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1. Gotta have the horses
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.
In 2014, UTEP taught us the power of identity. The Miners had just enough talent and experience to draw up a pretty clear road map to wins. They weren't incredibly impressive overall (90th in the F/+ ratings), but they knew how to pounce on mistakes and keep games close.
In 2015, UTEP didn't have enough talent or experience to pull this off. Kugler's squad had to replace its quarterback, its leading receiver, an all-conference offensive lineman and five of its top seven defensive backs. And during the season, the Miners dealt with injuries to their most explosive running back, their most proven receiver, their best safety, and on and on. They were snake-bitten from the start, and they regressed dramatically.
Because of their schedule, the Miners only regressed so much in the win column. They beat four teams ranked 118th or worse in F/+, which allowed them to finish 5-7 at only 125th. But make no mistake: this was a really bad product.
Kugler knew it as well as anyone. As impressive as it was for his Miners to stick to their identity in 2014, he's changing it up a bit. He brought in former Kentucky, Baylor, Boise State, and Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease to run his offense, and former Nevada, SMU, and Hawaii defensive coordinator Tom Mason to take over the defense. He also hired a new receivers coach and special teams coordinator.
In the "difficult jobs remain difficult" department, Kugler now has to prove himself all over again. This job is never going to be particularly easy, as proven by recent results -- 8-4 in 2000, 6-30 from 2001-03, 16-8 from 2004-05, 29-44 from 2006-11, 5-19 from 2012-13. You are forever swimming upstream. And evidently Kugler felt he needed a bit of a transfusion on the coaching staff to regain any semblance of forward progress.
But because of injuries and general shuffling, a lot of returning Miners got experience last year. If there's actual talent involved, maybe this identity shift will take hold. With what we saw in 2014, we know that Kugler can engineer pretty significant improvement if he's got the right pieces in place. But you have to have the horses.
2015 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 0-12 | Final F/+ Rk: 125 | Final S&P+ Rk: 126|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|12-Sep||at Texas Tech||60||20-69||L||2%||0%||-28.5||-28.0|
|19-Sep||at New Mexico State||118||50-47||W||17%||37%||+4.0||+0.5|
|10-Oct||at Florida International||112||12-52||L||0%||0%||-25.9||-25.5|
|31-Oct||at Southern Miss||56||13-34||L||10%||1%||+9.6||+3.5|
|14-Nov||at Old Dominion||117||21-31||L||15%||23%||+1.8||-5.5|
|28-Nov||at North Texas||126||20-17||W||34%||88%||+4.3||+5.5|
|Points Per Game||20.7||112||32.9||98|
2. One side of the ball improved, at least
As with North Texas, if you're going to have a bad team, you at least want to see markable progress. UTEP had that. The Miners' offense never came around, but after fielding probably the worst defense in FBS over the first half of the season, UTEP turned things around on that side of the ball.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 6 games): 10% (average score: Opp 43, UTEP 21)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 6 games): 23% (average score: Opp 23, UTEP 20)
UTEP allowed 59 points per game and 9.2 yards per play to Arkansas and Texas Tech, then allowed 32 and 7.3, respectively, to NMSU and Incarnate Word. And after a steady defensive performance against UTSA, the Miners got pantsed by a rather mediocre FIU offense: 52 points and 518 yards in just 53 snaps (9.8 per play).
As the season wore on, however, the run defense developed from a non-weakness into an outright strength. The pass defense was another story -- UTEP allowed a passer rating below 130 just three times all season, gave up 13 touchdown passes to just two interceptions over the final seven games, and gave up a disturbing 50 passes of 20-plus yards (105th in FBS) -- but quality run defense at least leveraged opponents into more frequent passing downs.
Still, Kugler felt the need to change things up a bit on both sides of the ball. Sometimes that works out well.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||36.8%||110||Succ. Rt. +||75.3||127|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.0||70||Def. FP+||31.6||105|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||3.8||113||Redzone S&P+||78.3||125|
|Q1 Rk||125||1st Down Rk||122|
|Q2 Rk||120||2nd Down Rk||125|
|Q3 Rk||127||3rd Down Rk||128|
3. Hello again, Brent Pease
Brent Pease has lived a remarkable football life. A starting quarterback at Montana in 1986, he bounced around the NFL and World League of American Football through 1993, then got his first big coaching gig in 1996 as his alma mater's offensive coordinator. He got air raid experience as Guy Morriss' offensive coordinator at Kentucky in 2001-02, then followed Morriss to Baylor for three seasons.
