UTEP's 3-1 start to the 2020 season has been quite a surprise for a program that's won just two games in the past three seasons. Besides the noteworthy start before C-USA play, the Miners have some nice things to build upon, especially offensively. When is the last time that UTEP has been this efficient offensively?

After the dominating 31-6 victory over Louisiana-Monroe, UTEP will head into conference play with momentum under their belts.

I previously picked this team to win only two games this year and they have proven me wrong big time. Knowing that C-USA has already shown weaknesses across the league, it is more than conceivable to think that this team can win three of their eight scheduled conference games and contend for a bowl game, barring any sort of disaster.

The offense has young talent to build on 

It's pretty amazing when you look at the young stars at UTEP. When you consider how each player will retain a year of college eligibility, per the NCAA COVID-19 rules, it becomes even more meaningful.

Quarterback Gavin Hardison (redshirt sophomore), running back Deion Hankins (redshirt freshman) and wide receiver Jacob Cowing (sophomore) will have three or more years of eligibility at the program. Think about that. The trio has already proved their value on the field and through time, they can flourish within the program.

Cowing is coming off his third 100-plus yard receiving game of the season after putting up 102 against ULM. That makes him the first MIner receiver to go for over 100-plus in three games since Jordan Leslie had four in 2013. The sophomore is currently ranked No. 1 in FBS for receiving yards (377).

UTEP hasn't had a wide receiver duo like Cowing (102) and Garrett (120) finish with 100-plus yards in a single game since Jordan Leslie and Michael Edwards had 100-plus in 2012 versus Rice.

Hankins became the first running back to post multiple 100-yard games in a season since Aaron Jones had three in 2016. He is also the first UTEP freshman to score three rushing touchdowns since John Harvey in 1985.

Against ULM, UTEP finished with a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver for the first time since quarterback Trevor Vittatoe (396), running back Donald Buckram (241) and wideout Jeff Moturi (153) accomplished the feat in 2009.

It's worth to mention that the offensive front for the Miners has some young talent too. They will have three or more years of eligibility from the likes of Jeremiah Byers (redshirt freshman), Justin Mayers (redshirt freshman), Andrew Meyer (redshirt sophomore) and Elijah Klein (redshirt sophomore). Their top guard Bobby DeHaro (redshirt junior) will have presumably two more years of eligibility after this year as well.

Running back rotation might need to work

Hankins got going on the ground for the Miners but there still might be a bit of a concern for the running back rotation. After senior Quardraiz Wadley opted out of the 2020 season, the running back group thinned out a bit. Senior Joshua Fields is UTEP's most seasoned back but it's taken the Americas graduate a bit to get going on the ground during games. Junior Ronald Awatt has scored two touchdowns in two games played but has gotten far less carries than both Hankins and Fields.

Hankins is UTEP's No. 1 running back. They trust him in goal-line situations to punch it in. They trust him as a top pass-blocking back. They will strategize a gameplan around him if need be.

The Miners simply need a bit more from the backups though. Maybe the coaching staff could experiment by giving an even distribution of carries to both Fields and Awatt. Or, if they really wanted to experiment, they could throw more tailbacks out there like junior Reynaldo Flores or true freshman Willie Eldridge.

It might be premature to think that there is a real concern with running the football but it's always good to have multiple options that could work out at the running back spot.

Miners must stay healthy 

Through four games, the Miners haven't really been hit by the injury bug. They lost fullback Forest Mckee to a torn ACL and lost Wadley to an opt-out for health reasons, but besides that, they have been relatively injury-free.

Then there's the COVID-19 factor that has doomed many other Group of 5 teams. Recently, fellow C-USA affiliate North Texas saw its game against Houston canceled due to positive cases of COVID-19. UTEP has been relatively solid in not having any sort of coronavirus outbreaks internally. That is a whole other factor that could test the team's depth.

The inexperience on their 2's and 3's is a bit concerning. Some of their key positions are thinner than you think, and losing any of the impact players—Hardison, Hankins, Cowing, Garrett, Praise Amaewhule, Stephen Forester, etc.—could have a game-changing impact.

Gavin Hardison vs. Trevor Vittatoe: Comparing the first four games 

Saying that Hardison's dazzled through his first four starts is an understatement. He's doing things that UTEP hasn't seen in years. He's confident and slings a crisp ball. Hardison has quickly established great communication among his top receivers in Cowing and Garrett. He can throw on the run and hit his targets. He's mobile—not to be confused with a true scrambler.

He's a gamer and the team's leader as a redshirt sophomore.

Let's compare his first four starts to UTEP legend Trevor Vittatoe's first four as a freshman.

Hardison's first four starts (3-1): 

  • (W) vs. Stephen F. Austin - 17-for-28, 212 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception
  • (L) at Texas - 12-for-27, 141 passing yards, 1 interception
  • (W) vs. Abilene Christian - 15-for-27, 195 passing yards
  • (W) at Lousiana-Monroe - 13-for-25, 302 passing yards
  • Total: 850 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions

Vittatoe's first four starts (2-2): 

  • (W) vs. New Mexico - 6-for-21, 59 passing yards
  • (L) at Texas Tech - 12-for-26, 202 passing yards, 2 touchdowns
  • (L) at New Mexico State - 15-for-27, 261 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception
  • (W) vs. Texas Southern - 10-for--16, 199 passing yards, 2 touchdowns
  • Total: 721 passing yards, 5 touchdowns, 1 interception 

Pretty interesting to compare both numbers. Vittatoe was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of high school and was Mike Price's prized recruit. He lit it up immediately for UTEP in the 2009 season through the air, though they finished 4-8. When you compare the two, Vittatoe had the tougher opponents and the more touchdown passes through for games. But Hardison has really been the engineer of the offense this year so far and helps to set up each touchdown. Hardison's 850 passing yards are pretty remarkable through his first four games and the NMMI transfer acts like a veteran in the pocket.

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