one of two JUCO newcomers -- sophomore Sky Logan or enormous junior Demarcus Womack -- can make an early difference. With five of last year's seven primary linemen and three of four linebackers back*, there's little reason to think weaknesses will be any weaker. They just might not be stronger.

* That's a pretty small rotation. This speaks simultaneously to a) UTEP's improved injury luck (the Miners had been wrecked in 2013), b) the benefits of a slow offensive pace, and c) a potentially perilous lack of depth in the front seven. Perhaps the JUCO linemen and athletic young linebackers like Lawrence Montegut and Justen Tatum can address (c) a bit.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Wesley Miller WS
13 64.0 11.2% 1.5 0 1 7 0 0
Devin Cockrell FS 5'11, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 13 44.5 7.8% 7 2 1 2 0 0
Jameel Erving SS
13 36.0 6.3% 6 1 1 3 0 1
Adrian James CB
13 33.0 5.8% 2 1 1 6 2 0
Dashone Smith FS 6'0, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8000 10 26.0 4.5% 2 1 0 1 0 0
Nick Gathrite CB
13 23.5 4.1% 6 2.5 1 7 2 1
Damian Payne CB
13 20.0 3.5% 1 0 2 2 1 0
Ishmael Harrison CB 6'0, 195 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 10 9.5 1.7% 1 0 0 3 0 0
LaQuintus Dowell SS 5'10, 205 Sr. NR NR 13 6.5 1.1% 0 0 0 0 1 1
Traun Roberson CB 6'0, 195 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7778 12 6.0 1.0% 0 0 0 3 0 0
Kelvin Fisher Jr. FS 5'11, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8891 10 5.0 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Da'Carlos Renfro DB 5'10, 175 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7000 9 4.5 0.8% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Leon Hayes SS 5'10, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7698
Nik Needham CB 5'11, 185 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7867
Adrian Hynson WS 5'10, 185 RSFr. 2 stars 0.7500
Kalon Beverly CB 6'1, 175 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8081








8. Turnover in the back

It isn't a coincidence that UTEP's secondary started playing better when the pass rush improved. In the first five games, with no quarterback pressure, opponents completed 55 percent at 17.4 yards per completion with a 2.6 percent interception rate. Last eight games, with a suddenly ferocious pass rush: 50 percent completion rate, 13.4 yards per completion, 3.9 percent interception rate.

If you're a UTEP fan, you're taking heart in the fact that the pass rush should again be strong. That will give leeway to a secondary that will need it. Of the seven DBs to make at least 10 tackles, only two are back, and the five who departed combined for 16.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions, 25 break-ups, and four forced fumbles.

At the least, UTEP isn't going to be starting five freshmen. Junior safeties Devin Cockrell and Dashone Smith are back; Cockrell was great near the line of scrimmage, and Smith was a well-regarded recruit who seems to have strong upside. And there are up to five seniors ready to join them on the two-deep. Corner Ishmael Harrison was a starter in 2013, and Traun Roberson has seen a decent amount of rotation time in his career. It's impossible to say that this unit will be as good as last year's, but it might not be markedly worse.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Jay Mattox 6'0, 185 Jr. 41 41.1 6 6 9 36.6%
Mike Ruggles 23 46.7 0 2 4 26.1%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Jay Mattox 6'0, 185 Jr. 70 62.8 47 2 67.1%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Jay Mattox 6'0, 185 Jr. 43-44 12-14 85.7% 1-2 50.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Autrey Golden KR 5'11, 180 Sr. 31 24.0 2
Damian Payne KR 7 13.3 0
Damian Payne PR 25 5.8 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 100
Field Goal Efficiency 120
Punt Return Efficiency 109
Kick Return Efficiency 6
Punt Efficiency 108
Kickoff Efficiency 28
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 14

9. Kick it away from Golden

UTEP's special teams unit was a bit all-or-nothing. The punt coverage was bad, and the Miners got almost nothing of note from punt returner Damian Payne, but Jay Mattox was a great kickoffs guy (more than two-thirds of his kicks were touchbacks) and a solid place-kicker inside of 40 yards, and Autrey Golden was one of the nation's best return men.

That Mattox and Golden are both back suggests that special teams improvement is likely, though there's nothing guaranteeing that punt coverage or returns will improve. Between offensive efficiency, defensive play-making, and good kick returns, UTEP will likely have field position to its advantage.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
5-Sep at Arkansas 9
12-Sep at Texas Tech 82
19-Sep at New Mexico State 124
26-Sep Incarnate Word NR
3-Oct UTSA 109
10-Oct at Florida International 96
24-Oct Florida Atlantic 100
31-Oct at Southern Miss 110
7-Nov Rice 86
14-Nov at Old Dominion 108
21-Nov Louisiana Tech 35
28-Nov at North Texas 125
Five-Year F/+ Rk -30.5% (119)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 128 / 126
2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 9 / 6.9
2014 TO Luck/Game +0.8
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (6, 6)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 6.3 (0.7)

10. Life in the West is best

Conference USA spans a large amount of space, both literally and metaphorically. It stretches from El Paso to Norfolk, its best team ranked 17th in F/+ last year, and its worst team ranked 125th.

But the three worst teams (North Texas, Southern Miss, and UTSA) all played in the West division, and three of the four best played in the East. So it was a lot easier to find a slate of winnable games in the western portion, especially when added to a regular non-conference series with New Mexico State.

There's nothing saying that last year's three worst West teams will be as bad -- they probably won't -- but it bears mentioning that UTEP faces a schedule with eight opponents that ranked 96th or worse, thanks in part to drawing FIU, FAU, and ODU from the East. (Granted, only three of the eight come to El Paso.) If the Miners aren't a single iota better, if they pull the same "unable to beat good teams, and unable to lose to bad teams" routine, they'll quite possibly be bowling again.

But some of the opponents that were below them do boast quite upside, from ODU's and FAU's offenses to FIU's defense. If those teams improve, UTEP better. I'm not sure I see that happening, not with a new quarterback, a new receiving corps, a new secondary.

But UTEP will be able to run the ball, rush the passer, and pounce on mistakes. That could be enough.