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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
|30-Aug||at New Mexico||94||31-24||W||64%||8.1||92%|
|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%|
|8-Nov||at Western Kentucky||50||27-35||L||36%||-8.4||27%|
|20-Dec||vs. Utah State||52||6-21||L||16%||-23.7||1%|
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||48||1st Down Rk||114|
|Q2 Rk||99||2nd Down Rk||99|
|Q3 Rk||109||3rd Down Rk||109|
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:
- 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.
- 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.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|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|
|Aaron Jones||RB||5'10, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8094||241||1328||11||5.5||5.3||41.1%||4||3|
|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|
|Treyvon Hughes||RB||6'1, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8433|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|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|
|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|
|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.
|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|
|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|
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||22||1st Down Rk||77|
|Q2 Rk||35||2nd Down Rk||120|
|Q3 Rk||116||3rd Down Rk||58|
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.
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Devin Cockrell||FS||5'11, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||13||44.5||7.8%||7||2||1||2||0||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|
|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.
|Jay Mattox||6'0, 185||Jr.||41||41.1||6||6||9||36.6%|
|Jay Mattox||6'0, 185||Jr.||70||62.8||47||2||67.1%|
|Jay Mattox||6'0, 185||Jr.||43-44||12-14||85.7%||1-2||50.0%|
|Autrey Golden||KR||5'11, 180||Sr.||31||24.0||2|
|Special Teams F/+||100|
|Field Goal Efficiency||120|
|Punt Return Efficiency||109|
|Kick Return Efficiency||6|
|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
|12-Sep||at Texas Tech||82|
|19-Sep||at New Mexico State||124|
|10-Oct||at Florida International||96|
|31-Oct||at Southern Miss||110|
|14-Nov||at Old Dominion||108|
|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.