We are just days away from the season opener of the 2016 UTEP football campaign. A lot of people have been asking me how many games the Miners will win this year. The more I think about it, the more I believe that Sean Kugler will have his best season yet as UTEP head coach and his team will win eight games.
An 8-4 regular season might seem overly optimistic to some Miner fans, but I think that is a reasonable expectation for this team. Especially when you think that UTEP was a missed chip shot field goal away from a 6-6 season last year, despite losing 15 players to season ending injuries. Coach Kugler added new offensive and defensive coordinators, and the Miners seem poised for a big turnaround.
Offensively, there are plenty of reasons to be excited. Former Fresno State Bulldog Zack Greenlee transferred to UTEP during the offseason and he won the starting quarterback job. As a junior in high school, Greenlee was considered to be one of the best quarterback prospects in the nation. Hopefully, he will quickly grasp Brent Pease’s new offensive schemes and successfully lead the Miners’ offense. If Greenlee struggles, both Kavika Johnson and Ryan Metz looked good in fall camp and both are good options at the position.
Aaron Jones is healthy again, and the former Burges star looks to recapture his form that made him one of the best young running backs in the country. Now a junior, Jones will run behind a mammoth offensive line, and young freshman backup Quadraiz Wadley had a terrific camp for the Miners. The team is deep at wide receiver, featuring a trio of El Pasoans. Cole Freytag, Warren Redix and Eddie Senegal will all have big roles in the UTEP passing game, which also features sophomore Terry Juniel, junior Tyler Batson and senior Jaquan White. Seniors Hayden Plinke, Kent Taylor and junior Sterling Napier give the Miners excellent blocking and receiving options at tight end.
Defensively, juniors Alvin Jones and Devin Cockrell will anchor Tom Mason’s 3-4 system. The Miners have a veteran group, with four seniors and four juniors occupying starting spots. Three players switched from defensive line to linebackers, and two of them (Nick Usher and Silas Firstly) are starting against New Mexico State Saturday night. Like his twin brother Aaron on the other side of the ball, Alvin Jones enjoyed a breakout season in 2015, leading the Miners in tackles, solo stops, tackles for a loss and sacks.
UTEP also returns four defensive backs for the 2016 season, including starting cornerbacks Kalon Beverly and Nik Needham. Both players shined as true freshman and the addition of a healthy Cockrell is a huge boost to the Miner secondary. Before his injury prior to the 2015 season, Cockrell recorded 128 tackles for the Miners in his first two seasons, with a pair of sacks and two interceptions. Senior free safety Dashone Smith played in all 12 games last season including three starts.
Special teams play should be another strength for the Miners. Junior Alan Luna is one of the best punters in C-USA and he has also filled in at kicker. Senior Jay Mattox has one of the strongest legs in the conference and has improved every season. Terry Juniel, Walter Dawn and Warren Redix all possess breakaway speed and are dangerous return men.
One other X-factor that could work in UTEP’s favor is their schedule. According to college football magazine publisher Phil Steele, the Miners play the weakest schedule in Division 1 this season. Their opponents have the fewest combined total wins from last season and UTEP’s toughest conference games are at the Sun Bowl. Under Coach Kugler, the Miners have been tough to beat at home. Assuming they can stay healthy, 2016 will be a special year for UTEP football and its fans.
Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” weekday afternoons 4-7 p.m. on 600 ESPN El Paso. Over the last 17 years, he has also worked for UTEP and NMSU as a play-by-play broadcaster, for UTEP telecasts on Time Warner Cable and for KDBC-TV and KTSM-TV as a sports anchor/reporter. You can contact Steve by emailing him at email@example.com.