Since Scotty Walden was hired in December to replace former coach Dana Dimel as the coach at UTEP, he's delivered on almost all of his goals.

He promised improvement in recruiting. The new coaching staff put together the No. 1 team recruiting ranking for the class of 2024, per 247 Sports and Rivals, across Conference USA.

He set a goal to set the tone for the fan base at the annual spring game. The game proved to have as many fireworks as one was promised, featuring alumni/NFL coaches (Quintin Demps and Will Hernandez), halftime games, and a competitive matchup on both sides—all in a WWE-like atmosphere at the Sun Bowl.

He maintains a promise that the offense will snap the ball every 12 seconds. In the fast-paced spring game, the "Blue Blaze"—Walden's term for the offense—totaled 537 yards in the spring game and flexed the speed of play calls.

The approach is a 180-degree flip for the UTEP football program. The Miners couldn't get over the losing hump under previous coach Dana Dimel, who was fired in late November last year after six seasons and a 20-49 record. With a bottom-15 strength of schedule in 2023, the Miners lost too many matchups early in the season, were injury-riddled by the midway point and averaged just 19.9 points per game (119th in FBS).

Walden's promise to change the culture of the program is in motion.

Now the million dollar question(s)—Can he deliver on the promise? As someone who has covered the team for almost a decade now, I recognize that this is a historically bad program. UTEP hasn't won a bowl game since 1967. However, I agree that UTEP is a "sleeping giant," backed by a passionate fan base that cares. This new regime has an opportunity to do something that hasn't been done since the likes of Mike Price in the mid-2000s, Bob Stull in the 80s or even Bobby Dobbs in the late 60s: win.

What do we expect for year one? With the significant roster turnover over the offseason—around 40 returning players from the 2023 roster and about eight total projected starters back—it will take time for the coaching staff to truly feel comfortable with their depth chart. Plus, the schedule is not necessarily favorable to UTEP. They have three of their first four games on the road in September, followed by the odd weeknight October games.

"Why not us?" Walden expressed and continues to say amid the perceived challenges.

Only time will tell to see what this regime can accomplish.


(S) Aug. 311:30 PM at NebraskaFOX
(S) Sept. 7 7:00 PM Southern UtahESPN+
(S) Sept. 144:00 PMat Liberty*ESPN+
(S) Sept. 21TBAat Colorado StateTBA
(Th) Oct. 37:00 PMSam Houston*CBSSN
(Th) Oct. 106:00 PMat WKU*ESPNU
(W) Oct. 167:00 PMFIU*CBSSN
(Tu) Oct. 226:00 PMat LA Tech*CBSSN
(S) Nov. 21:30 PMMiddle Tennessee*CBSSN
(S) Nov. 9 2:00 PMKennesaw State*ESPN Platforms
(S) Nov. 23TBAat TennesseeTBA
(S) Nov. 302:00 PMat NM StateESPN Platforms

*CUSA Contest
BOLD – Home Game

Photo by Zay Galindo
Photo by Zay Galindo

Previewing the Offense: "Blue Blaze"

Up-tempo snaps. Quick play calls and a run-first approach. These are a few of the things that one will notice when watching the new Miner offense. However, there will be a lot of work to put in by the unit ahead of the season's kick-off to finalize the depth chart.

The competition to watch will be at the quarterback position, as returner Cade McConnell and Austin Peay transfer Skyler Locklear will continue to battle for the starting job in fall camp, per Walden. McConnell started six games in relief last season for the Miners, finishing with 1,437 yards, six touchdowns and a 2-4 record. Locklear has limited playing experience but brings a dual-threat style to the position, while McConnell is more of a pro-style/pocket passer.

Whoever ends up as the signal caller will have their share of weapons to use in the offense, especially receivers. Newcomers Trey Goodman, Kenny Odum, Kam Thomas and Jaden Smith each offer unique traits that can make them immediate contributors. Returners Emari White, Judah Ezinwa and Javoni Gardere are all back and each should have an expanded role in the passing game this season compared to last year.

