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SportUTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!

01:15  21 february  2019
01:15  21 february  2019 Source:   sbnation.com

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UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images Dana Dimel

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

When UTEP head coach Mike Price retired after the 2012 season, former Miners offensive lineman Sean Kugler came to town with knowledge of what he was getting into. He had a “build in the trenches and out-tough everyone” plan, but he couldn’t attract either the talent or the assistant coaches and went 18-36.

Five years after starting over, UTEP started over again. It took a while to find a Kugler replacement, but Dana Dimel, one-time wunderkind, decided he wanted a second shot, no matter the risk.

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Hired by Wyoming at age 34 after two successful seasons as Bill Snyder’s Kansas State offensive coordinator, Dimel had won 22 games in three seasons in Laramie, good enough to earn him the Houston job ... where he won just eight in three. Cast to the trash heap, he ended up back with Snyder in Manhattan. Still only in his mid-50s, he found an opportunity to lead an FBS team once more.

As with Kugler, you can see what Dimel wants to do. He and Snyder evolved (devolved?) from a more pass-heavy attack in the mid-1990s to physicality and zone reads. At its best, the offense combines power with the ability to spread defenders out — despite the Wildcats’ QB-run-heavy approach, they routinely led the nation in the number of solo tackles they forced defenders to make.

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Defensively, KSU played soft and structured on standard downs, waiting for opponents to make a mistake, then trying to finish them off once leveraged behind schedule.

Despite recruiting at a lower level than most of their Big 12 peers, the Wildcats won eight or more games six times in seven seasons in the 2010s. This approach can work.

But we don’t yet know whether it will work in El Paso. UTEP did go just 1-11 in Dimel’s first season. But the Miners appeared to be getting somewhere before they ran out of steam.

  • First 5 games (0-5): Avg. score: Opp 33, UTEP 15 | Avg. percentile performance: 12% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: +0.6 points per game
  • Next 4 games (1-3): Avg. score: Opp 26, UTEP 21 | Avg. percentile performance: 51% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: +12.2 points per game
  • Last 3 games (0-3): Avg. score: Opp 42, UTEP 18 | Avg. percentile performance: 9% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: -11.9 points per game

The middle third of the season wasn’t impressive, exactly, but it was intriguing. After they got dominated by FCS’ Northern Arizona, it was a clear step forward to see them losing by only a combined 10 to North Texas and Louisiana Tech. After a 19-0 loss to eventual Conference USA champ UAB, they outlasted UAB, 34-26, to end a 20-game losing streak.

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Granted, they sort of mailed it in after that. That’ll happen sometimes. But for a brief time, playing this team wasn’t very much fun.

Unfortunately, Dimel was fielding a team pretty heavy on seniors. There is quite a bit of continuity in the offensive backfield, but he has to break in an almost entirely new receiving corps and about seven new defensive starters.

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Provided by Vox Media, Inc.

Offense

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Provided by Vox Media, Inc.

Yearlong statistics aren’t going to tell us much, as UTEP’s offense was desolate for much of 2018. They averaged under five yards per play six times, under 3.5 four times.

But let’s focus on their decent performances. They scored 24 points on both North Texas and Louisiana Tech, then put up 34 on Rice and 32 on MTSU. This was the closest thing we got to a glimpse of a happy future.

What were the Miners accomplishing? They were figuring out diverse ways to move the ball on standard downs. (Passing downs weren’t a success, even during this run.)

They had to play three different quarterbacks during this span, as Kai Locksley missed time with an ankle injury and Ryan Metz battled a concussion. Against UNT and LT, though, this grab bag went 19-for-32 for 334 yards (17.6 per completion) on standard downs — they were leaning heavily enough into their run tendencies to find go route opportunities downfield in run situations.

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Against Rice and MTSU, they simply ran the ball well; backs Quardraiz Wadley and Treyvon Hughes combined for 52 carries and 285 yards (5.5 per carry) in those games even though the pass didn’t really work.

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images UTEP v Rice
Quardraiz Wadley

So that’s the vision of Dimel’s and veteran coordinator Mike Canales’ offense: run a lot on standard downs (64 percent of the time, 30th in FBS) and play off of every potential counter — run the QBs a lot if it’s working, run the RBs a lot if it’s working, go deep to keep defenses honest. It’s not the most creative vision, but it can work.

There’s strong continuity for run game personnel, at least. Locksley and Brandon Jones are scheduled to return; Locksley is the better runner (5.3 yards per non-sack carry to Jones’ 3.9), but Jones found the most vertical passing success (16 yards per completion to 11.3). Dimel also inked lanky (6’5, 200) three-star freshman TJ Goodwin of Houston Cy Falls as part of what the El Paso Times called “easily UTEP’s top class in almost a decade.”

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images UTEP v Tennessee
Kai Locksley

Wadley and Hughes are seniors as well. Wadley was easily the more explosive back of the two, but he fumbled five times, and Hughes gained at least four yards on a higher percentage of his carries (47 percent to 46). Perhaps the most intriguing back, however, hasn’t taken a snap yet.

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Dimel signed mid-three-star freshman Deion Hankins from nearby El Paso Parkland. The 6’0, 212-pound Hankins rushed for 2,240 yards last season and claimed offers from schools like Arkansas and Oklahoma State. His Hudl film shows a back with good vision, a quick first step, and some girth, if not top-end speed.

This pretty good trio of backs might have a good line. Guard Bobby DeHaro earned honorable mention all-conference honors as a freshman, big seniors Ruben Guerra and Markos Lujan have combined for 26 career starts, and four other young returnees started at least one game last year.