After Morriss' flame-out in Waco, Pease found his way to Boise, where he served as a Chris Petersen assistant for a number of years. He eventually got back to the coordinator chair in 2011, and with senior Kellen Moore at quarterback, he helped the Broncos to a 12-1 campaign.
Pease's stock was sky-high at that point, and in 2012, Will Muschamp brought him to Florida to replace Charlie Weis as coordinator. And then things took a bit of a left turn. He was asked to run a rather staid, conservative, risk-free offense, and while it produced just enough for Florida to win 11 games in 2012, the joy and technical, tactical prowess of the Boise State days disappeared. And in 2013, so did the wins.
After getting dismissed by Muschamp following 2013, Pease landed again with Petersen. He spent the last two years as Petersen's receivers coach at Washington, and now he gets another shot at play-calling. Pease has air raid experience and slow-down, ground-and-pound experience on the résumé. The latter seems more like Kugler's modus operandi, but the former has been more prolific (and aesthetically pleasing). We'll see how he crafts his first UTEP attack, but the good news is that the bar is really, really low. UTEP's offense never had a chance in 2015.
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Mack Leftwich||5'10, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7583||105||192||1228||9||3||54.7%||4||2.0%||6.2|
|Ryan Metz||6'4, 205||So.||2 stars (5.2)||82||140||900||6||7||58.6%||3||2.1%||6.2|
|Kavika Johnson||6'1, 205||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826||27||53||218||3||0||50.9%||5||8.6%||3.0|
|Mark Torrez||6'0, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7700|
4. Quantity? Check. Star power? Maybe.
Due to both injuries and the shuffling associated with ineffectiveness, a lot of UTEP offensive players got experience last season. That's good in that Pease has a large quantity of samples to sort through -- two returning quarterbacks attempted at least 50 passes, four returning running backs carried at least 20 times, five receivers and tight ends were targeted by at least 30 passes, and six returning linemen started at least four games.
This year, we find out if any of these players actually have talent. Kugler was confident enough in this group that he didn't go out and load up on JUCOs to replenish the stock.
If Aaron Jones can stay healthy, the Miners should have at least one sure star. The senior posted some breakout performances in 2014 (237 yards against New Mexico, 177 against North Texas, 168 against NMSU) and torched Texas Tech's admittedly wretched run defense for 139 yards in just 17 carries early in 2015. But he injured his ankle late in the second quarter of that game and was lost for the season.
UTEP was already struggling to throw the ball by that point, and without Jones, the wheels came off at every level of the offense. But if Jones can perform a go-to role, then slot receivers Jaquan White and Warren Redix could find a little more room on the perimeter, and play-action threat Tyler Batson (18.6 yards per catch) could play a more threatening role. And between sophomore Treyvon Hughes and three interesting freshman signees, it's possible a solid backup emerges to make sure Jones isn't carrying too much of the load.
