The UTEP football team ventured out to Ruidoso, N.M., for their annual summer camp and came out with a stronger bond and took a step forward. The season is right around the corner, opening on Sept. 1 against Northern Arizona.

Here are the five things we learned about the team from Camp Ruidoso:

1. No Starting Quarterback, No Biggie

During the Sean Kugler regime, most would be talking about the starting quarterback battle leading up to the season opener. In the past, Kugler would name the starter just days before the first game, allowing the quarterbacks in contention to continue to compete for the starting job all the way through.

This year, the coaching staff is dead-set on their philosophy to play both quarterbacks during games. That will mean that starting quarterback contenders Kai Locksley and Ryan Metz will likely split their time evenly in the season opener, and head coach Dana Dimel will probably choose the ultimate starter as the season progresses.

The question now becomes if either Locksley or Metz starts to separate themselves as starter-worthy, will the staff outright name one as the lockdown starter? Dimel and staff have expressed that they want each quarterback to focus on making themselves better before the competition, but what is their ultimate criteria and end goal when evaluating the quarterbacks?

For the quarterbacks themselves, it was evident that each took a step forward during Camp Ruidoso. Metz improved on his timing for his throws. Locksley grew in his on-field connection among the receivers. Each show spurts of starter capability.

2. Offensive Weapons Galore

One thing that jumped off the page for the team was their vast array of offensive weapons. From a deep receiving core, to a skilled set of running backs, to an effective usage of the tight ends and fullbacks, it was obvious that talent was being dispersed well for the team.

Starting with the air game, receivers Warren Redix, Kavika Johnson and Walter Dawn Jr. were all over the ball and solidified themselves as playmakers. Throw in tight end David Lucero, fullback Winston Dimel and substitutions with Justin Garrett or Terry Juniel, and the UTEP passing game could be deadly.

On the ground game, we might see a constant rotation of Quadraiz Wadley and Josh Fields splitting up carries. Wadley took the snaps with the first team, with Fields rotating in. They used both at times in a two-back system, which was pretty effective. Wadley was used on most misdirection plays and was manning the Wildcat formation as the signal caller. If healthy, Wadley has the potential for a really great season.

X-factors and other players that have flown under the radar might be used sporadically as well. While Eddie Sinegal has been battling with an injury, he’s still a marquee z-wideout for the team. Slot receivers like Richie Rodriguez and Kenyan Foster might be subbed in more as the season goes on. Wideouts like Erik Brown, Tre’Shon Wolf and Alan Busey will be formidable receivers for the team and will each get their share of minutes per game. 

3. Defensive Secondary Has High Expectations

The defense came up big at the final Camp Ruidoso scrimmage, forcing three-and-outs, deflecting passes, stopping the run and even snagging an interception. But it was the secondary that truly shined for the team.

Led by seasoned players Nik Needham and Kahani Smith, the secondary is adjusting well to the new defense under defensive coordinator Mike Cox. The secondary is also deep with talent. Needham took an interception from quarterback Alex Fernandes during the final scrimmage, while Kalon Beverly, Michael Lewis, Dylan Parsee and Adrian Hynson each recorded pass breakups.

The scrimmage showed the secondary’s biggest improvement has been man-to-man coverage. For example, a Locksley-led offensive unit drove the ball to the defense’s goal line, threatening to score. On a third-and-short, Locksley had a well-designed play from the shotgun and threw a nice pass to Johnson in the left corner of the goal line. Hynson, who was guarding Johnson, never turned his back on Johnson, leaped in the air and swatted the ball down before Johnson could get a finger on it.

4. The 4-2-5 Adjustment is Coming Along

If the season started tomorrow, the Miners’ defense would be ready. They’ve adjusted well to the implementation of the 4-2-5, which is still being fully integrated. They will show glimpses of a standard 4-3 look, but then sub in the Nickel corner (normally Justin Rogers or sometimes Kalaii Griffin).

Bottom line is it’s working out. In C-USA, teams are starting to become more air-first driven and spreading out the ball. This team is fast enough to hang with a speedy North Texas team or a shotgun-based UTSA team.

Another scary thing is each unit of the defense has a standout player, which hasn’t happened in a while. The defensive line is manned by CJ Reese, a graduate transfer who followed Dimel and Cox to the Miners. AJ Hotchkins, the Oregon transfer, is quickly earning the reigns as the go-to linebacker for the team. And, Needham showed this camp that he can be among the best secondary players in the conference.

5. The Team Has Quality Depth

Injuries have been a plague that has killed the Miners in the past. Whether it be quarterbacks continuously hurt, or a star player being out, injuries have been argued to affect the overall outcome of some games for the Miners. This season, though, Dimel and staff believe that quality players can be seen beyond just the team’s starters.

“During camp, I wanted to really start working on our two deep,” he said upon the conclusion of Camp Ruidoso.  “As a head coach, that’s what you think about all of the time. Of course you think about your starters, but you don’t ever go a day without thinking about your backups too and how good you’re going to be so you can handle the injuries that occur throughout a season.  The thing that I’m most pleased about is our recruiting class that we brought in. A lot of those guys are just what we hoped they’d be. And that’s not usually the case in recruiting. But they are. And so there’s a group of them that are giving us the depth that we need to have.  That’s really encouraging.”

The team has about 12 guys that have the talent to play receiver in a game. They’ve got about a seven-man rotation they can use on the offensive line and a six-man rotation on the defensive line. Linebackers and defensive backs are a plentiful on the team. So in case of an injury, the team has some quality replacements.

And it’s true, the new guys looked sharp. Andrew Nwachukwu and Ricky Baker lived up to their recruiting expectations at receiver. Freshman defensive back Ray Walters has been in the mix with the two’s on defense. Jenson Misaalefua, another true freshman at defensive tackle, got reps with the first team.

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