UTEP might have the pieces to lean into its run-first identity. The Miners will have to, however, because there’s no reason to think the passing game will be more consistent.

Locksley and Jones both completed under 50 percent of their passes, and that was before they lost four of last year’s top five targets. The receiver position is extremely green, but if you’re hunting for positive spin, there’s this: the returnees are fast. Foster (17.4 yards per catch) is back, as are slot men Walter Dawn Jr. (13 per catch over parts of three seasons) and Tre’Shon Wolf (14.4 as a freshman). They are all-or-nothing guys, but so are their QBs.

Any hope for consistency might come from the tight ends. UTEP’s were up-the-seam threats, catching 28 of 49 passes for 475 yards (17.0 per catch), but they are gone, so Dimel signed a pair of JUCOs (Luke Laufenberg and Rashad Beecham) to fill the void.

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Provided by Vox Media, Inc.

Defense

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Provided by Vox Media, Inc.

The UTEP defense was easily the steadier unit. It played more than four decent games and ranked 111th in Def. S&P+ — not good, but better than the offense (127th). Unfortunately, it was extremely senior-heavy: three of last year’s top five linemen, the top two linebackers, and the top three defensive backs are all gone. Dimel signed five JUCO defenders to stem the tide, but coordinator Mike Cox, also a former Kansas State assistant, might have his work cut out for him just matching last year’s numbers.

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The secondary should come around first. UTEP was aggressive in pass defense, ranking 68th in passing marginal efficiency and 52nd on passing downs. But while safety Kahani Smith and both starting corners are gone, there is still a solid corps with veteran safeties Justin Rogers and Michael Lewis (combined: 3.5 tackles for loss, 11 passes defensed) and corner Josh Caldwell.

At least one of three JUCO cornerbacks, preferably two, will need to contribute quickly, and depth is an obvious issue, but there’s some stability back there.

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Tennessee
Michael Lewis

Up front, the Miners at least have Denzel Chukwukelu for one more season. The 290-pounder from Rockwall stepped up in 2018, recording 6.5 TFLs and 11.5 run stuffs. But he’ll have mostly new dance partners around him as newcomers attempt to pass veteran backups on the depth chart.

Dimel got solid production out of since-departed linebackers A.J. Hotchkins and Jamar Smith and will replace them with some combination of JUCOs (Joe Jay Smith, DJ Turner), the aforementioned veterans (Dylan Parsee, Stephen Forester, Kalaii Griffin) and youth (sophomore Sione Tupou, mid-three-star freshman Jerome Wilson).

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Oklahoma
Dylan Parsee

Up front, you’ve got Chukwukelu and fellow senior Chris Richardson at tackle, but end is an almost total unknown. Junior Christian Johnson and redshirt freshman Praise Amaewhule combined for three tackles last year; they’re your returning leaders. The Miners had a pretty good pass rush in blitz situations in 2018, but most of the players responsible for those sacks are gone.

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Provided by Vox Media, Inc.

Special Teams

Outside of place-kicking, UTEP had a respectable unit. Unfortunately, place-kicking is kind of important. Then-senior Jason Filley went just 1-for-5 on field goals outside of 40 yards, and for a team that needed to coax points out of even the most tenuous scoring chances, that was costly. Sophomore-to-be Gavin Baechle showed a strong leg on kickoffs, so maybe that improves.

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Often-used punter Mitchell Crawford kicked balls high and unreturnable, which resulted in a poor average (39.8 yards per kick) but a decent net (37.4).

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Houston Baptist NR 13.4 78%
7-Sep at Texas Tech 55 -35.8 2%
21-Sep Nevada 83 -24.1 8%
28-Sep at Southern Miss 74 -31.0 4%
5-Oct UTSA 128 -4.3 40%
19-Oct at Florida International 88 -27.7 5%
26-Oct Louisiana Tech 86 -23.6 9%
2-Nov at North Texas 84 -29.0 5%
9-Nov Charlotte 120 -8.2 32%
16-Nov at UAB 106 -21.2 11%
23-Nov at New Mexico State 121 -13.1 22%
30-Nov Rice 126 -6.0 36%
Projected S&P+ Rk 130
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 130 / 124
Projected wins 2.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -20.3 (129)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 124
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -17 / -6.5
2018 TO Luck/Game -4.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 46% (58%, 35%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 3.2 (-2.2)

I tried to focus on the high points, but the low points were low enough to rank UTEP 130th, dead last, in S&P+ in 2018. And while the offense is projected to improve with decent returning production, the defense is projected to take an equal step backwards. The result: a projection of 130th again.

Honestly, I would expect something a little bit higher than that. UTEP still doesn’t have the depth to carry a high performance for 12 games, but the Miners should take last year’s four-game sample of solid play and make it more like six or eight. The run game should be sound, the passing game should produce random explosions, and newcomers should help to create an at least decent pass defense, even if the run defense and pass rush are bad.

There are some potential wins on the table. Four of UTEP’s six home games come against teams projected 120th or worse in FBS; if the Miners are merely a top-115 team or so, they could easily end up with three to five wins, a definable accomplishment for a team that’s won once in two years.

Really, though, 2019 is about continuing to build. Provide a little bit more proof of concept, hope that some of your 2019 signees break in, and give them room to grow.

Dimel’s energetic recruiting gave UTEP fans reasons for hope. But it’s going to take at least one more season before there’s reason to raise the bar.

UTEP football might (eventually) not be hopeless!© Provided by Vox Media, Inc.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.

Read More

CFN 2019 Future Win Total Projections For All 130 Teams: Spring Version.
As spring football is rolling, where should the win total be set by Las Vegas for every college football team for now?

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