Despite two ugly looking blowouts through the first six games, the UTEP football team has improved in more phases than just X's and O's.
Two games that ended up in the win column this season would have been lost in the past and especially last season have ended up as gutsy wins in where the defense, yes the defense, came up with a play to seal it or give it back to the offense for an exclamation point.
There has been some good, and bad, but sitting 3-3 with six games to go is an improvement in itself.
Here is how I would grade each position group on their first half of the season performance.
This is a tough meter to gauge since the production from the quarterback spot has been at the bottom of the conference rankings but at the same time Jameill Showers hasn't turned it over too much or lost a game. And we all know UTEP's commitment to the run.
One of the big measuring sticks in my mind for quarterbacks is their third down numbers.
Showers is usually solid and sharp on third downs, this season he is 30 out of 55 for 361 yards with all four of his interceptions coming on third down situations.
You can look at this from two sides.
One side UTEP's repetitive play calling which we all know has forced almost an average of 3rd and seven or longer during UTEP's two bad losses and probably attributes to the following numbers.
On 3rd and between seven and nine yards Showers is 4 out of 13 for 25 yards with two interceptions. 3rd and longer than nine Showers is 13 out of 22 for 222 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The other side which we will get more in depth on later is the lack of production from the pass catchers which improved with the Autrey Golden to receiver chess piece move.
Showers has been relied upon more this season in zone-read situations, and has 111 yards rushing, also keeping drives going with his legs on third downs when the situation arises to tuck and run.
All in all going back to Showers taking care of the ball, all four of his interceptions have been on 3rd and long, which means Showers is solid on the first two downs with a completion percentage right at sixty percent on the first two downs.
This grade will be higher over the next few weeks as his confidence, and confidence in his receivers is growing, it could be worse, but Showers' high football IQ is best for the UTEP offensive situation through six games and going forward.
Running Backs: A
Through the first three weeks UTEP's rushing production was one sided with Aaron Jones as the main yard gainer, and Nathan Jeffery as the bruiser.
But after last week, UTEP finally unleashed its full armor of depth from of the running back spot.
Depending on who you ask Aaron Jones is the team MVP, though the Miners are averaging 236.5 rushing yards a game, with 70 run plays leading to first downs as a running back group.
Nathan Jeffery has been the ultimate compliment to the electric Jones, and though Jeffery sits just under 300 rushing yards on the season, he averages five yards a pop and has accounted for 19 of those first downs.
Josh Bell is always the wild card of the group with his versatility in the pass game, and showed why he is a true offensive threat with his performance last week.
The creativity of packages, and carries should improve as it was at its best last week against Old Dominion further proving running back is the most deepest, talented position group through the first six games.
Most of you probably think the receivers should be graded lower, but one unnoticed thing about this group is their ability and willing to block down field.
While their receiving numbers are minimal, with no one over 20 catches, these guys have been a big part of UTEP's rushing attack.
The Miners have plenty of depth at receiver and with so much rotation within their packages over the past couple weeks, someone should emerge over the next few games as a consistent play maker.
Ian Hamilton has the only highlight catch and 100 yard game of the season, while Jarrad Shaw has shown the ability to stretch the field on play actions.
This group grade also includes the tight ends.
Eric Tomlinson was pretty banged up in the first couple of games, and has been more active in the past few games.
If you watch film on the Miners, Katrae Ford is one of the best blockers on the team along with Tomlinson, and while the tight ends and receivers don't have huge numbers, the little things they do has paid dividends in the overall scheme of the offense.
Before last week the group was maybe D or C-, but Autrey Golden brings another dimension of big play ability to the receiving corps.
UTEP is bound to find another play maker and it could be a freshman as both Ziere Banner and Donovan Walker who both played with high energy last week in the run game, although were not targeted and will be eased into getting their number called as their play count builds up.
It hasn't been the most productive spot on the offense, but potential for a breakout player is deeper here than any other position on either side of the ball, with the youth movement here this season the future is looking pretty bright too.
Offensive Line: A-
One of the biggest question marks I had from July though August has helped won three games for the Miners this season.
Chemistry, athleticism, high football IQ, stamina, and overall will and grit to just blow someone's ass off the ball is something each guy posses along the offensive line.
UTEP is basically six deep at lineman, as Paulo Melendez is a starter level talent who comes in on heavy packages, and like last week defines the meaning of "key reserve".
Two of the young players who had question marks about if they could fit and produce have been MVP's along the front.
