All Football, All Business for the Miners
Gone are movie nights, bowling tournaments, and pool parties. In are film sessions, two-a days and a stroll through the small town of Alpine - if your practice tempo isn't up to par. Change has been the theme of the UTEP Miners football team since Sean Kugler took the reins as UTEP's head man; here are the headlines so far this camp.
This is Kugler's Program
As Mentioned, gone are the fun incentives the Miners were used to under Price, as Sean Kugler seems to be pushing for a more professional, business-like camp feel. The former Miner offensive lineman has instilled a new philosophy for camp which includes a high tempo and more situational football, something that in my opinion had been a weak point on this team especially in third down defense.
Reports out of Alpine showed a rough start to camp as Kugler is showing a no-nonsense attitude cutting a recent workout short due to lack of effort from the squad and making them walk back to their dorms instead of the chartered buses the team uses to move between practices. Kugler has a long road ahead of him in terms of building a consistent winner in the Sun Bowl, but all reports out of Alpine suggest he has this team improving as the practices accumulate.
New Defensive scheme
Scott Stoker, who was once named the Division 1-AA defensive coordinator of the year, brings his years of coaching experience and 4-2-5 scheme to the Sun Bowl. Described by KatFansBlog as a pass rush fiend, Stoker has the rare and huge challenge of not having a spring to install the new defense. The biggest questions on the defense are: do the Miners have enough depth at linebacker, and who will make up the secondary after numerous injuries and the spring and the addition of two JC transfers?
To help answer the first question the Miners moved Horace Miller from defensive end to linebacker. Veterans Anthony Puente and AJ Ropati are the most experienced, with Puente becoming the leader of this group.
Up front the Miners return Marcus Bagley and Germard Reed, arguably the Miners best defensive players from a year ago, and they will be relied upon along with last year's starters at DE James Davidson and Adam Ayala. The new scheme relies heavily on the front 4 stopping the run so having those two big ems have career years in the middle could ease the lack of depth at linebacker.
The one unit on the defense that has some depth is the DB's. Nick Gathrite and Jameel Erving, who are former college teammates at Riverside JC, have made huge impacts and may even be starting alongside free safety Richard Spencer and Wesley Miller. The scheme calls for a three safety look so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Mr. Erving as a starter and making a huge impact as he has turned the heads of coaches and Miner fans while in Alpine. The key for the Miner corners will be to stay healthy. With the return of Traun Roberson and transition of Ish Harrison from wide receiver to cornerback, the Miners just need to find someone to step up and make plays.
Jameill Showers/New Offense
For the first time in nine years the Miners will have a starting fullback. Kugler and Patrick Higgins look to use a two back power running scheme as well as multiple tight end looks and sets. Nathan Jeffery, who wowed Miner fans and the nation last year with his performance against Oklahoma, returns with all signs out of camp pointing to him being the feature back in the new scheme. True Freshman Fullback Darrin Laufasa has drawn huge praise from Kugler and has the fullback spot on lock. Jeffery should benefit by having an extra blocker to clear lanes along with an experienced and veteran offensive line.
Possibly the biggest story out of Minerville in the offseason was the transfer of Jameill Showers. The 6'2 220 lb signal caller who held the clip board for Heisman winner Johnny Manziel last season comes to the Sun City with huge expectations. Showers has looked more and more comfortable with more reps in camp and is becoming the leader we all hoped for when his transfer was announced.
The receiving corps is led by NFL prospect Jordan Leslie who had a team leading 51 catches for 937 yards last year. However, outside of Leslie its seems to be wide receiver by committee or whoever has the hot hands.
Reports out of camp suggest Ian Hamilton could be the guy to watch. The 6'5 230 lb JUCO transfer looks to be the number two, but the Miners third leading receiver from last year, Malcom Trail, has also done well and figures to be in the mix along with Jim Jomes and Devin Patterson who are expected to provide depth as Showers' pass catchers.
The most interesting part of the roster for the Miners should be the four walk-on kickers the Miners brought to camp. Tanner Kniesly, Jay Mattox, Mike Ruggles, and Mikael Sroka all have the opportunity but early reports suggest these kids have a long way to go. Missed mid-range field goals and not having kicked a FG in a D-1 game are the challenges these young Miners face.
So far the kicking game looks to be the weakest link in the chain. Hopefully they're kicking a bunch of extra points rather than settling for three because all signs show a long year of kicking for the Miners if no one emerges as the go to guy.
Championships Aren't Won in August
While the kickoff is still three weeks away there is growing optimism within this squad and the what if's and who's who should be answered soon. The one wildcard on this team could be former all world athlete from EP in Burges' Aaron Jones. He has been reportedly a one man highlight reel in camp. Miner fans aren't used to a true freshman coming in and making an impact, but Jones could be a fan favorite if his play continues to develop and he is utilized in the right situations.
Overall the Miners need to stay healthly on both sides of that ball to keep their best athletes on the field and keep up in what could very wide open C-USA race. With the first three games being very winnable, If Showers can "manage" this pro style offense, protect the ball and make big plays when needed, and the defense can stay healthy and out of bottom 100 rankings where they have lived the past couple of seasons, this could end up being a very competitive season in El Paso.