It’s Time to Talk UTEP Football: 2021 Season Preview
Dana Dimel and the UTEP football program have been on a multi-year rebuild that is now at a really interesting place entering year four. The former Kansas State offensive coordinator has been extremely cautious when throwing out any guarantees for his team in the past, and since he was hired back in 2018 to help turn the squad into a winner, he's maintained a five-year plan. However, the talent across the roster has started to fill out a little faster than expected and the Miners proved in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season that they can be competitive.
Year four brings a lot to the table for the Miners. Dimel is in the fourth season of his five-year contract. The team returns 11 starters on offense and about nine defensively. The schedule favors the Miners early on. They have made lots of coaching shifts over the offseason. JUCO recruits are still signing to the program.
And their opener against NM State (Aug. 28) is less than 60 days away.
“I think we’re right on queue where I thought we would be," Dimel told 600 ESPN El Paso. "You’re not going into a place thinking that you’re going to change it in a year. You try to build a big picture concept and we feel we’re right on track to do that. We feel like we were really close last year, but that was last year. We need to continue to get better, continue to tweak our roster; and take guys that came onto the scene from last year and push them to a whole other level."
2020 Look Back & Offseason
The Miners' 2020 season was hampered with cancelations/reschedulings on multiple occasions, and the team had to deal with many factors that were out of their control due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus hit the city especially hard in the fall when El Paso was known to be one of the epicenters of the virus across the country.
Because of this, UTEP did not play a single Conference USA game at the Sun Bowl. Three of their last four games were canceled and the last "home game" was played in Denton, Texas, against North Texas.
The Miners managed to pull off a 3-5 record and play competitive football despite the adversity they faced. They saw a young quarterback in Gavin Hardison grow into a starter at the position. They witnessed local prep sensation Deion Hankins (592 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) translate his talents to the college level on par with everyone's expectations. They also boasted other diamonds in the rough like wideout Jacob Cowing (1,241 receiving yards), defensive end Praise Amaewhule (7.0 sacks) and defensive tackle Keenan Stewart (34 tackles).
However, the team did deal with a bit of a coaching staff shakeup following the 3-5 conclusion to the 2020 season. Dimel fired offensive coordinator Mike Canales and defensive coordinator Mike Cox and replaced them with Dave Warner (OC) and Bradley Dale Peveto (DC). Special teams coordinator Joe Robinson retired in the spring as well, thus creating a vacancy that Aaron Price—former UTEP assistant under his father, Mike, and a seasoned special teams coach—would later fill. They also hired Theron Aych to lead the wide receivers and moved Scotty Ohara to the passing game coordinator.
"It’s never easy," said Dimel in reference to the quick turnaround of hiring coaches and bringing them up to speed. "Offensively, I think the change is going to take us to another level. Even though we were getting better, we could have had better performances [last year]. Dave and I have been together and he understands what I want. He has good experience and he’s coached some NFL quarterbacks. I think we’ve made a drastic improvement there.
"Defensively, I thought the improvements Mike Cox made was strong. Coach Peveto will continue to make it strong and improve like we did last year defensively," Dimel added. "He’s a good recruiter and has great experience. We’re excited to have him."
2021 Miners Football Schedule
|Aug. 28||at NM State||TBD||7:30 p.m. MT|
|Sept. 4||BETHUNE-COOKMAN||ESPN3||7 p.m. MT|
|Sept. 10||at Boise State||FS1||7:30 p.m. MT|
|Sept. 25||NEW MEXICO||ESPN Networks||7 p.m. MT|
|Oct. 2||OLD DOMINION*||ESPN Networks||7 p.m. MT|
|Oct. 9||at Southern Miss*||ESPN Networks||5 p.m. MT|
|Oct. 16||LOUISIANA TECH*||ESPN Networks||7 p.m. MT|
|Oct. 30||at Florida Atlantic*||ESPN Networks||4 p.m. MT|
|Nov. 6||UTSA*||ESPN Networks||2 p.m. MT|
|Nov. 13||at North Texas*||ESPN Networks||2 p.m. MT|
|Nov. 20||RICE*||ESPN Networks||2 p.m. MT|
|Nov. 27||at UAB*||ESPN Networks||TBD|
Dana Dimel on the schedule for this year:
"I think we have a chance to win every game we play this year. I don’t see anyone that’s on our schedule that we can’t compete against and win. For us to continue to show that we’re going into the right direction and getting better—if we make the same jump that we made from year two to year three, we’re going to make some great strides. If not, that’s not something you want to see."