|Kavika Johnson||QB||6'1, 205||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826||68||252||1||3.7||3.0||33.8%||6||4|
|Darrin Laufasa||FB||6'1, 250||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7752||34||183||1||5.4||6.4||35.3%||1||0|
|Aaron Jones||RB||5'10, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8094||32||209||1||6.5||9.2||40.6%||0||0|
|Ryan Metz||QB||6'4, 205||So.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||29||138||1||4.8||2.3||44.8%||0||0|
|Treyvon Hughes||RB||6'1, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8433||25||67||0||2.7||5.9||20.0%||0||0|
|Warren Redix||WR||5'10, 185||So.||2 stars||0.7000||23||136||0||5.9||4.4||47.8%||2||1|
|TK Powell||RB||5'11, 190||So.||NR||NR||20||136||0||6.8||8.8||40.0%||0||0|
|Mack Leftwich||QB||5'10, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7583||14||64||0||4.6||2.2||42.9%||2||1|
|Kristopher Christian||FB||5'11, 240||So.||NR||NR|
|Antonio Dupree||RB||5'11, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8210|
|Quardraiz Wadley||RB||6'0, 180||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8074|
|Walter Dawn||RB||5'6, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7948|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Jaquan White||SLOT||5'11, 200||Sr.||NR||NR||65||41||494||63.1%||17.7%||7.6||53.8%||46.2%||1.58|
|Hayden Plinke||TE||6'4, 255||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7819||64||37||410||57.8%||17.4%||6.4||53.1%||45.3%||1.28|
|Warren Redix||SLOT||5'10, 185||So.||2 stars||0.7000||43||29||202||67.4%||11.7%||4.7||58.1%||32.6%||1.32|
|Tyler Batson||WR-X||6'2, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7719||42||21||390||50.0%||11.4%||9.3||59.5%||40.5%||2.14|
|Cole Freytag||WR-Z||6'2, 200||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||31||14||257||45.2%||8.4%||8.3||67.7%||38.7%||2.11|
|Darrin Laufasa||FB||6'1, 250||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7752||16||10||91||62.5%||4.3%||5.7||50.0%||50.0%||1.05|
|Aaron Jones||RB||5'10, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8094||10||9||106||90.0%||2.7%||10.6||40.0%||50.0%||2.00|
|Cole Ford||TE||6'4, 245||So.||2 stars||0.7583||7||3||13||42.9%||1.9%||1.9||42.9%||14.3%||1.12|
|Sterling Napier||TE||6'4, 255||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519|
|Terry Juniel||WR||5'10, 170||So.||2 stars||0.7483|
|Richie Rodriguez||WR||5'9, 175||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7806|
5. Experience where it counts the most
We're learning that the quarterback position, receiving corps, and defensive backfield most desperately need experience to succeed. UTEP basically went 0-for-3 in that department last year. Injuries and attrition laid waste to the secondary, and UTEP's QBs were almost totally lacking in experience heading into 2015.
This year, all three of these units are stocked with experience. Mack Leftwich is back after battling through two different injuries in the fall, the secondary gets last year's starters back plus a key 2014 contributor, and five of last year's top six receivers are also back. Plus, Terry Juniel, a JUCO transfer who missed 2015 because of a preseason injury, could play a role -- he averaged nearly 15 yards per catch and thrived in the return game at Glendale Community College.
Star power would certainly be a bonus, but after ranking a miserable 120th in Passing S&P+ last season, one could certainly see Leftwich and company developing a bit more of a rhythm this year, especially if Pease has a good read on his personnel and, of course, if Jones remains on the field.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Will Hernandez||LG||6'3, 340||Jr.||NR||NR||12||25|
|Jerome Daniels||LT||6'3, 305||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||11||25|
|Derek Elmendorff||RG||6'3, 300||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7585||8||19|
|Chris Thomas||LT||6'4, 300||Sr.||NR||0.7000||7||8|
|John De La Rosa||RT||6'6, 325||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||6||6|
|Anthony Kyles||RG||6'3, 305||Sr.||NR||NR||4||4|
|Erik Ramirez||C||6'3, 285||Jr.||NR||NR||0||0|
|Jerrod Brooks||LT||6'5, 330||So.||2 stars||0.7000||0||0|
|Derron Gatewood||OL||6'3, 315||So.||2 stars||0.7000||0||0|
|Tanner Stallings||OL||6'1, 300||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7678|
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||39.7%||54||Succ. Rt. +||96.4||75|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||27.4||116||Off. FP+||25.6||125|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.7||95||Redzone S&P+||87.8||112|
|Q1 Rk||122||1st Down Rk||103|
|Q2 Rk||112||2nd Down Rk||119|
|Q3 Rk||112||3rd Down Rk||107|
6. Life after a collapse
When last year's UTEP preview went up, Miner fans were quick to tell me on Twitter how excited they were about their defense. I was a little bit uneasy about the turnover in the secondary (and I hadn't yet begun to draw such strong correlations between defensive success and DB experience), but it was easy to see reasons to be excited about the defensive front. It looked like the run defense could improve quite a bit with the return of players like Nick Usher and Roy Robertson-Harris at defensive end, and linebacker Alvin Jones was coming off of an outstanding freshman campaign.
