Five Last Things to Watch at UTEP’s Spring Game Tomorrow
After weeks of getting back to the gridiron, the Miners will conclude spring ball practices with their final spring drills on Saturday at the Sun Bowl starting at high noon.
Fans are encouraged to attend the free event, with gates opening at 11 a.m. and free parking for fans.
Here are five final things to watch as spring practices conclude:
Locksley's return to the gridiron
Kai Locksley enters his senior season as the lone projected starting quarterback entering the fall and frankly, he deserves it. There was an argument last season that Locksley wasn't an experienced passer but that was more of a young team's growing pains instead of placing it solely on one player.
His offseason recovery has been absolutely remarkable. Locksley's pair of injured ankles sidelined him from the end of last season and required him to have two surgeries on his ankles during the offseason. But after his surgeries, Locksley was back in time for spring practices with his only limitation being extensive running in spring drills.
Bottom line, Locksley is a multi-talented playmaker. He showed it last year, throwing for 937 yards and rushing for 340 yards, while totaling nine touchdowns in 2018.
Locksley's shaped into a bonafide leader this spring, whereas last season he was simply trying to learn the new system. When you watch his mechanics as he works his way back into the mix, it's evident that Locksley has taken a step forward as a passer this spring.
Who will be the backup running back?
The easy answer for the spot at backup running back could be incoming freshman Deion Hankins, the Miners' prized recruit out of Parkland High School. The only problem with Hankins is he's still in high school and we can't have him in this conversation until camp Ruidoso.
So let's break down the running back depth chart further for UTEP. Senior Quadraiz Wadley could not close out the spring due to an injury but it appears as more of a precautionary measure over a serious cause for concern. He led the Miners in rushing yards (627), rushing touchdowns (seven), total touchdowns (eight) and rushing attempts (123) through 2018.
Now it becomes an interesting battle on the depth chart between Josh Fields and Treyvon Hughes. Fields will be an incoming junior and if there was a time for the local running back to blossom, now is his chance. Hughes, on the other hand, could be used no matter what as a possible third-down back because of his massive frame.
Wide receiver position still on the fringe, but how far along are they?
On paper, the wide receiver position is the most cause for concern for the Miners on offense but each time you talk with this team about the receivers, they have nothing but positive things to say. And when you watch them, their positive impressions are justified.
Returning to the wide receiving corps are seniors Walter Dawn Jr., Kavika Johnson, Keynan Foster and Alan Busey. That might be the core starting group for the Miners next year, using Dawn and Foster as slot receivers and Johnson and Busey as true wideouts.
Then there's Tre'shon Wolf and Justin Garrett, who Miner fans haven't yet gotten a chance to see but show a lot of promise as deep threats.
Toss in the newcomer tight end duo of Luke Laufenberg and Rashad Beecham and you have a nice, young mix of receivers.
A downside to this group, of course, is playmaking experience in games. The senior group are the only group of receivers on UTEP that have even come close at scoring a touchdown, let alone play significant snaps for the team.
Early JUCO defensive spring fever
After the Miners announced their 2019 signing class, which featured eight 3-star athletes, which was more than the program has seen since 2010's 13 3-star recruits. The better part about that is the fact that UTEP enrolled eight mid-year transfers to get integrated into the system starting this spring.
Aside to Beecham, Laufenberg and quarterback TJ Goodwin, the Miners debuted a nice bunch of junior college transfers this spring on defense, such as defensive back Duron Lowe, defensive back Miles Banks, defensive back Robert Corner III, safety Ty'reke James and linebacker Joe Jay Smith. Having them on campus early allows them to compete for a spot of the depth chart leading into the fall.
Chukwukelu set for a huge fall
As UTEP saw a substantial improvement on the defensive side in 2018 from 2017, there's a lot of hope and expectations set on this year's defense, especially with senior defensive lineman Denzel Chukwukelu.
Entering his senior season, Chukwukelu led all UTEP defensive linemen with 42 tackles and seven quarterback hurries in 2018. He also finished last year with 6.5 tackles for loss (21 yards), 2.0 sacks (13 yards), a pass breakup, a forced fumble and recovery and blocked two kicks.
But every defensive line needs a 1-2 punch. In this case, it's fellow senior defensive lineman Chris Richardson, who finished with 31 tackles, 2.0 tackles for losses and two pass breakups in 2018. Chukwukelu will only be as successful as his entire line and having Richardson be a co-leader on the defensive front will further boost UTEP's defense.