UTEP Football Must Integrate Redshirts in Final Four Games
Coming off their most recent 52-26 loss to North Texas, UTEP football (1-7, 0-5 C-USA) is in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and sits with the bottom teams in Conference USA with four games remaining on their season.
But for second-year head coach Dana Dimel and his staff, these next few weeks could become essential for building the future of the program.
The Miners will host Charlotte on Saturday, followed by back-to-back road games against UAB (Nov. 16) and NMSU (Nov. 23) and will end the season at home against Rice (Nov. 30).
In the second season of a complete program rebuild, Dimel made it clear that the team will preserve a number of players as redshirts this season. Per the NCAA redshirt rules, players are allowed to play in four games without losing a season of eligibility.
So with four games left, it will be interesting to see where Dimel sprinkles in the young talent. Moreover, it will be equally intriguing if these younger players can make a significant impact on the field to possibly spring-board some momentum to 2020.
Other possible redshirt names to watch include defensive back McKel Broussard, offensive lineman Jeremiah Byers, quarterback TJ Goodwin, running back Jalen Joseph (Andress High School), offensive lineman Cameron Cooper, defensive back Carrington Mitchell, wideout Skyler Newsome, defensive tackle Jalen Rudolph, wide receiver Quinatvius Workman (Chapin High School), defensive back Ray Walters, linebacker Jerome Wilson Jr. and defensive back Tyson Wilson.
So there's a good pool of players that the Miners can start looking to integrate on the field.
On the outside, the simple solution to this suggests that the program needs to play the redshirts because the team is eliminated from bowl contention, is near the bottom of FBS in offensive and defensive categories and lost seven straight by a scoring margin of -17.4.
For Dimel though, he is torn between playing the redshirts a significant amount of time and playing his current active players, who he believes still gives UTEP the best opportunity to win.
"We don't want to do anything that jeopardizes a point to win football games," Dimel said. "You don't want to ever do that just because you're building for momentum moving into next season. The big thing we are trying to learn to do right now is how to win games, so we can't break any momentum for that."
So it's a double-edged sword for the coaching staff. Dammed if you do, dammed if you don't.
In the past, Dimel has mentioned special teams as a unit where the newcomers could see the field in the last four games. Still, fans would probably like to see an integration on offense or defense to get excited about the future.
"[Playing minutes] is huge. They're gigantic because what you're seeing in our football team right now is there isn't a whole lot of players that have a ton of starts right now," Dimel explained. "Last year we had Nik [Needham] and Kalon [Beverly] and guys that had started a lot of games. What we're struggling with is we are gaining experience each Saturday because we don't have a lot of experience under our belt."
Dimel is stuck in a difficult spot. If he plays redshirt players in place of the guy that earned his starting spot, what message is that sending to the players moving forward? But if he refuses to try to put these redshirt players in, how will they get playing experience to prepare them for next fall?
In order for Dimel to play Hardison, there will have to be something that makes the coaching staff inclined to pull senior Kai Locksley from the game and put in Hardison. Brandon Jones is still out with a bad concussion but he could return in a couple of weeks. The idea that Hardison will play a significant amount right off the bat seems pretty unpromising.
"I don't want to get him in there and cost us a football game," Dimel explained. "I want to get him in there and get him better. But I don't necessarily want to put him in there and make critical errors because he's young. He'll be better because of it. I'm going to keep evaluating how he progresses. He continues to get better every week because he's getting the reps that it takes because Brandon is out.
"Maybe Saturday I feel comfortable that he can play and help us win a football game. Maybe it will get to that."
As far as Hankins goes, El Pasoans might see the running back be eased in on special teams and then maybe get some snaps in the offense. Putting him in will also be difficult since senior Treyvon Hughes might be UTEP's best player on offense, while backup Josh Fields also provides some quality depth at running back. The initial idea could be that Hankins could take some snaps at tailback away from Reynaldo Flores, the third-string speedy back.
"We will get Deion in," Dimel said. "Games are dynamic and you can never tell a player he will play because something might happen. The chances of Deion playing this week are really high."
It's up to the coaching staff to really balance the minutes between the starters and the redshirts. Even though they don't necessarily want to "jeopardize" a win, investing in the future of the program must be a priority for this coaching staff.
UTEP will enter its final four-game stretch this Saturday against Charlotte with the kickoff slated for 1 p.m.