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UTEP might be college football’s hardest job right now, but the new head coach has been through that before

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When you’re starting out 130th, why not bring on a part of the Bill Snyder tree?

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at North Texas Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Kugler lost 13 of his last 16 games as UTEP head coach. Mike Price lost 20 of his last 24*. Gary Nord lost 28 of his last 32.

Each also experienced some success. Nord inherited a program that had bowled just once in three decades and pulled off an 8-4 run in his first year. Price went 8-4 in each of his first two years and briefly had the Miners ranked in both seasons. Kugler went 7-6 in his second season. These men were responsible for five bowl trips between them.

But when things begin to turn in El Paso, they turn. The Miners ranked 100th or worse in S&P+ in three of Price’s last four seasons and 122nd or worse in each of Kugler’s final three. Last fall, they fielded one of college football’s worst offenses of the 2010s — they failed to score more than 21 points even once and were held to 10 or fewer points five times. Their defense had life only if you compared it to the carcass of the offense.

UTEP is proof of my “hard jobs remain hard” theory, of the fact that you’re constantly swimming against the tide even when you’re swimming well. The school appeared to struggle finding someone who actually wanted the job, but the guy they chose made a lot of sense: if you’re looking for someone to take on one of the hardest jobs, why not bring on one of the sturdiest branches of the Snyder coaching tree?

Dimel was a Kansas State graduate assistant when Snyder arrived to take on the most hopeless job in the country in 1989. Snyder made the 26-year-old his offensive line coach right out of the gates, and by 1995 he had moved to coordinator. KSU’s unbelievable success resulted in Dimel landing the Wyoming head coaching job (another hard one) in 1997 and the Houston gig in 2000. But things went awry. He won seven or more games in each of his three seasons in Laramie but went just 8-26 at UH and ended up out of coaching for a bit.

Dimel resurfaced in Manhattan, Kan. He returned to grad assistant life while finishing his graduate degree in 2005, and after a few years at Arizona, he was back calling Snyder’s plays.

“What I wanted them to embrace were intrinsic values, the same things you teach your children and I teach my children. Things that would benefit them in all facets of their lives. One of those was just the capacity to find ways to get better every day, the implicity of improvement.”

Bill Snyder

Get better every day. We can talk about Snyder’s methods of talent identification — his 1990s focus on nearby JUCO talent, his recent embrace of a walk-on program. It would probably behoove Dimel to adopt both of those things (though there’s not as much JUCO talent nearby).

At its heart, though, Snyder’s success came from slow improvement. He would talk constantly with his players about how they could improve each day, cornering them in the locker room if he had to. And over a few seasons, KSU went from unfathomably bad to bad to decent to good to great.

Considering UTEP was dead last in S&P+ last fall and near the bottom of the list for a couple of years before that, there is no quick fix.

Dimel, who is somehow only 55 years old — merely six years younger than Snyder was when he started out at KSU — will have to go the incremental route. It paid off down the road in Las Cruces, where Doug Martin attempted a slow build and got New Mexico State to its first bowl in nearly 60 years last fall. UTEP has shown more upside than NMSU but has an equal downside.

* Price, Kugler’s predecessor, had lost 13 of his last 17 before retiring following the 2012 season. He returned to serve as interim coach after Kugler’s mid-2017 dismissal and lost another seven in a row.

Offense

UTEP offensive radar

When taking on a rebuild this steep, a coach will typically adopt one of two hiring practices: aim for either a set of hungry recruiters (call it the Jim Harbaugh-at-Stanford model) or as many seasoned hands as you can find. Dimel, a seasoned hand himself, chose the latter.

On offense, that meant handing the reins to 33-year veteran Mike Canales, with whom Dimel worked at Arizona. Canales hasn’t called plays since his stint as North Texas OC under Dan McCarney, but proved himself a kindred spirit with Dimel. Both coaches focus on efficiency above all else, and both figured out a way to combine a physical identity with a propensity for forcing defenses to make solo tackles.

It works when you’ve got at least a few weapons, anyway. UNT peaked at 64th in Off. S&P+ during its 9-4 run in 2013, but McCarney couldn’t keep the talent rolling in, and Canales couldn’t figure out any answers, finishing 122nd in both 2014 and 2015.

He inherits a unit that was far closer to 2014-15 UNT than 2013. Worse, actually.

UTEP offensive efficiency & explosiveness

UTEP was easily the least efficient and least explosive offense in Conference USA, and it must now replace its leading passer (Zack Greenlee), leading receiver (Tyler Batson), and four of its top six linemen, including All-American guard Will Hernandez.

Hernandez aside, these pieces were pretty replaceable. That’s the good news, I guess. The bad news is that there’s no reason to think last year’s backups are any better.

If there’s hope, it comes in a JUCO transfer with a familiar last name. Kai Locksley, son of Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, was a four-star prospect out of high school, eventually choosing Texas over Florida State. But he appeared to feud a bit with head coach Charlie Strong, and after failing to see the field at either QB or WR, he ended up at Iowa Western CC, where he completed 66 percent of his passes, threw for 2,238 yards and 20 touchdowns, and rushed for 705 yards and 20 more scores last season.

