UTEP Football: Spring Outlook

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Spring practice gets under way tomorrow, we take a look at the questions, and changes to expect over the next month.

A 2-10 season leaves with you 21-plus questions, and in March very little answers.

Sean Kugler will try to answer of few of those starting tomorrow as Spring Ball gets underway on Glory Road.

Defections, graduation, and scheme fitting were the themes of the off-season so far, though with so many open roles, competition to fill them will start tomorrow.

Turnover at the defensive line, wide receiver, linebacker, and offensive line spots are glaring with holes that guys who have been waiting in the wings will be fighting for a spot to fill them.

Health is another issue that plagued the rough ending to last season.

Jameill Showers, Aaron Jones, and Darrin Laufasa were a productive trio that were clearly missed, though the loss of Jordan Leslie takes on octane level away from an offense that was averaging over 30 points in the first six games.

Defensively, well where to start.

Depth was a huge issue throughout the year at a number of spots, though some players emerged as building blocks, though plenty more are needed.

With the losses of four out of the five main contributors on the defensive front, the question of whose next may not step on campus until early July.

What we did find out is that safety Devin Cockrell is a solid player, and gained huge experience showing he may have a special career, emerging as a leader.

The Miners also found a couple of other talented defensive backs in Dashone Smith who had a pick six against NMSU, and Ish Harrison made a nice transition from receiver to corner.

The 2014 recruiting class will bring some immediate needs, plus help build much needed depth on both fronts of the ball.

Let's take a look at what I think are major points of improvement to build on, and what is ahead.

Offensive Line

The Miners return three interior lineman who all saw significant action last year in Paulo Melendez, Kyle Brown, and Jerel Watkins.  Brown, and Watkins may move to tackle, which would open things up for El Pasoan Derek Elmendorff at guard.  Chris Thomas is a good sized versatile lineman who caught my eye in practice last year on the scout team as a guard, also can't forget about true freshman Christopher Misaalefua, who at 6'6 and 345bills could get a strong look in the fall.

UTEP really struggled with some of the best pass rushers in the conference, being able to keep Showers, and Jones upright is what the coaches will be looking for.

At times the line was solid, though there was a lot of chemistry with Brander Craighead protecting the edge that will have to be re-built with new personnel.

Receivers

Even though UTEP did not throw the ball very much down the stretch of the season, the graduations and loss of experience clearly hurts even though UTEP's receivers weren't really targeted that much.

The Showers to Leslie connection was pretty fun to watch while it lasted, though Ian Hamilton will have to take his game to another level, as Showers has the potential to pick apart a defense with a capable deep threat.

Now enter guys like Malcom Trail, who had all three of his catches of the season against Texas A&M, and Jarrad Shaw who has only seen minimal action in his career.

Brandon Moss who punted some last year could also be another target, and what happens if Eddie Sinegal or Warren Redix have huge Aaron Jones like camps.

Moss is very athletic with great speed, and showed great talent at pass happy Chapin, he will be one to watch throughout spring ball, I wouldn't be surprised if he broke out.

One thing for sure is the use of the tight ends will again be an emphasis in the passing game.  Eric Tomlinson had a solid season last year hauling in 30 balls, but don't be surprised to see Aaron Jones or Autrey Golden flaring out of the backfield more often as well.

Another consistent target that has potential for a break out camp is tight end Katrae Ford.

Ford had a disappointing season last year with injuries, but has the potential to be a nice target in the passing game.

He is a senior this coming year, so that is an added motivation for Ford to emerge and make an impact he is capable of.

Defensive Line

This has to be biggest concern not only on defense, but as a team overall.

UTEP only had 13 total sacks last season, and the lack of pass rush killed any chances of getting off the field when the Miners needed it the most.

Silas Firstley and Nick Usher return after promising freshman seasons in the middle and off the edge, along with junior to be Roy Robertson who showed flashes of greatness at times strictly off the edge, leading the unit with 3.5 sacks.

Alex Villareal was a solid signing for immediate help out the junior college ranks, he will miss the spring while recovering from surgery, but will be a name come the middle of the fall most people will know.

Names like Joey Kraemer, Luke Elsner, and Brian Madunzeium will also be filtered around come fall practices. Those guys bring added speed and toughness to the defensive front.

Bottom line in the 4-2-5 your front seven has to be able to get after it, there could be a new crop of bodies to try to just that for the Miners defensive unit.

Linebackers

Last season, Anthony Puente, and Horace Miller were second and third respectably on the team in solo tackles, in this defensive scheme that has to change.

Miller of course graduated after switching to linebacker from an all-conference defensive end.

Puente returns for his senior year, and had some really solid games in the latter part of the season.

With just two guys holding down the second level, UTEP needs tackle machines to compensate a weak pass rush.

Enter Jimmy Musgrave who could become a starter along side the veteran leader Puente, plus some added depth is also on the way.

I think true freshman Justen Tatum is another fall bloomer who could figure in, Alvin Jones is also moving to linebacker after red shirting last season as a defensive back.

UTEP got some added depth in the recruiting class at defensive back that makes sense to move the athletic Jones to defense, his work at linebacker in the spring depends of course on the basketball tournament run.

In all reality, either one or both linebackers in the mix have to both total 100 overall tackles for the scheme to be effective, far fetch to think, but with only two linebackers both guys have to fly around and cover ground.  Something that was a constant struggle in stopping the run a year ago.

Special Teams

While down the stretch of the season it didn't effect any outcomes on the scoreboard, the kicking game was the worst it had been at UTEP in a while.

Jay Mattox was only 7/15 on the year, and missed a couple of chip shots.

Another area I would like to see improve is in punt returns.

Jim Jones was a very pedestrian returner, he had great hands, but was not a burner or changer like Autrey Golden.

Interesting to see if Golden, or even Aaron Jones are back this year if the Miners can get a third down stop.

Golden is an NFL level kick returner, and should be the one handling punt, giving the Miners another scoring weapon.

Overall Outlook

This is a crucial time for the continued develop in the new power scheme on offense, and defensive scheme.

Unlike last season, UTEP has a spring to further implement the defensive scheme, while Jameill Showers and the offense have a full spring to gel back together.

Kugler has seemed to have figured out the roster situation, and has balanced everything out as far as numbers on both sides of the ball.  And defense made small improvements after the Texas A&M game as well.

Now its time build depth with guys stepping in, and producing in the spring.

The spring will tell us whether the guys in place have improved, or will some quietly talented guys from this years recruiting class step up, and blow everyone away come fall.

Still over six months away, but football is in the air on Glory Road starting tomorrow.

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