Editor's note: 600 ESPN El Paso will be previewing the UTEP football team ahead of fall camp this week. Stay tuned to SportsTalk for exclusive interviews with coaches, players and football personalities ahead of the season's kick-off on Aug. 27. For the season overview, click here. 


As the preseason previews continue, let's talk about the Miner special teams unit going into the 2022 season. Following an up and down 2021, the coaching staff calls the special teams unit to be more consistent and productive.

 

The struggles on special teams last year weren't glaring, but when the issues came, they piled up. Take the UAB loss (42-25) for example. The Miners fell to the Blazers in the final regular season game last year due to three errors on special teams that swayed the game—a blocked punt, fumbled kickoff and missed recovery on the kickoff.

 

Head coach Dana Dimel thinks that by having second-year special teams coordinator Aaron Price in the program for a full offseason, the unit will be much improved. Last spring, Joe Robinson retired as the special teams coordinator for the Miners. Price stepped in late into the offseason and couldn't fully implement his system during the summer and fall of 2021.

"Having him here this spring was really big," Dimel said. "Our special teams was atrocious last year. Having him implement his system not only puts us ahead of the curve, but it allows us to work on fundamentals in fall camp. It wasn't our kicker or punter. It was the execution of our schemes."

Kicking unit returns for 2022 

Kicker Gavin Baechle and punter Josh Sloan are back as returning starters on special teams. Sloan was recently named onto the All C-USA preseason list, averaging 39.5 yards last year with a long of 62. Of Sloan's 64 punts in 2021, 20 landed inside the 20-yard line.

Baechle is entering his senior year and holds a pair of All C-USA honorable mentions (2019 & 2021) under his belt. He made 18-of-24 field goal attempts last season with a long of 50 yards. Prior to missing an extra point against UTSA, he was 65-of-65 on PATs to start his career.

Sophomore Angelo Tejada returns as the team's primary long snapper, while local product Mark Ramos (Andress HS grad) will remain the backup kicker to Baechle.

The two players are consistent and reliable for the Miners. Look to both of these guys to have a solid season, assuming their punting/kicking units hold strong.

Newcomer to watch: Marcus Bellon 

As the Dimel raved about him during signing day, fans will likely get a chance to watch JUCO transfer Marcus Bellon field punts for the squad as their primary returner. The Santa Barbara Community College transfer played both as a receiver and on special teams, finishing last season with 10 total touchdowns with six off returns.

When you watch his highlights, Bellon is fast and can explode when he sees a hole. At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, he's someone that can get real opportunities with the Miners. The coaching staff trusts his abilities and they expect him to play immediately as the team's primary punt returner.

Rey Flores will be the backup for Bellon in the punt return game.

Walter Dawn Jr. is back in the kickoff game 

After missing the majority of 2021 with an injury, senior Walter Dawn Jr. is back with the Miners for one final season and the coaching staff feels strongly about a bounce-back year for him. Dawn Jr. will get an opportunity to field kickoffs for the team alongside a rotating cast of wide receivers in the kickoff return game.

As someone that's been at UTEP since the 2016 season and the longest-tenured player on the team, Dawn Jr. has seen the highs and lows of the program during his time at UTEP. He's been through three different head coaches (Sean Kugler, interim Mike Price and Dimel) and a handful of offensive coordinators. And, according to the coaching staff, the Mesquite, Texas product is motivated to have a productive season this year.

Expect Flores and possibly players like Dennis Barnes, Tyrin Smith or Kelly Akharaiyi to be in the mix for a kickoff return role alongside Dawn Jr.

Special teams MVP: Gavin Baechle 

Bold predictions: 

  • UTEP will block a punt or field goal this year
  • Baechle will break his career-long of a 50-yard field goal
  • Special teams will rank in the top five of C-USA

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