2021 Projected Starters
- QB Gavin Hardison (RS So.)
- RB Deion Hankins (RS Fr.)
- FB Forest McKee (Sr.)
- WR Jacob Cowing (So.)
- WR Justin Garrett (Sr.)
- WR Dennis Barnes (So.)
- TE Trent Thompson (Jr.)
- LT Zuri Henry (Jr.)
- LG Bobby DeHaro (RS Jr.)
- C Andrew Meyer (RS So.)
- RG Elijah Klein (RS So.)
- RT Jeremiah Byers (RS Fr.)
- DE Praise Amaewhule (RS So.)
- DT Keenan Stewart (Jr.)
- DT Kelton Moss (Jr.)
- DE Jadrian Taylor (Jr.) or Josh Ortega (Sr.)
- LB Tyrice Knight (Jr.)
- LB Breon Hayward (RS Jr.)
- CB Walter Neil Jr. (Sr.)
- CB Dennis Barnes (So.)
- S Justin Prince (Sr.)
- S Ty'reke James (RS Jr.) or Jerome Wilson (RS Fr.)
- NICK Dy'vonne Inyang (Sr.)
- K Gavin Baechle (Jr.)
- P Josh Sloan (Fr.)
- KR/PR Justin Garrett (Sr.)
Dimel on the depth of the team:
"Competition for spots on our team are deep. To me, that’s how you build a program—have competition at every spot."
Offensive Preview: Balanced attack seems to be the answer
Although there is a new coordinator on offense, make no mistake in thinking that Dimel will relinquish play-calling duties. Dimel will still call the game for the Miners and hopes to have Warner take Hardison to another level.
That's where the offense starts: Gavin Hardison. The Hobbs, N.M. native threw for 1,419 yards and five touchdowns in his first season under center. He flashed his abilities with his rocket arm and connection with receivers like Cowing and Justin Garrett (510 receiving yards). This team can go as far as Hardison can take them in 2021.
"I think it’s preparation and taking what’s there," said Dimel about his quarterback. "For him, having a great understanding and controlling the ball. Coach Warner is going to really help him on this: changing plays at the line of scrimmage on his own. Those are things that will take his game to the next level."
The running back group hoists a stable of noble candidates to carry the rock starting with homegrown sensation Deion Hankins. Dimel claims that Hankins is in great shape for the upcoming season and hopes to follow up his All-Conference 2020 performance with another huge year. His backups? How about a rotating unit of senior Quardraiz Wadley, junior Ronald Awatt and freshman Willie Eldridge. That unit is scary on offense.
Cowing and Garrett will lead the way among the receivers. The open competition beyond the top two wideouts will also be interesting as the season plays out. Walter Dawn Jr., Josh Farr and Miles Banks have experience at the position. But they will be tested by newcomers like JUCO transfer Tyrin Smith (5-foot-10, Cisco College), Nick Ast (6-foot-5, Kansas State) and two-way sensation Dennis Barnes. The tight end position seems to be fluid with junior Trent Thompson getting the early nod as a projected starter. Look to Zach Fryar (6-foot-3, NMMI) as a possible contender.
The same way the coaching staff is hoping for consistency at the quarterback position, they have to hope the same from their offensive front. From left tackle to right tackle, the Miners will expect to roll with Zuri Henry, Bobby DeHaro, Andrew Meyer, Elijah Klein and Jeremiah Byers. They are deep at each position, featuring guys like Darta Lee, Justin Mayers and Steven Hubbard as guys with experience as backups. It's a young unit made up of mostly juniors and sophomores, and the offensive line could wrap the offense up nicely if it performs up to speed.
Analysis: I don't know if anyone expected a quarterback from NMMI like Hardison to take the reigns last year and never once relinquish it. But it's up to him to take what success we saw last year and take it to another level this year. If that happens, and if Hankins can also repeat what he did last year, the Miners will stand a good chance to succeed offensively. They are set up for success. If they fall into old inconsistencies—turnovers, penalties, etc.—we might exit the season scratching our heads and wondering why they took a step back.
