Let's be real. This is a pivotal offseason for UTEP football.

The program is coming off its best season in about a decade following a 7-6 finish and a trip to the New Mexico Bowl. Can the Miners sustain their success? Will this program take the next step and win its first bowl game in 55 years?

Conversely, could the program take a step back?

These are just some of the many storylines heading into the 2022 season. And of course, the offseason starts with signing day.

Head coach Dana Dimel announced 15 players signing with the Miners on Wednesday, which will go along with the other seven signees from the Dec. 3 early signing day. Of the 22 new recruits, 14 come from the JUCO ranks and 12 will be mid-year transfers, joining the squad this spring.

For a list of recruits and highlights, check out my story from Wednesday. 


 

Jorge Salgado
Jorge Salgado
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Miners return seven projected starters on offense, seven on defense

If we're being honest, there's not a lot of immediate help the Miners needed this offseason, as the squad looks to see about 16 projected starters returning to the team.

The Miners will have seven starters return on offense—RB Ronal Awattt, RT Jeremiah Byers, QB Gavin Hardison, RG Elijah Klein, C Andrew Meyer, WR Tyrin Smith, TE Trent Thompson. The two key players they lost offensively are Jacob Cowing (transferred to Arizona) and Justin Garrett (graduation). Other offensive players the Miners will have back in 2022 are RB Deion Hankins, LT Zuri Henry, FB James Tupou and WR Rey Flores. Receiver Walter Dawn Jr. is expected to also petition for a medical redshirt after he missed all of last year with an injury.

Seven starters also return defensively—DE Praise Amaewhule, S Dennis Barnes, LB Tyrice Knight, DT Kelton Moss, S Justin Prince, DT Keenan Stewart and DE Jadrian Taylor. They will lose CBs Josh Caldwell and Walter Neil to graduation, along with LB Breon Hawyard. One can expect both Tyson Wilson and Ty'reke James to challenge for one of the safety spots. Torey Richardson is a probable starter for one of the cornerback spots. Other players returning include defensive tackle Tevita Tafuna and defensive end Deylon Williams.

Kicker Gavin Baechle and punter Josh Sloan will also be back in 2022.

Jorge Salgado
Jorge Salgado
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2022 Signing Class Grade: B+ 

We've learned the following five things from how this coaching staff likes to recruit:

  1. They prefer JUCO transfers
  2. They seek mid-year guys that can get a headstart in the spring
  3. High school prospects are important, but not the priority
  4. Size and experience matters
  5. The staff is not afraid to play first-year players

Another thing, rankings don't matter to this staff. Under Dana Dimel, UTEP's best recruiting ranking by 247Sports came in 2019 when they were 12th in C-USA and No. 112 in FBS. Other than that, the Miners have been ranked the worst or second lowest in C-USA in three of the four offseasons under Dimel.

This year, UTEP's recruiting class ranked 14th in C-USA, 130th in FBS by 247Sports. They ranked No. 9 in C-USA by Rivals. They signed five 3-star prospects this offseason. Nine of their recent signees were 0-star graded recruits by 247Sports.

Yet, the Miners proved with their successful 2021 campaign that the under-the-radar prospect is what the coaching staff values more than the splash Division I transfer or the trendy high school recruit.

This class shows versatility and the class includes several individuals that can play right away. Having 11 players that will join the Miners for spring ball is even better.

"It's been a really good, positive couple of weeks for us here at the program," head coach Dana Dimel said. "It was a shorter, more condensed recruiting period for us. Everything got sped up. Our big thrust was to try and get as many players as mid-year players. Eleven of the guys are here on campus working out right now."

The good and bad to UTEP's success in relation to recruiting 

Despite the success that the team had in 2021, UTEP said that it didn't necessarily improve recruiting.

"There's good and bad to it," Dimel explained. "People see the direction, that's the really good side of it. They see the direction of our program and the way our players play the game. That's definitely become one of our brands of how we play.

"The negative part is we've done such a good job with our junior college recruiting and our high school recruiting," he continued. "Now, it seems like when we offer guys, the very next day they would get multiple offers from their own backyard from guys that hadn't talked to them before. It becomes harder to find the diamonds in the rough because we have to be careful. Once we identify them, their stock goes up."

To add onto the "negative part" Dimel was talking about, I found an example from signing day. Kilgore College defensive tackle Marcus Wiser was offered by UTEP on Dec. 2. Two weeks later, Louisiana swoops in and offers Wiser. Despite visiting El Paso in January, Wiser stuck with Louisiana, which is closer to his hometown in Corpus Christi, TX.

