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UTEP’s both a hard place to win and one of college football’s random landmarks

Sean Kugler’s fifth year is probably going to be a lot like his fourth, though he’s got an interesting core of youth.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Texas El Paso Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published February 27 and has since been updated.

One of college football's strangest charms is its choice of landmarks. Our capitals are in Tuscaloosa and Lincoln and South Bend. Our traditions are pasted together by random happenstance. And if college football were to name national monuments, El Paso High's Jones Stadium, a strange, beautiful structure and the original home of the Sun Bowl, would have a plaque.

On January 1, 1935, despite the grumbling of traditionalists, three bowls joined the postseason party. In the first Orange Bowl, Bucknell trounced hometown Miami, 26-0, in front of 5,134. In the first Sugar Bowl, hometown Tulane outlasted Temple, 20-14, in front of 22,026.

Meanwhile, El Paso hosted something called the Sun Bowl Football Classic. An all-star team from local high schools took down maybe the best high school team in the state, the Ranger High Bulldogs from west of Fort Worth.

The next year, the Sun Bowl instead invited two college teams. In bitter cold and wind, New Mexico State pulled a 14-14 tie against favored Hardin-Simmons.

This was maybe football’s first truly awesome New Year's Day. Catholic University outlasted Ole Miss, 20-19, in the Orange Bowl. Stanford knocked off 12-0 SMU, 7-0, in the Rose Bowl. Sammy Baugh and TCU took down LSU, 3-2, in the Sugar Bowl.

The exhilaration helped to create January 1’s annual hoopla. And El Paso played a role. That same year, UTEP made its top-division debut by going 1-8.

For more than 80 years, El Paso has been connected to this sport in two ways: the Sun Bowl and a mostly poor local program.

To be sure, the UTEP Miners have had their moments. Between 1936-56, they played in the hometown bowl six times and won three. They beat Georgetown and Southern Miss, and they crushed Lee Corso, Burt Reynolds, and Florida State, 47-20, in 1955. They won two more Sun Bowls in the 1960s, went 10-3 in 1988, and spent part of both 2004 and 2005 ranked in the top 25 under Mike Price.

Still, sustained momentum has been almost impossible. The year after 10-3, the Miners went 2-10. And while Price led UTEP to back-to-back eight-win seasons, he didn't manage another winning season in eight years.

That has continued under Kugler. He took over in 2013 and had the Miners in the New Mexico Bowl by 2014. They won seven games that year; they've won nine combined in the last two.

El Paso is as close to Denver as it is to Dallas. It is as close to Tijuana or Las Vegas as it is to Houston. It is a Texas school that gets none of the football benefits of being in Texas. Recruiting has to require local diamonds in the rough, JUCO transfers, transfer transfers, and whoever else you can attract to the middle of nowhere.

When it works, it’s awesome. Good UTEP teams are physical and proud and innovative. Bob Stull’s air-it-out attack in 1988 was devastating. The Miners averaged almost 40 points per game in their wins in 2004-05.

For the most part, though, it hasn’t worked. And from a numbers standpoint, it probably won’t in 2017.

Per S&P+, UTEP ranked 124th in 2015 and 122nd in 2016. The offense improved from horrendous to merely bad, but defense and special teams regressed. And this year, the defense returns enough to expect improvement, but the offense has to replace by far its best player (running back Aaron Jones) and three of the top four receiving targets.

Kugler is a Miner alum and has tried to build around five-year recruits. But in his fifth year, his program has built minimal traction. The uphill trek never ends; can he and his Miners pull some surprises?


2016 in review

2016 UTEP statistical profile.

UTEP's season began in encouraging fashion. The Miners handled New Mexico State with ease — Aaron Jones rushed 33 times for 249 yards, Zack Greenlee completed 15 of 27 passes for 229, and the Miners cruised, 38-22.

The Miners then got outscored, 169-35, over the next four games. Texas and three mid-major bowl squads (Army, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech) all had their way, as did a bad FIU in El Paso.

If you're looking for hope, it comes from the fact that, amid a few more duds, UTEP showed signs of life later in the season.

