UTEP Football Not an Easy Fix for 2019
The 2018 UTEP football season came to an end late Saturday afternoon in the Sun Bowl. The Miners lost their 11th game by a final score of 39-7 to Southern Miss. Head coach Dana Dimel was able to end the school's record 20 game losing streak earlier this month to Rice. However, UTEP came out flat in their last three games. Coach Dimel will only have 11 scholarships to fill for next season. The Miners had a lot of things go wrong for them over the last three months. This is what needs to happen in 2019 if UTEP will have a chance to turn around their football program.
1. Stay Healthy. The 2018 Miners resembled a M.A.S.H. unit as 28 players on their 2-deep were injured during the season. The entire starting offensive line went down and the team was down to their third string quarterback. They also lost three starting defensive linemen at some point of the season. The program replaced longtime strength and conditioning coach Kirk Davis with Kansas State's Kevin Schadt, but the change did not help the team stay healthy. Coach Dimel remarked on more than one occasion that he had never had so many players get hurt over the course of a football season. Welcome to UTEP.
2. Bring in play makers. Despite all of the injuries, the Miners lacked big plays from their offense. They had no deep threats for their passing game and they hardly took any shots downfield. El Pasoan Warren Redix was their most consistent possession receiver, but the senior only caught 36 passes for 442 yards and no touchdowns. That was good enough to lead the team in receptions and yards. Fellow seniors Terry Juniel, David Lucero, and Erik Brown combined for 53 receptions, 804 yards, and seven touchdowns. If this team is going to be able to win games in 2019, they need to find one or two receivers who can consistently get open and catch the football.
3. Add an experienced quarterback to the mix. When healthy, Kai Locksley brought an exciting element of speed to the quarterback position. However, he was battling an ankle injury for most of the season. Locksley did not throw the ball much downfield in 2018, completing 49-percent of his passes for 937 yards, three touchdowns, and nine interceptions. He did have 495 rushing yards and six scores on the ground this season. Locksley is the most dynamic rushing quarterback the Miners have ever had, but plenty of questions remain about his passing game. Ryan Metz graduated and was forced to retire due to multiple concussions and junior Brandon Jones was mostly inconsistent in his six games under center. If Coach Dimel can find an experienced quarterback from a Power 5 school to transfer to UTEP, the team will be in better shape for next season.
4. Find more gems like A.J. Hotchkins. The Miners hit the jackpot with the graduate transfer from Oregon. Hotchkins led the team with 126 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, and seven quarterback sacks. At Oregon, he only started six games and totaled 42 tackles. As we all know, Conference USA is not the Pac-12 and a player like Hotchkins can shine at UTEP, where he is given an opportunity to play and show off his ability. Now, the coaching staff needs to uncover players like Hotchkins at every key position. Even though it might be for just one season, guys like that can make a huge difference for a team trying to turn their program around.
5. Rebuild the defense. Despite a 1-11 record, I thought the Miners defense played well this season under Mike Cox. They finished 9th out of 14 teams in C-USA, but their defense kept them in most games. They excelled in pass defense, finishing fifth in the conference. The downside is that they lose starters Jumar Smith, Nik Needham, Kalon Beverly, Kahani Smith, and Hotchkins to graduation. The team will need to find quality replacements at linebacker and defensive back in order to stay competitive next season.
6. Recruit impact players at every key position for 2019. If you take a close look at the UTEP roster, it is obvious now that the team was depleted in talent across the board from the prior coaching staff. After the game against Southern Miss, Coach Dimel remarked that he will only have 11 scholarships to fill on February 6th, and three of them have already been taken by verbal commitments. That leaves only eight remaining scholarships unless players choose to transfer. UTEP will concentrate on landing junior college talent and Division 1 transfers for National Signing Day. The program cannot afford to whiff on any of the players they bring in for next season.
Having spent a weekend at Camp Ruidoso with my family prior to the start of the 2018 season, I love the UTEP football coaching staff and players. They are the kind of people you root for to turn things around. Judging from their overall record and fan attendance at the Sun Bowl, they have their work cut out for them.