Early into the season, the offense could go through Austin Peay transfer Jevon Jackson, a stout running back who rushed for 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns as an FCS Second Team All-American in 2023. Supporting him in the ground game could include running backs like Ezell Jolly, who was a standout in high school at Fort Bend Ridge Point, Daryon Triche and Marquez Taylor. The new position, "Miner back," could see players, like Thomas, take carries for the offense in a hybrid receiver/back role.

My biggest concern for the unit comes at the offensive line. With only one starter returning to the mix (Otis Pitts III), UTEP will need to rely on newcomers like Austin Peay transfers Brennan Smith and Isiah Wright. Returning players like Ivan Escobar, Jaquan Toney and Joseph Immediato will help in the adjustment period. However, I'm also curious to see how the two-deep is at the offensive line, knowing they will need as much depth as possible with an offense that moves as quickly as UTEP hopes to.

Offensive MVP: Jevon Jackson

Breakout players: Jaden Smith/Ezell Jolly 

X-Factor: Kam Thomas

Photo by Zay Galindo
Photo by Zay Galindo

First Look at the Defense: "Orange Swarm"

The defense should serve as a strong point for the Miners. Under new co-defensive coordinators J.J. Clark (Austin Peay) and Kelvin Sigler (Jax State), the unit will run a 3-3-5 stack scheme.

Anchoring the defense is UTEP's not-so-secret NFL prospect Maurice Westmoreland, who is a Kilgore College product and served as a first-team All-CUSA selection in 2023. He led UTEP with 7.5 sacks in 2023, along with 37 tackles (24 solo) and 10.5 tackles for loss.

The defensive line is where UTEP is its strongest. Defensive tackles Logologo Va’a, Sione Tonga’uiha and Tevita Tafuna are all monsters on the line. KD Johnson, another Kilgore transfer, has strong potential. Veteran pass rusher/edge Bryton Thompson has played in 15 games over two seasons for the Miners and has another season of eligibility after redshirting in 2023.

Having to replace guys like Tyrice Knight and James Neal—UTEP's top two leading tacklers from 2023, respectively—won't be easy. Gardner-Webb transfer Tray Dunson has high expectations from the coaching staff to support the linebacker group, along with Florida State transfer Dylan Brown-Turner and Tulsa transfer Dorian Hopkins. The coaching staff also loved the spring ball that returning junior Nate Dyman had.

Stellar cornerback AJ Odums, who might be the second-best overall player on the roster behind Westmoreland, is back to serve as the top corner on the team. Also returning from last year's squad includes secondary members like Amier Boyd-Matthews (corner), Oscar Moore (safety) and Josiah Allen (nickel), all of whom should contend for starting roles. Austin Peay transfers Xavier Smith and Kory Chapman will both be contending for playing time in the secondary.

Lumping in the special teams unit here, the Miners will return placekicker Buzz Flabiano, who hit 10-of-14 field goals in 2023 as a redshirt freshman, with a long of 43 yards and 29-of-30 PATs. Upon losing Josh Sloan to the transfer portal, the Miners brought in North Texas punter Adam Jacklin to man the role at UTEP.

Defensive MVP: Mo Westmoreland

Breakout player: KD Johnson 

X-Factor: Oscar Moore 

Way too early predictions

I'm all in on the hype with Walden, the staff and this roster. However, it's a grueling schedule in year one, especially to start things off. I believe that, despite the record, UTEP will play an entertaining brand of football in 2024 that will feel refreshing to fans. Sometimes, their risks and up-tempo offense will help them and energize the fans. At other times, the rapid offense could lead to quick three-and-outs and a tired defense.

If this team can have a nothing-to-lose mentality when playing tougher opponents like Nebraska, Liberty and Colorado State early in the year, they will hang in games. If they let downward momentum deter their confidence, they will be in a similar record situation as last year.

This season can serve as a rebuild and a springboard to 2025. I'm just ready to watch this team in action against another squad.

Record prediction: 4-8 

More From 600 ESPN El Paso