  • First 6 games (1-5) — Points per game: Opp 38, UTEP 16 | Avg. percentile performance: 16% (~top 110)
  • Last 6 games (3-3) — Points per game: UTEP 37, Opp 32 | Avg. percentile performance: 35% (~top 85)

You can't call the last six games an unmitigated success; they did include a 20-point road loss to an awful Rice.

Still, the Miners' offense figured a few things out. And a lot of that had to do with Jones: Against Houston Baptist, FAU, and North Texas, he rushed 65 times for 758 yards (11.7 per carry) and eight touchdowns. Ridiculous.

Only one other running back carried more than 19 times last year. This offense was all about Jones and will need a new identity.


Offense

UTEP offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Brent Pease knows remote locations. The UTEP coordinator was born in Moscow, Idaho, and went to school at Walla Walla Community College and the University of Montana.

After a journeyman pro career took him to teams like the Birmingham Fire and Cincinnati Rockers, his coaching career took off when he got coordinator gigs at Montana and Northern Arizona. He got air raid experience as Guy Morriss' OC at Kentucky and Baylor, and he was touched by Boise State magic as Chris Petersen's OC. He is as well-schooled as anyone at creating an identity out of unorthodox pieces.

In his first season as UTEP OC, he rode Jones as far as Jones could take the Miners. But he also might have figured out his future in the process. Ryan Metz took over for good at quarterback in the second half of the season, and he was impressive. Over the last six games, he completed 96 of 150 passes for 1,062 yards, 13 touchdowns, and three interceptions. Passer rating: a solid 148.1.

Granted, Metz produced that with Jones running wild. And granted, both Hayden Plinke and Cole Freytag are gone; in UTEP's three late wins, Metz completed 19 of 29 passes to them for 327 yards.

Still, the 6’3, 210-pound Metz looked the part. And with the right weapons, he proved that he could take the helm of a pretty explosive attack.

UTEP offensive efficiency and explosiveness

Among Metz's assets: a solid line. All-conference guard Will Hernandez is back, as are 2016 starters Derron Gatewood and Tanner Stallings and 2015 starter Derek Elmendorff. The Miners are meaty up front (average height and weight of the six returnees with starting experience: 6'3, 317 pounds) and could open some holes for whoever is carrying the football.

So who might that be? That's ... a fair question. I'm not sure.

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Texas
Kavika Johnson
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomore running back/slot receiver Quadraiz Wadley carried 47 times last year but averaged just 3.6 per carry. 2015 backups Treyvon Hughes and TK Powell are back after missing 2016, but they combined for just 45 carries and 203 yards two seasons ago.

You can talk yourself into any of these guys or maybe 250-pound sophomore Kevin Dove (19 carries for 101 last year), simply because they're all so young. Plus, Powell did show a little spark (20 carries, 136 yards) in his opportunities. And hey, Josh Fields is a three-star freshman. But they've all proved virtually nothing, and they'll be asked to succeed one of the best mid-major backs in the country.

At receiver, Metz at least has Eddie Sinegal. The sophomore was a nice possession option. And in theory, slot receiver Warren Redix and part-time quarterback Kavika Johnson could provide efficiency options. But this was an all-or-nothing offense last year, and the alls are gone. The only returnees who averaged better than 11.7 yards per catch — senior Tyler Batson and sophomore Walter Dawn — combined for just 11 catches.

There are a lot of sophomores. Maybe that means good things for 2018 or 2019. But you're going from knowns to unknowns in 2017.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at UTEP
Eddie Sinegal
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

UTEP defensive radar

Defense powered UTEP's surprising bowl run in 2014. The Miners improved from 120th to 71st in Def. S&P+ that year and allowing just 19.3 points per game in seven wins. They had an opportunistic identity — they were outmanned against decent run teams, but they invaded the backfield and took advantage when they leveraged opponents into passing downs.

In 2015, the Miners fell to 118th in Def. S&P+. In 2016: 123rd. Kugler brought former Hawaii coordinator Tom Mason to El Paso, but with minimal disruption up front, UTEP couldn't figure out an identity. That 2014 defense ranked 69th in stuff rate and seventh in Adj. Sack Rate. The 2016 defense ranked 117th and 123rd, respectively. You've got to have the horses, and UTEP didn't.

How much of that can change in one year? Again, it's hard to be too excited about the answer.