One other recent example: Blinn College defensive end Kaghen Roach was offered by UTEP on Jan. 26. He took his official visit to El Paso on Jan. 30. The 6-foot-4 JUCO transfer posted an offer from North Texas on Twitter just hours after his visit to UTEP. On Tuesday, Feb. 2, the Celina, TX., native committed to the Mean Green.

@jluisandriod78: "List of most likely impact players? Who will most likely redshirt or blue shirt? I imagine there may be a few more hitting the portal after this class, check and see if anyone leaves?" 

Here's a list of potential impact players that Dimel talked about on Wednesday:

  • DB Josiah Allen
  • DB Kobe Hylton
  • WR Kelly Akharaiyi
  • WR Emari White
  • WR Marcus Bellon
  • OL Aluma Nkele
  • DE Maurice Westmoreland
  • DB Amier Boyd-Matthews

The Miners brought Louisiana transfer Kobe Hylton and Sacramento City College transfer Josiah Allen to compete immediately for a spot in the secondary. However, Dimel also talked about the possibility of true freshman Amier Boyd-Matthews stepping in right away and competing for a spot. The class of 2022 defensive back was a standout at Mountain Pointe HS (Tempe, Ariz.) and switched his commitment from Northern Illinois to UTEP on signing day.

A trio of wide receivers will join the team as well. Tyler JC transfer Kelly Akharaiyi and Western Kentucky transfer Kyle McNamara are two mid-year transfers that will compete in spring ball. Dimel also likes Emari White and Marcus Bellon as two players that compete for a spot in the two-deep for receivers. With Cowing and Garrett gone, this position group is wide open. Don't forget about highly coveted redshirt freshman Jeremiah Ballard, who didn't play in 2021 but the coaches absolutely love.

"I thought one of the biggest areas of emphasis was the wide receiver position," Dimel said. "Obviously, you have a quarterback returning who threw for over 3,000 yards and has the type of abilities and potential that Gavin [Hardison] does. To me, it was important to get the receiving core around him."

Dimel thinks that Aluma Nkele, the 390-pound, 6-foot-8 offensive lineman from Long Beach City College, has a shot to play right away.

"I really think he's going to play for us somewhere next year," Dimel said. "If he gets down to 380 as big as he is and as well as he moves. He moves as well as any big guy that size I've ever been around. He's already been in our workouts."

Other players Dimel talked about as far as playing immediately include defensive end Maurice Westmoreland (Kilgore) and defensive tackles Joshua Paulu (Cerritos) and Logologo Va'a.

Likely redshirts? I am guessing most of the true freshman recruits—QB Jake McNamara, ATH Samuel Mikaele, OL Trevion Mitchell and TE Luke Seib.

There will be two blue shirts—OL A.J. Barton and K/P Buzz Flabiano.

Lastly, I would be surprised if anyone else entered the portal unexpectedly. Word around the locker room is that everyone is hungry to run it back this year. Though, college football is extremely fluid and things can change instantly.

@Leo_MinersFan: "Is there anyone in the class who could help return the ball on special teams? And be a big threat to score TD or flip the field in a major way? Defensively, is there anyone who will provide immediate help at a spot of need? Who is the sleeper of the class? 

The long-term option at the specialist returner spot could be Marcus Bellon, a JUCO transfer from Santa Barbara Community College who had four punt returns for touchdowns, two kickoff touchdowns and four touchdown receptions in 2021. He's speedy and dynamic when he returns kicks. He's shifty and bursts through open holes on punt return.

I could also see Tyrin Smith returning punts for the Miners this year.

As far as immediate help on defense, I'll still go with safety Kobe Hylton from Louisiana. He didn't play in 2021 for the Ragin Cajuns, but he was a standout at Northeastern Oklahoma CC in 2020.

For my sleeper, I'll do two. First, I'll go with JUCO cornerback transfer Robert West. His film shows that he has a nose for creating turnovers. He finished last season at Georgia Military College with two interceptions, seven pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Maybe he could be a candidate for the nickel corner spot down the line.

My sleeper on offense will be Kyle McNamara. Here's a speedy slot receiver that learned a lot from a strong wide receiver room at Western Kentucky. Confidence gushes from Kyle, who first was set to be a preferred walk-on at Michigan alongside his other brother, Cade. At 5-foot-8, he enters this offseason with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove. Slot receivers are heavily utilized in the Miner offense and Kyle could be a sleeper for the two-deep depth chart.

Check out our conversation with both Jake and Kyle McNamara from yesterday's SportsTalk:

@Rknippel18: "For the high school players, are you the first player to sign with UTEP from your school? Curious if we have opened new doors in recruiting. How many total states did we land a signee from?"

I'm not sure about the first players to sign from certain high school at UTEP. However, can we talk about the similar connections from the JUCO pipelines for a second?

  • Kilgore College (TX) - DT Kelton Moss, DE Jadrian Taylor, OL Stephen Hubbard
    • Signed in 2022: DE Maurice Westmoreland
  • Tyler Junior College (TX) - WR Jostein Clarke, LB James Neal
    • Signed in 2022: LB Darryl Minor, WR Kelly Akharaiyi
  • Cerritos College (Calif.) - CB Tre'vion Ballard (previously, QB Isaiah Bravo, WR Justin Garrett & CB Josh Caldwell)
    • Signed in 2022: DT Joshua Palu
  • Sierra College (Calif.) - WR Josh Farr
    • Signed in 2022: WR Emari White
  • Long Beach City College (Calif.) - S Dallas Burke, S Justin Prince
    • Signed in 2022: OL Aluma Nkele
  • Blinn College (TX) - WR Miles Banks, CB Torey Richardson
    • Signed in 2022: DE Bryton Thompson
  • Sacramento City College (Calif.) - DB Deshaun Trotter, S Joe Hagopian
    • Signed in 2022: DB Josiah Allen

Dimel values the relationships between his staff and these junior college programs that continue to send the best talent available.

"Guys we've known for 20 years," explained Dimel about the connections to JUCO programs. "They just really help us identify talent that will fit the culture. We got really good relationships starting with these California junior colleges too. We feel really comfortable that we have grounds built there."

As far as new doors opening in recruiting, I'm looking at the various high schools and junior colleges in California that the staff has been able to tap into. They were able to get prospects from Cali JUCO schools like Modesto JC, Santa Barbara CC and American River College.

Finally, UTEP landed prospects from seven different states, stretching from Georgia to California. The Miners' main recruiting hubs continue to be in Texas and California though.

@Deviuzz1: "What is being done to address the major issues with special teams?"

Good question. Seems like Miner fans are still left with a bad taste in their mouths after the 42-25 beatdown at UAB, in which the Miners had a blocked punt, a fumble on the kickoff and a missed recovery on the kickoff—all which led to Blazers touchdowns in the game.

Short-term, not sure if much will change. They will still have Baechle as the projected starting kicker and Sloan as the punter. I expect to see a change in kickoff/punt return specialist, whether it's Smith or a newcomer.

Long-term, look to kicker/punter Buzz Flabiano to play a role on special teams. He was rated the No. 16 kicker by the Kohl's kicking camp and comes to UTEP highly regarded as a kicker.

@ChrisBanks21: "Who is projected to be a starter and provide the most help?"

Again, as a true starter, possibly sophomore defensive backs Josiah Allen and Kobe Hylton. Allen has played more of a traditional corner role, while Hylton is a safety. There's a chance that one of the newcomer receivers also breaks through and starts on offense.

@L0UGLE: "The new QB enrolled early as a freshman. This tells me he wants to start immediately. Will he be able to challenge for the starting spot? Which wide receiver has the best chance to come in and make an immediate impact? 

"Challenge for the starting spot" sounds ambitious for class of 2022 freshman Jake McNamara. It takes time for quarterbacks to learn the offense and adjust to the speed of the Division I level. But, I wouldn't completely rule this out. McNamara being a starter in year one sounds like a long-shot possibility.

Dimel made it clear that Hardison is UTEP's guy at quarterback. However, the Miners are one quarterback injury away from being a struggling offense again. I think it's fair to assume that the backup job is always going to be an open battle. If McNamara comes along in the spring ball and gets decent reps, maybe he can push both Hardison and Calvin Brownholtz for top two quarterback spots.

@Joe95468177: "Why did the Cali QB Retzlaff not sign with the Miners?" 

Interesting point. Best case scenario, the JUCO quarterback is listed as a preferred walk-on and could join the squad eventually. He could've decommitted and joined another school though. He posted the photo above on Twitter just a few weeks ago, at what looks like his official visit to El Paso.

I'll try to get confirmation on this when Dimel joins SportsTalk later on Thursday.

UTEP Football Sweeps New Mexico With 20-13 Win Over UNM

The UTEP football team defeated NMSU and UNM for the first time since 2014 after a big second half comeback gave the Miners a 20-13 win over the Lobos Saturday night in front of 15,069 fans at the Sun Bowl.