UTEP vs. Tennessee Football Gameday Preview
Saturday the Miners (0-2) will head to Knoxville to play in front of almost 100,000 fans in SEC country, as they take on Tennessee (1-1).
The Miners sit 1-9 overall against SEC opponents, seeing their last win come in the 1967 Sun Bowl when they beat Ole Miss 14-7. They are winless (0-9) against SEC teams on the road, most recently falling 48-13 to Arkansas in 2015.
“They’ve got lots of good players, lots of talented athletes and some talented position players and skill players on both sides of the ball. So it will definitely be a fun challenge for us,” said first-year head coach Dana Dimel. “For us it’s just going in there, playing good sound football, playing aggressively and then fixing things that have been needed to be fixed in the first couple of weeks.
“So that’s the project that we have ahead of us. The guys are focused on the task. They see our conference and the opportunities there for us to continue to get better and to be very competitive in our conference.”
At the helm of the Miners’ offense, JUCO transfer quarterback Kai Locksley was named the team’s true starter last week against UNLV and will make his second career start against the Volunteers on Saturday.
Locksley found his niche on the ground against UNLV, where he rushed for a team-high 119 yards and had two touchdowns. His 119 yards were the most by a UTEP quarterback since Shawn Gray had 141 yards against Fresno State on Nov. 12, 1994. He’s one of five quarterbacks in program history to cross the 100-yard mark.
Against the Volunteers, Dimel isn’t worried about his quarterback continuing to make plays on his feet.
“I’m not afraid of it,” he said. “We’re liking him on the edge. He did take some hits, but he did make some good decisions.”
Also on the ground, junior running back Quadraiz Wadley has been racking up numbers in such short amounts of carries. He rushed for 96 yards on just seven carries (13.7 ypc) against UNLV.
“I think obviously when a guy is averaging that kind of yards per carry you want to get him the ball more, you want to get him touches,” Dimel said. “That’s important. We’ve got some good players on our offense that we’ve got to get some more touches.”
The offensive line made a drastic improvement from week one to two. Junior Markos Lujan shifted over as the Miners’ center, while junior Ruben Guerra slid over to the right guard spot. The team had to adjust in week one knowing that senior center Derron Gatewood and starting guard Greg Long would be out for the season due to injuries.
The receiving core, however, is where the Miners need some help in. UTEP is ranked as the worst team in the nation in passing efficiency. No receiver has more than five catches this season and Warren Redix is leading the way among all targets, totaling five catches in two games for 57 yards. Only three receivers, including Redix, have three or more catches as well.
“Our passing game needs improvement; just our execution of our route running for receivers to get open,” Dimel said.
Defensively, the Miners have been seeing some dominant tackling by Oregon transfer AJ Hotchkins, who leads the team with 21 total tackles, including a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.
As a unit, the defense seeks improvement in stopping the Tennessee run. UTEP allowed UNLV to gain 414 yards on the ground, which essentially lost them the game.
“Mostly just fit in the run and having good run fits and being sound defending the run game is something that we’ll get better at,” Dimel said. “I have a lot of confidence that we’ll get that fix. I think our defense will rise up now, take that challenge and move forward in a very positive direction.”
Scouting the Volunteers
Tennessee is led by first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, who is a disciple of Alabama head coach Nick Saban. They are coming off a 59-3 win over East Tennessee State last week, and saw a week one loss to West Virginia, 40-14.
Offensively, sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is at the helm of the team, after starting off with 326 yards through the air in his first two games. The Vols have a pair of receivers in junior Marquez Callaway and sophomore Jordan Murphy that combine for 225 yards of receiving.
Their ground game is led by sophomore back Tim Jordan and freshman Jeremy Banks, who have totaled 183 and 73 on the ground this year, respectively.
They are tough in stopping the run, as junior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. leads the team with 14 tackles and defensive lineman Emmit Gooden has three tackles for losses already.
The turnover margin in this game will be key for both teams. Through the first two weeks, Tennessee has looked disciplined with the ball, while the Miners have coughed up the ball consistently.
UTEP’s -5 turnover margin ranks 126 of 128 in the nation. They’ve totaled six turnovers in two games, while the Vols have not turned the ball over once this year (+4 turnover margin).
Here’s what Dimel said about the Volunteers:
“Very athletic defensively. They’ve got good depth defensively, they’ve played quite a few guys. They’re real sound in what they do. Coach Pruitt comes from being with Coach Saban a lot through his career. He understands defensive schemes and what they do. They have a good ability to put a good pass rush on you. They rely mainly on their man coverage schemes to cover people up. That’ll be how they match up against our receivers. Offensively, they’ve got a really talented, athletic quarterback. They’ve got good speed at wide receiver. They’ve got SEC backs; they’ve got some big backs that can run hard and are physical. They’ve got a young, improving offensive line that made some strides from week one to week two.”
Kickoff between the two is slated for 10 a.m. and will be televised on SEC Network.