Experience won't be an issue, at least. Upperclassmen return to lead the way at defensive end (Mike Sota and Sky Logan), linebacker (Alvin Jones and Dante Lovilette), and safety (Devin Cockrell).

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Texas
Dante Lovilette
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Plus, as with the offense, there is a pretty large batch of sophomores waiting to make a mark. Linebacker Jayson VanHook had 5.5 tackles for loss as a freshman last year, and end Gene Hopkins had three. Tackles Christian Richardson and Denzel Chukwukelu will be leaned on heavily (literally and metaphorically) after the departure of the top two nose guards, and corners Nik Needham and Justin Rogers combined for 19 passes defensed in 2016.

[Update: Linebacker got another nice boost from the transfer market, adding 13-game Wake Forest contributor Julian Jackson and all-state JUCO Jamar Smith.]

There is upside with this sophomore class, but ... they're still sophomores. As with the offense, it might take another year before this group is ready to lead this team to the postseason.

In the short term, run defense is the biggest concern. UTEP linemen combined for just nine tackles for loss last year, and while that can be a product of the defensive system -- linemen in a 3-4 don't always do much damage -- the linebacking corps wasn't active enough to make up the difference. Jones and Lovilette are solid, but nickel back/outside linebacker Nick Usher was the only player on the team with more than 6.5 TFLs, and he's gone.

Kugler did sign a couple of JUCO linebackers to light a spark, and if either Kalaii Griffin or Jamar Smith can produce starter-level quality, then a linebacking corps of Jones, Lovilette, VanHook, and Random JUCO Linebacker could be pretty exciting. But even then, the nose guard position would still be young and unproven.


Special Teams

You weren't likely to see many a good return in a UTEP game last year. Nearly two-thirds of Jay Mattox's kickoffs were touchbacks, and UTEP only allowed 6.5 yards per punt return (46th in FBS). Meanwhile, UTEP had one of the least efficient return games in the country.

Terry Juniel was explosive fielding punts, but he was very inconsistent. If he's steadier as a sophomore, maybe UTEP's special teams unit will have some punch. Otherwise, the loss of Mattox could make last year's No. 79 Special Teams S&P+ ranking hard to match.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Oklahoma 5 -43.1 1%
9-Sep Rice 120 -0.1 50%
16-Sep Arizona 68 -16.0 18%
23-Sep at New Mexico State 124 -4.4 40%
30-Sep at Army 102 -10.3 28%
7-Oct Western Kentucky 51 -18.4 14%
14-Oct at Southern Miss 84 -14.6 20%
28-Oct UTSA 91 -7.1 34%
4-Nov at Middle Tennessee 89 -13.5 22%
11-Nov at North Texas 106 -9.2 30%
18-Nov Louisiana Tech 82 -8.9 30%
25-Nov at UAB 130 7.8 67%
Projected S&P+ Rk 126
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 111 / 119
Projected wins 3.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -16.6 (122)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 123 / 126
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / -3.2
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (57%, 71%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.1 (-0.1)

The bad news: UTEP will be relying on sophomores to lead this team forward, and that's rarely a successful strategy. It can pay off for you in the future, but not necessarily in the present.

The good news: UTEP is in Conference USA. That means plenty of win opportunities. Because of a rough No. 126 S&P+ projection, the Miners aren't going to be favored in many (any?) games after the Week 2 visit from Rice. But if they are able to spark into, say, the No. 100-110 range, there are wins on the table. Three of five home opponents are projected 82nd or worse, and four of seven road opponents are projected 102nd or worse. Get a couple of breaks, win some close games, and you can eke out bowl eligibility.

Still, it's hard to set the bar much higher than four wins. Kugler is still trying to build a foundation, and while he might have the start of one, it still has a lot of development to do.

In the meantime, he's trying to get moving pieces in order. He's got an exciting quarterback, a good offensive line, and no known entities worth blocking for or throwing to. He's got a solid set of defensive ends and no known defensive tackles. He's got an experienced linebacking corps and sophomore corners.

The UTEP job is one of the hardest in FBS. Kugler knew what he was getting into, and he's working for an athletic department that has no choice but to be patient. But this city's strange football history hasn't featured that many strong home teams, and it probably won't this year either.


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