Sure enough, the run defense improved. There were still some issues with big plays, but UTEP ranked 41st in Rushing Success Rate+ (an opponent-adjusted efficiency measure), Usher and Robertson-Harris combined for 17.5 tackles for loss, and Jones was one of the best linebackers in Conference USA.
The problem: opponents didn't have to run. They knew they could pass whenever they wanted to. Thanks to a preseason injury to Devin Cockrell, the Miners ended up having to replace six of their top seven DBs from 2014, and it showed. Three freshmen led the way in the secondary (or tried to, at least), and the pass rush couldn't take enough pressure off of them. Everything fell apart.
As mentioned, though, it did get better. The defense gelled at least a little bit, and new coordinator Tom Mason might have the right buttons to push this fall.
Mason's style is quite a bit different than what UTEP utilized in recent years. His Hawaii and SMU defenses were extreme bend-don't-break attacks; his hope is to take advantage of a disruptive line and make sure most of his back seven is able to form a cloud and flow to the ball. If you've got the guys up front to pull that off (like Ja'Gared Davis and Margus Hunt, whom he coached at SMU), it can work wonderfully.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nick Usher||DE||6'3, 235||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785||12||36.5||6.6%||10.0||3.5||0||0||1||0|
|Sky Logan||DT||6'2, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7583||10||23.0||4.1%||5.0||3.0||0||1||1||0|
|Gino Bresolin||NT||6'2, 290||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7478||12||19.0||3.4%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Silas Firstley||DE||6'0, 265||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||12||15.5||2.8%||4.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Lawrence Montegut||DE||6'1, 230||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||11||10.0||1.8%||3.0||2.0||0||1||1||0|
|Brian Madunezim||DT||6'3, 275||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||8||3.0||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Luke Elsner||DE||6'3, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||3||2.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Christian Harper||NT||6'4, 290||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785||12||1.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Keith Sullivan||DE||6'7, 255||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8217|
|Tiano Tialavea||DT||6'3, 350||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826|
|Josh Ortega||DT||6'2, 275||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7644|
|Christian Johnson||DE||6'2, 255||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Alvin Jones||WLB||5'11, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7300||12||70.5||12.7%||14.5||6.5||0||0||0||0|
|Cooper Foster||MLB||6'1, 210||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||3.0||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tyler Leasau||LB||5'11, 220||Sr.||NR||NR||12||1.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Justen Tatum||LB||6'1, 250||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7859|
|Stephen Forester||LB||6'1, 230||RSFr.||2 stars||0.7000|
|Kolbi McGary||LB||6'0, 205||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826|
7. A legitimately sound run defense
Granted, Robertson-Harris is out of eligibility, as are the two other linebackers who shared the field with Jones in 2015. But Mason's got some exciting players to deploy. Jones could be the perfect tackling machine for a bend-don't-break attack, and four different returning linemen recorded at least three tackles for loss last fall. Usher's got the kind of attacking presence that Mason so desperately needs, and tackles Sky Logan and Gino Bresolin should be able to hold their own in the middle.
Mason could use another decent pass rusher (perhaps end Lawrence Montegut?), and tackle depth would get a serious boost if massive incoming freshman Tiano Tialavea were ready to contribute right away. But in theory, there's enough here to suggest that run defense will once again be a UTEP strength in 2016.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|FS||5'11, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||13||44.5||7.8%||7||2||1||2||0||0|
|Kalon Beverly||CB||6'1, 175||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8081||11||33.5||6.0%||0||0||1||2||0||0|
|Michael Lewis||WS||5'11, 170||So.||2 stars||0.7400||12||32.0||5.7%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Nik Needham||CB||5'11, 185||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7867||11||31.5||5.7%||2||0.5||1||5||0||0|
|Dashone Smith||FS||6'0, 200||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8000||12||30.5||5.5%||1.5||0||1||0||0||0|
|Kelvin Fisher Jr.||FS||11||26.0||4.7%||0||0||1||4||0||0|
|Mookie Carlile||WS||6'1, 200||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7619||12||11.0||2.0%||0.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|Adrian Hynson||SS||5'10, 185||So.||2 stars||0.7500||11||9.0||1.6%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Leon Hayes||DB||5'10, 200||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7698||12||3.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Moss||CB||6'3, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000|
|Joseph Pickney||DB||6'0, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956|
|Broderick Harrell||DB||5'11, 195||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7700|
8. Freshmen become sophomores
You don't need advanced stats to tell you that a secondary led by three freshmen probably isn't going to be very good. Not only did UTEP lose Cockrell before the season began, but of the 10 DBs who averaged at least 0.8 tackles per game last year, only three actually played in all 12 games. Injuries were a plague, and the result was obvious: UTEP's pass defense was every bit as bad as its pass offense.