In Locksley, Dimel has the kind of sturdy dual-threat QB he relied on at K-State. At Iowa Western, Locksley threw a lot of the quick, horizontal passes Canales seems to prefer. He’s a stylistic fit, and he’s got upside.

Here are his clearest assets:

  • Receiver Terry Juniel, a solid return man and last year’s “leading” receiver with 23 receptions.
  • Slot man Kavika Johnson, a converted quarterback who flashed some explosiveness (marginal explosiveness: plus-0.52 points per successful play) and extreme all-or-nothing tendencies (marginal efficiency: an abysmal minus-17 percent).
  • Eddie Sinegal, the closest thing to a possession man (plus-19 percent marginal efficiency, albeit with no explosiveness whatsoever).
  • Running back Quardraiz Wadley, who flashed feature-back potential (47 carries for 233 yards against NMSU and Army) but couldn’t stay healthy.
  • Running back Joshua Fields, a star recruit (relatively speaking) in the 2017 class who was asked to carry more of a load than he was probably ready for.
  • Justin Garrett, a three-star JUCO transfer from Cerritos College who caught 38 balls for 592 yards last season.
  • Center Derron Gatewood, a two-year starting senior.

That’s not nothing, but it’s not a lot. Fields and Wadley might have potential, and there might be some possession options, but UTEP will need quite a few ifs — most primarily, “if Locksley turns into a star” — to pull off anything besides marginal offensive improvement this fall.

UTEP v Texas
Kavika Johnson
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Defense

UTEP defensive radar

Dimel chose another old hand to run his defense. Mike Cox is a 30-year veteran with stops in every time zone, from Pacific (Washington LBs coach from 2009-11) to Eastern (Michigan State LBs coach from 2003-06). He spent the last five seasons with Dimel at KSU, and it’s probably safe to assume that he will attempt the same type of opportunistic, bend-don’t-break attack.

That approach can work just fine if you’ve got steady options at tackle, inside linebacker, and safety. In fact, big-play prevention was basically the only thing UTEP was decent at in 2017. But without graduated tackle Sky Logan, strong safety Devin Cockrell, and the top three linebackers (including star Alvin Jones), life could be a lot more difficult.

There’s still decent experience on the two-deep, at least. Junior tackle Chris Richardson should return after missing 2017 because of academics, and linebacker Jayson VanHook, a star freshman in 2016, will return after missing the season with a shoulder injury. Senior Jamar Smith recorded 28 tackles while backing up Jones, and safeties Kahani Smith and Michael Lewis are both decent in the back.

The top three cornerbacks — Nik Needham, Justin Rogers, and Kalon Beverly (combined: 10 tackles for loss, 21 passes defensed) — and every defensive end return. There might be attacking potential on the perimeter if the Miners are sturdy enough to force some passing downs every now and then. But like the offense, UTEP’s defense is thin enough that a lot of ifs have to come true for any major improvement.

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Southern Mississippi
Kalon Beverly
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Between Juniel’s kick returns and Brady Viles’ kickoffs, UTEP has a couple of decent special teams weapons. But the Miners very much need to figure out their place-kicking situation. Viles and Jason Filley combined to make just three of seven field goals (only two of four inside of 40 yards) and ranked 128th in FG efficiency. Think of how demoralizing it must have been for a struggling offense to create a rare scoring chance and then come away with no points.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Northern Arizona NR 1.8 54%
8-Sep at UNLV 105 -14.5 20%
15-Sep at Tennessee 79 -21.3 11%
22-Sep New Mexico State 100 -10.2 28%
29-Sep at UTSA 104 -14.5 20%
6-Oct North Texas 86 -14.2 21%
20-Oct at Louisiana Tech 70 -22.4 10%
27-Oct UAB 91 -12.8 23%
3-Nov at Rice 128 -6.6 35%
10-Nov Middle Tennessee 83 -14.9 19%
17-Nov at Western Kentucky 90 -18.2 15%
24-Nov Southern Miss 94 -11.8 25%
Projected S&P+ Rk 130
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 130 / 111
Projected wins 2.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -16.1 (128)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 127 / 127
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -6 / -3.4
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (68%, 71%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 0.7 (-0.7)

The UTEP first string won’t be without talent, especially if Locksley is ready to thrive. But the depth is nonexistent; a hearty bite from the injury bug, or a few JUCO recruiting misses, would prevent any tangible improvement.

When you finish winless and dead last in S&P+, you’re not thinking about massive improvement. It’s all about increments, and Dimel knows as well as anyone how difficult it is.

S&P+ doesn’t project much improvement in El Paso, and the schedule won’t help much. A season opener against Northern Arizona should end the losing streak, but of the four 2017 opponents projected 100th or worse this fall, only one comes to El Paso. As a result, the Miners have a win probability above 30 percent in just two games all year. This isn’t going to be a particularly fun year, but when you go winless and finish last in S&P+, there is literally nowhere to go but up.

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