Defensive Preview: What new heights (or lows) can 2021 bring?
Despite the improvements that 2020 brought on, the Miner defense still has the potential to be even better in 2021. They wrapped up the season as the No. 46 rated defense in college football, yet they made the coordinator change to try and take the defense to another level, according to Dimel.
UTEP's deepest position group across both sides is probably the defensive line. Anchored by standouts in sophomore pass rusher Praise Amaewhule and junior defensive tackle Keenan Stewart, this unit has a chance to be among the best in C-USA. Tackles Kelton Moss and Jalen Rudolph, along with defensive ends Jadrian Taylor and Josh Ortega round out the group. They will primarily go with a four-man front unless they shift into their odd packages.
"Praise Amaewhule has done a great job of leading our defense," Dimel said. "He’s put weight on. He was the most noticeable with Deion for looking like the best right now. He’s weighing 253. Keenan Stewart is also working really hard this offseason and is a key player for us."
Replacing standouts from last year like linebacker Stephen Forester will be no easy task for the Miners. However, Dimel likes his chances with two linebackers that will lead the way in juniors Tyrice Knight and Beon Hayward. Knight, a JUCO transfer from Independence Community College, ranked second on the team in total tackles last year (54). Hayward came to UTEP as a transfer from Marshall and contributed with 17 tackles in six games played.
"Stephen Forester was a really, really good football player for us," Dimel explained. "Breon has to fill that void. What he’s done for us, his work ethic, how physical of a player he is, and he’s worked really hard. Tyrice Knight and him have to lead our defense. Those two look like big-time linebackers."
The secondary saw a bit of a shift in personnel too. Former secondary members Duron Lowe and Broderick Harrell transferred away from the program in the offseason, but they were replaced by some notable players. Kansas State grad transfer Walter Neil Jr. will be the starting corner for the Miners on one side. It will be either junior Dennis Barnes or senior Josh Caldwell on the opposite side. Both have starting experience for the Miners. Their safeties will be led by senior Justin Prince while senior Dy'vonne Inyang returns at the nickel corner spot. Dimel also mentioned how the squad is still adding some more JUCO bodies in the summer that can earn playing time in the fall.
"Probably our best corners are Walter Neil Jr., who is a proven star and having a great summer, and Dennis Barnes," suggested Dimel. "Dennis is a two-way player and you’re talking who is going to be that third receiver, we have plenty of candidates. Dennis is going to fill that fourth or fifth spot. He’s a guy that can really run and has speed. The deeper we are at secondary, the more I can steal Dennis for 10-15 snaps on offense."
Analysis: This season feels like boom or bust for the defense. They can either continue on the path of improvement or completely fall short of expectations. I look at the way C-USA has changed into more of an air raid conference and see the areas of pass rushing, turnovers and pass defense as major keys to watch this year for UTEP. Amaewhule and Stewart feel like future pros, but they have to live up to their potential.
2021 Early Prediction & Fall Camp Preview
My game-by-game prediction for the 2021 season:
- at NM State - W, 20-13
- vs. Bethune-Cookman - W, 31-7
- at Boise State - L, 20-10
- vs. New Mexico - W, 14-6
- vs. Old Dominion - W, 28-17
- at Southern Miss - W, 24-20
- vs. Louisiana Tech - L, 34-17
- at Florida Atlantic - L, 28-21
- vs. UTSA - L, 34-24
- at North Texas - L, 24-21
- vs. Rice - W, 28-13
- at UAB - L, 28-21
Overall 6-6, 3-5 C-USA
Call me a homer, call me unrealistic—call me whatever you'd like. Point is, this is the best a Dana Dimel roster has looked since he got here in 2018. Since then, he's just 5-27 at UTEP and now in year four, Dimel must prove that he can turn things around before it's too late. A favorable schedule with a lot of returning bodies is one way to get wins under your belt. I think they see the majority of their victories coming in the first stretch while the losses could start to come in C-USA. I see them losing several during the October-November months, but I feel they can keep games competitive. Anything less than five wins would be a disappointment in my eyes. If they log less than four wins, UTEP fans are in for one hell of an offseason.
Stay tuned for more UTEP football coverage and check out the full discussion with Dana Dimel on SportsTalk: