UTEP Football 2023 Preview: Depth Chart, Schedule and Season Outlook
Entering his sixth year at UTEP, head coach Dana Dimel has built a program that posted a 2-34 record from 2017-2019 and turned it to a 15-18 mark from 2020-2022. Yet, fans are ready for this team to take the next step.
Since he was hired after the 2017 season, Dimel has worked to build a brand of football at UTEP that now has goals to contend in the new-look Conference USA and win a bowl game—something the football team hasn’t done since 1967.
Dimel’s brand of football was built by recruiting top-level junior college talent and mixing in high school recruits and transfer portal pickups. At a university like UTEP, which lacks an NIL (name, image and likeness) collective for football, there are hurdles that the program battles against. Unlike other sports at UTEP and across college athletics, the football team has done an admirable job of retaining its roster and maintaining continuity year over year.
Offensively, they've built a style of a methodical, ball-control approach that is reflected by a balanced attack of run and pass. Defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto has made UTEP’s strength on the defensive side of the ball over the past two seasons, priding themselves on an aggressive strategy.
The foundation is set. Now comes reaching new heights and winning the fan base back.
It was only a year ago when it felt like the community jumped back on board with the UTEP football program, anxiously waiting for the 2022 season following a New Mexico Bowl appearance in 2021. The hype and excitement led to selling out the Sun Bowl for the home opener against North Texas. But as the Miners lost in their home opener of 2022 (31-13), fan support dwindled for the remainder of the season even though they flirted with bowl eligibility all the way to the final game of the season. It didn’t matter to the Miner community, which saw just 10,758 fans in their Senior Day home finale against Florida International (plus UTEP won, 40-6).
“Compete for a championship and win a bowl game: those are the biggest things for us,” Dimel said. “We’re going in with a different mindset this year. Last year, all of a sudden prosperity was new for our guys and we didn’t handle it well, which caused inconsistency in our play. We want to be more consistent as a football team and play well on the road.”
To his point, UTEP is 11-4 at home over the last three years. Yet, they are 3-9 on the road over the past two full seasons.
In a nine-team CUSA that features a pair of schools jumping from FCS to FBS (Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State), maybe the Miners can take advantage of their conference schedule and get back to a bowl game. The offense returns seven starters from last year, including four of five offensive linemen. The defensive side brings back six starters and features impact players like pass rusher Praise Amaewhule, linebacker Tyrice Knight and safety Kobe Hylton.
If the wins don't come and this is another struggle of a season, however, Miner fans are in for another long year.
2023 UTEP FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
DATE OPPONENT TV/STREAM TIME
Sat., Aug. 26 at Jax State* CBSSN 3:30 p.m. MT
Sat., Sept. 2 vs. Incarnate Word ESPN+ 7:00 p.m. MT
Sat., Sept. 9 at Northwestern Big Ten Network 1:30 p.m.MT
Sat., Sept. 16 at Arizona Pac-12 Network 9:00 p.m. MT
Sat., Sept. 23 vs. UNLV ESPN Platforms 7:00 p.m. MT
Fri., Sept. 29 vs. LA Tech* CBSSN 7:00 p.m. MT
Wed., Oct. 11 at FIU* ESPN2 5:30 p.m. MT
Wed., Oct. 18 vs. NM State* ESPN2 7:00 p.m. MT
Wed., Oct. 25 at Sam Houston* ESPN2 6:00 p.m. MT
Sat., Nov. 4 vs. WKU* ESPN Platforms 7:00 p.m. MT
Sat. Nov. 18 at MT* ESPN Platforms 12:00 p.m. MT
Sat. Nov. 25 vs. Liberty* CBSSN 1:30 p.m. MT
*Conference USA contest | bye weeks: Oct. 7 & Nov. 11
- Starter: Gavin Hardison
- Backups: Kevin Hurley & Jake McNamara
Following a stellar 2021 campaign, Gavin Hardison took a bit of a step back in 2022. He finished the season completing 52% of his passes, with 2,044 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Hardison can take this team to new heights, but can also hold the team back when he struggles with his decision making. He's led the team to a winning season before. The challenge this year will be to get back to a winning season in his fourth year of being the UTEP starter.
I'm optimistic for Hardison's final season. He has a sturdy offensive line. He's working closely with Dimel, as Dave Warner retired as the offensive coordinator after last season. If he ends up repeating the success he had in 2021, we might be talking about Hardison as a pro football prospect when spring rolls around.
“This has to be the year he puts it all together. This is his year to shine," said Dimel. "He’s not happy with the year he had last year. Everyone was excited about the season he had two seasons ago. His performance fell off a bit last year. That’s the challenge now."
As far as the two-deep goes, the Miners don't want to see a scenario this year without Hardison at quarterback. Neither Kevin Hurley nor Jake McNamara have ever played in a Division I game.
- Starters: Deion Hankins & Mike Franklin
- Backups: Aaron Dumas, Torrance Burgess, Ezell Jolly
Deion Hankins battled through injuries in 2021 and geared up for what turned out to be a special 2022 season for the local product from Parkland High School. He racked up 701 rushing yards and rushed for a trio of touchdowns. He will be a staple of the offense this year.
The talk around the team suggests that Mike Franklin could have a strong season as the complementary back to Hankins. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound JUCO transfer (Contra Costa College) has a similar rushing style to Hankins as well.
Then comes Americas High School grad and Washington transfer Aaron Dumas. Before transferring to the Huskies, Dumas was a Mountain West All Freshman at New Mexico. The Miners got an absolute steal late in the transfer portal process by landing Dumas.
Torrance Burgess is expected to play a slot/scat-back role for the Miners this season, similar to the role that Walter Dawn Jr. played. The coaching staff loves what the Tyler JC transfer brings to the team.
Ezell Jolly, a 6-foot, 3-star prospect from Ridge Point High School (Missouri City, TX) is progressing nicely in the running back group. Even though he's prime for a redshirt, the coaching staff is expected to let him play in his four games allotted without burning the year of eligibility.
"I love it," Dimel chuckled when talking about the running back group. "I want to run everyone we have."
- LG Justin Mayers
- LT Steven Hubbard
- C Andrew Meyer
- RG Elijah Klein
- RT Zuri Henry
- Projected backups: Aluma Nkele, Otis Pitts III & Sedrick Luke
This is arguably the strongpoint of the offense this season, which is a great thing for UTEP. The offensive line is a veteran-led group and is ready to take the experience to another level.
Linemen like Elijah Klein and Zuri Henry are rare sixth-year players on the offensive line, who both played in the first year when Dimel arrived at UTEP in 2018. Center Andrew Meyer has 31 starts at center. Both Justin Mayers and Steven Hubbard have earned their starting roles. Bottom line, this is a strong position group that is starting to get deeper with their second and third string linemen.
“It’s the way these guys lead," Dimel said about the starters of the o-line. "The way they work and the way they bring people up around them. We lost Jeremiah Byers and Robert Mervin, but we got everyone else so much better."
- Starter: Zach Fryar
- Backups: Judah Ezinwa, Marcus Vinson
Last year, Zach Fryar played in nine games and caught a pair of passes as he played a backup role to starting tight end Trent Thompson. Still, Dimel is assured of Fryar as a possible difference maker in this offense. Beyond Fryar, they can use newcomers Judah Ezinwa and Marcus Vinson.
“I’m adamant that Trent Thompson and Zach Fryar are two of the best run blocking tight ends I’ve ever coached," Dimel proclaimed. "Now it’s time for Zach to step up and take that [Thompson] role. [Fryar] is a really good route runner, can get open in space and brings a receiving element to that position."
- Starter: Julian Lopez
One of the under-the-radar positions that is going to be tough to replace is the fullback position and James Tupou from last year. Dimel is going to turn to a local product that hasn't played much for the Miners.
Chapin grad Julian Lopez is going to be relied upon this season by the Miners to take on an expanded role in the offense as the team's starting fullback. The 6-foot-1 athlete will play all over, similar to another local product that recently graduated from the football program.
“Julian’s become the Rey Flores of our program," Dimel said. "He’s become a great fullback. He covers people up. What’s great about Julian is he can put his hand on the ground and be an offset tight end. Julian’s a rising star in the program with two years of eligibility. Different type of blocker for us.”
- Projected starters: Tyrin Smith, Jeremiah Ballard, Kelly Akharaiyi
- Backups: Marcus Bellon, Kyle McNamara, Emari White, Jostein Clarke, Dre Spriggs
The wide receiver group is still a work in progress going into fall camp for the Miners. Tyrin Smith is back after a second stint in the transfer portal and a cup of coffee with the Texas A&M football team in spring ball. He has a chance to become UTEP's first receiver in program history to record consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Then there's a drop-off in terms of productivity from the receivers. The obvious next man up is Kelly Akharaiyi, who struggles with consistency and finished last season with 21 catches for 275 yards.
Jeremiah Ballard is another name to watch in the wide receiving corps. The Houston product has shown flashes (cough, the Boise State game) and now has an opportunity to earn more playing time this season.
Beyond Akharaiyi and Ballard, we could see a mix of receivers on the field for UTEP. Players like Marcus Bellon, Kyle McNamara and Emari White have impressed the coaching staff. Newcomers like Dre Spriggs (UTSA transfer) are progressing through the system and learning the offense.
- Starters: Keenan Stewart & Tevita Tafuna
- Backups: Kadarion Johnson, Sione Tonga'uiha, Logologo Va'a, Jalen Rudolph
- Starters: Praise Amaewhule & Maurice "Mo" Westmoreland
- Backups: Kenius Vaughn, Bryton Thompson
There's no secret, UTEP is especially proud of how stacked their defense line appears on paper.
They return All CUSA talent like Praise Amaewhule and Keenan Stewart, who have been strongpoints of the entire defense over the past two seasons.
"Praise had the best spring he’s ever had," Dimel said. "We put two of our best offensive linemen against him in the spring and he beat both of them. He understands what he needs to accomplish. Iron sharpens iron."
Tevita Tafuna is back from his injury in 2022 and expects to help anchor the interior of the defensive line alongside Stewart. Fellow Kilgore transfer Maurice Westmoreland will take over Jadrian Taylor's role as the edge rusher opposite of Amaewhule.
Then, there's the depth that the defensive line flexes. Between returning players, such as Jalen Rudolph and Bryton Thompson, and newcomers like Kadarion Johnson and Kenius Vaughn, the defensive line is loaded with talent.
- Starters: Tyrice Knight, James Neal or Jerome Wilson
- Backups: Kenny Byrd, Josh Phillips
Last offseason across CUSA, North Texas received a lot of praise for retaining their star linebacker in KD Davis, who hit the transfer portal and elected to stay with the Mean Green for his final season of college football.
This offseason, All Conference linebacker Tyrice Knight could've gone anywhere in the country had he hit the transfer portal. As a Florida native, he could've easily joined a program closer to home at the Power 5 level. Yet, he decided to stay for his final year of eligibility and will anchor the entire defense in 2023.
Knight has either been first or second on the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons.
"I don’t know if there’s a more special person than Tyrice Knight," Dimel said. "Him and Kobe Hylton have been playing at a pace that is hard to match. Tyrice is a great leader, consistent, always in a positive mindset and has brought guys along."
Alongside Knight, James Neal has stepped up within the linebacker corps and expects to play a bigger role this year. Jerome Wilson is also back from the season-ending injury he suffered in 2022 and has a chance to be an impact player in the linebacker corps.
- Starters: Torey Richardson or Latrez Shelton & AJ Odums
- Backups: Amier Boyd-Matthews, Atiq Muhammad
- Starter: Josiah Allen or Ilijah Johnson
- Starters: Kobe Hylton & McKel Broussard
- Backups: John Burris III, Lance Russell and Oscar Moore
Shoring up the defensive backfield was a priority for the Miners in the offseason and they did an admirable job of adding depth to each position in the defensive backfield.
Torey Richardson is back from the injury that kept him off the field in 2022 and will jump immediately into a starting role. New Mexico transfer AJ Odums is another standout player to watch out for among the corners. Latrez Shelton brings experience to the cornerbacks, along with Amier Boyd-Matthews who has played in big games for the Miner secondary.
Junior Josiah Allen will transition from a cornerback role into a nickelback spot on the team, replacing Dennis Barnes upon graduation. He will share playing time with Ilijah Johnson, who's grown up within the program and is entering his redshirt sophomore year.
After putting his work in the program, McKel Broussard expects to take a starting role as the weak safety on the defense. The redshirt junior has appeared in 30 games for the Miners over three seasons, both on defense and on special teams.
Finally, the star of the secondary in Kobe Hylton returns to the team following a stellar junior campaign. He was an All CUSA honorable mention in 2022 after racking up 91 tackles and 10.0 tackles for losses.
- Kicker: Buzz Flabiano, Mark Ramos or Julian Melucci
- Punter: Josh Sloan
- Kick/Punt Returner: Marcus Bellon
Newness is the word to describe the kicking position for UTEP. Upon Gavin Baechle's graduation as the program's all-time leader in field goals made, the Miners will have to hit the reset button at the kicker position.
They will take a kicker-by-committee approach going into 2023. Buzz Flabiano might get the early season opportunities. He has the distance, just needs to sharpen the accuracy. Andress graduate Mark Ramos is right behind Flabiano in terms of production and opportunities. He could just as easily steal the starting role and run with it this year. Freshman newcomer and Eastlake graduate Julian Melucci could get opportunities if the Miners face inconsistencies in the kicking role.
The team won't have to worry about the punting, though, as they return All CUSA punter Josh Sloan. The Australian native ranked 19th in FBS for his punting average (44.0).
UTEP expects to use Marcus Bellon as its returner on special teams. He contributed with a punt return for a touchdown last season.
Offensive MVP: Deion Hankins
Defensive MVP: Tyrice Knight
Newcomer of the year: Maurice "Mo" Westmoreland
Regular season record: 6-6
Bowl game: Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 21) UTEP vs. Florida Atlantic