Injuries heal, however, and young players become experienced players. Cockrell should be healthy, and a fivesome of sophomores -- corners Kalon Beverly and Nik Needham, safeties Michael Lewis, Mookie Carlile and Adrian Hynson -- are now through with being thrown into the fire. Quite a few other contributors are gone, but if the injury bug stops biting for a while, UTEP's secondary will at least improve. It might not be great, but it won't be as much of a weakness. That's something, right?
|Alan Luna||6'0, 190||So.||65||44.4||8||6||12||27.7%|
|Mack Leftwich||5'10, 190||Jr.||4||29.5||0||0||3||75.0%|
|Jay Mattox||6'0, 185||Sr.||55||63.9||31||0||56.4%|
|Jay Mattox||6'0, 185||Sr.||23-24||11-12||91.7%||4-7||57.1%|
|Warren Redix||KR||5'10, 185||So.||3||19.0||0|
|Jaquan White||PR||5'11, 200||Sr.||8||15.5||1|
|Special Teams S&P+||59|
|Field Goal Efficiency||43|
|Punt Return Success Rate||83|
|Kick Return Success Rate||62|
|Punt Success Rate||113|
|Kickoff Success Rate||27|
9. Big, long, returnable punts
I've taken to looking at special teams efficiency -- the consistency of quality -- instead of averages, and these two measures tell two completely different tales about UTEP's punting game in 2015. As a freshman, Alan Luna averaged 44.4 yards per punt, 17th in the country. But very few of his punts resulted in fair catches, and few were downed inside the 40. In other words, he kicked a pretty returnable ball. UTEP opponents got 29 return attempts (only eight teams gave their opponents more chances) and averaged 9.3 yards per return (82nd in FBS). So big Luna punts often resulted in mediocre net yardage.
Being that punting was pretty important to UTEP in 2015, this was not very good. Still, special teams weren't nearly as much of a weakness for the Miners as offense and defense were, and if Luna is able to get a little bit more hang time and Jay Mattox continues to make every kick under 40 yards, then this will be a solid unit.
2016 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|3-Sep||New Mexico State||117||0.0||50%|
|1-Oct||at Louisiana Tech||84||-17.9||15%|
|12-Nov||at Florida Atlantic||100||-12.7||23%|
|Projected wins: 4.9|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-34.8% (122)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||122 / 125|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-11 / -11.0|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||+0.0|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||73% (89%, 56%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||3.6 (1.4)|
10. You almost couldn't draw up an easier schedule
UTEP was likely to regress in 2015 because of inexperience alone. When the injury bug turned cruel, it derailed any opportunity the Miners had of putting an impressive product on the field.
The Miners still finished 5-7, however, because of an impossibly easy schedule. They played eight opponents that ranked 90th or worse and went 5-3 against said opponents, winning all three one-possession games in the sample.
This year's schedule is even more ridiculous. Texas is the only opponent on the docket projected better than 72nd, and nine opponents are projected 100th or worse. Nine!
The bottom portion of Conference USA is pretty awful at the moment, and that could mean win opportunities. S&P+ projects UTEP 126th and still suggests that four to five wins are likely. If a healthier UTEP squad is able to work back into the 90-100 range, the Miners could go 8-4 or better.
It's not UTEP's fault the schedule is so bad, and the Miners could take advantage. In Aaron Jones and Alvin Jones, they have legitimate stars on both sides of the ball. And last year's injuries might end up giving them the depth they so sorely lacked. Expect a little bit of improvement on the field and perhaps a lot of improvement in the win column.