UTEP Football Season Overview: Ups and Downs
A 1-11 finish is nowhere near how the Miners thought this season would go, but through 25-plus injuries that piled up and integrating a new culture in the locker room, growing pains were expected.
Through the good’s and the bad’s, the first year of the Dana Dimel era is in the books and now it’s onto 2019.
But before we get into next season, let’s revisit the ups and downs of 2018.
Up: The “New Era” of UTEP football begins
From uniform releases to hopes of breaking the losing streak, the Miners went into the 2018 season giving fans a lot of hopes for the team.
It was a totally redefined team, starting with two shiny quarterbacks in Ryan Metz and JUCO transfer Kai Locksley. Dimel’s offense, mixed with offensive coordinator Mike Canales, was primarily shotgun—or “about 95 percent” as Dimel claimed it.
Camp Ruidoso came and went, but the team showed a lot of positives and energy leading to the season opener against NAU.
Down: UTEP goes 0-4 in non-conference schedule
Who knew that the highest of highs could swoop so low. Well they did for the Miners after being rolled over by FCS-affiliate Northern Arizona (30-10) and looked about as ill-equipped to win as in 2017’s 0-12 campaign.
It was a disaster at first.
UTEP lost its first four games, two of which seemed expected and two of which that weren’t. After being blown away against UNLV in Las Vegas (52-24) and getting shut out to Tennessee (24-0), the Miners returned home to play NMSU in the battle of the winless. Though the Miners started off shaky, they inched back in the game, but ultimately fell in the end, 27-20.
Up: Miners start inching closer to a win
While the losing streak started to grow in numbers, so did the Miners’ determination to win. They opened up their conference slate where they left off against NMSU and put up some really competitive games under their belt.
UTEP lost its first three C-USA games by nine points or fewer, including close losses to UTSA (30-21), North Texas (27-24) and LA Tech (31-24). Despite being shut out against UAB at home (19-0), UTEP held the Blazers defensively and were without Locksley and Metz for the game.
The team had improved from being among the worst offenses in the nation to putting up admirable numbers on offense. They were inches away from a win and they smelled it coming soon.
Down: The quarterback carousel continued to turn and turn
Going into the season, Metz and Locksley competed to the last day for the starting quarterback job. Sound familiar? For the fourth straight year, the Miners had a quarterback dilemma that would probably not figure itself out during the season.
Metz started off as the quarterback against NAU, but after some costly turnovers, he was pulled. Locksley started against UNLV the next week but was pulled after his mid-game struggles. It went back-and-forth between quarterbacks all the way up to LA Tech, where Metz was having his best game of the season but was forced to leave the game with a concussion. Metz would not return to the team after that.
But next came Locksley’s ankle injuries. He was obviously in pain when he played in the latter part of the year but played through injuries in the UAB, Rice, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky games. He was unable to finish the season at quarterback, barring his injuries, which left the offense in the hands of third-stringer Brandon Jones.
Up: The win at Rice snapped the streak
The Miners snapped their 20-game losing streak in an overall comfortable fashion with a 34-26 win over Rice on the road. It marked the team’s first victory in Houston since the mid-2000s during the Mike Price era. UTEP opened up with a 27-0 lead over the Owls and despite a late comeback, the Miners held on for a win against the Owls.
It was time for the team to rejoice in their first win since the 2016 season. UTEP’s win over Rice came with much celebration and triumph for the team. They were truly at the peak of their season.
Down: The peak crashed...and crashed hard
After the squad built and built on their season to get their first win, their tower of consistency and small successes came tumbling down in their final three games. UTEP was out-scored by Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Southern Miss by a combined score of 125-55.
In their three-game losing streak to finish the season, the Miners turned the ball over on their first passing play during each of the three games. They also threw a combined 10 interceptions during their final three games, including five against Western Kentucky. The Miners finished as the worst team in FBS for their -17 turnover margin on the regular season, averaging almost 1.5 turnovers per game.
"We have to eliminate those things,” Dimel said regarding turnovers after Southern Miss stole four turnovers last Saturday. “We have to be more disciplined in our decision making. You can't turn the ball over.”
"You watch games, anytime you turn the ball over three times in a game your chances of winning minimize so much no matter how good of a football team you have or how much of a favorite or underdog you might be. Turnovers are a difference maker. In the last few games, we did not protect the football like we needed to protect the football."
And as for the reasoning behind the team’s slump, some could argue they got too high off their win against Rice, while others will say it was UTEP’s piling amount of injuries that hurt them the most. Having up to 28 injuries to finish the year, as Dimel said, crippled the team.
“The injuries got just insurmountable for us,” he said. “Guys there’s no other way you can slice it, that’s just part of the game and it was an unfortunate year for us.”
Up: A.J. Hotchkins finishes as co-conference leading tackler
I don’t think El Pasoans truly treasured how special graduate transfer A.J. Hotchkins was for the team in his final season of eligibility. Hotckins finished with 126 total tackles, tied with Florida International's Sage Lewis for the C-USA tackle title.
The last time UTEP had a player lead the league in tackles was Troy Collavo, who finished with 125 in 2006.
"It's a cool deal and I appreciate it," Hotchkins said. "I played with a lot of effort this year. I didn't have a goal set in mind, but that's a cool accomplishment."
Now it’s all training and getting ready for possibly entering the NFL for Hotchkins. Dimel says he’s got a great shot to land on a pro team.
“A.J. played a heck of a year for us and [the team] all loves the passion he put for us,” Dimel said.
Down: 11 scholarships to replace 16 graduating seniors
The Miners will enter the offseason with 11 scholarships to play around with—three of which have been taken by verbal commits. Those three include Parkland running back Deion Hankins, Cy Falls quarterback TJ Goodwin and North Shore wideout Ajani Carter.
The Miners will now play around with eight scholarships, where they hope to address their need for more defensive backs, linebackers and a tight end, according to Dimel.
Expect UTEP to make splashes in the JUCO ranks. They will get a head start on recruiting and will have until mid-February to make up their 2019 signing class.
So for now, Miner fans will have to await national signing day and spring ball. And for the coaching staff, this offseason is about getting healthy and finding ways to win more than just a game next year.
“I believe that the guys learned to compete and do a lot of positive things and close the gap—that’s the feedback I’m getting from other coaches,” Dimel said. “I think the culture has changed and you can see it how the guys are competing and playing.”
The Miners will open their 2019 slate at home against Houston Baptist (Aug. 31) and then take on Texas Tech on the road. Their non-conference schedule will wrap up with games against Nevada at home and NMSU on the road.