Derek Elmendorff and Will Hernandez have provided UTEP with two all-conference level players inside at guard.
UTEP's enforcer and left tackle Jerrel Watkins is horribly under-rated from the rest of conference, and not only brings the physical aspect, but is a seasoned veteran who seems to thrive on his mental savvy.
The anchor of the group has been the heady, and co-quarterback of the offense in center Eric Lee.
The former JUCO transfer is definitely and all-conference candidate, and will only get better along with the other young parts who will be around for awhile.
The only knock on the group is the pass blocking which at times has been a small issue.
Old Dominion exposed the issue of blocking off the edge as their main pass rusher off the edge had three quarterback hurries, and ODU had six total hurries.
UTEP has allowed 18 total hurries on the season which isn't too bad IMO in 145 drop backs and have only let up five total sacks.
Overall this group is in great shape execution wise, and with Kugler and Spencer Leftwich at the helm, things are looking up in Kugler's plan to make UTEP's strength within the trenches.
Defensive Line C+
They showed promise during camp, though have not produced on the stat sheet, but have had their moments of special potential.
Roy Robertson-Harris has been the leader in disruption with four quarterback hurries, and three tackles for loss, and Nick Usher has been battling injuries but has four TFL's with three hurries.
Last week the Miners rushed three exclusively, and matched their season sack total in the first quarter.
That is the potential this group has, consistency in doing this regularly is the key going forward.
In the middle Gino Bresolin has been a force at times, as has JUCO transfer Alex Villarreal, though UTEP is still allowing 6.3 yards per carry.
One of the unsung heroes along the d-line has been Maurice Chavis who has a sack, as he is hard to move around in the middle, and has that toughness Kugler is looking for.
While they haven't been a consistent bright spot, there is depth and potential to take over games, just has to happen for four quarters for this group to raise their grade and stats.
What started out as a strong point of the defense, has fizzled just a bit over the past three games.
The line backing core has done a good job of keeping things out of the second level, but not as consistent as things were in the first two games.
Alvin Jones has emerged as guy who is going to be really special and make a lot of plays for the Miners this season and down the road, but just like the defensive line, there has to be more consistent production from everyone.
Combined the group has 10 of the 28 total tackles for loss, and one and a half sacks out of the five.
For UTEP to be more successful on defense, these guys have to rack up numbers over the final six games, and be catalysts in continuing to get off the field on third downs.
One thing I've been looking for and that affected the grade is the lack of forcing turnovers from the athletic group.
The defense as a whole has show potential to be a strong point, but the production from the backers has to increase for UTEP to keep their bowl hopes alive.
This grade was pretty tough to give, while they give up a conference worst 9.3 yards per completion, the secondary has also sealed two games with interceptions.
Wesley Miller is having one heck of a senior year, he leads UTEP in solo tackles and had a highlight interception against NMSU.
The cerebral veteran leader has been a rock of consistency this year, backing up the talk that UTEP has the scheme down pat in year two.
We have also seen other guys emerge throughout the season.
Jameel Erving had a hot start, and is a guy who offenses have to key on, and I really haven't seen Dashone Smith miss a tackle all season.
Can't forget about Devin Cockrell who was superb in coverage last week, and I took big stock into their coverage against a capable ODU passing attack last week.
Guys who aren't even starters like corner Da'Carlos Renfro have made big plays, and have shown improvement in coverage and tackling.
The senior leaders at corner Adrian James and Traun Roberson have been consistent as well, and give UTEP a pair of physical corners along with the best cover corner out of the group Ishmael Harrison.
A huge stat that solidifies this grade is how they have fared on third downs.
Teams are 9 out of 25 passing, for 143 yards with three of their interceptions coming on downs third and seven or longer, along with 16 total pass break ups on all downs as a group.
Eliminating the big play is something the team improved on last week, and that should continue to improve, nine completions for 143 yards shows UTEP's weakness of letting up big plays in the pass in the first five games.
The mix of the veterans with the underclassmen has worked well, the chemistry is there and improvements have been made, just like the linebackers next step is turning up the takeaways.
Special Teams: F
Where to start here.
Through the first three games special teams play, and coverage were strong points, but for the past three games UTEP has had a punt blocked in each game.
Those breakdowns led Old Dominion to creep back into the game, and LA Tech and K-State to throttle the Miners.
Tweaks are being made this week, though teams are probably keying in on the UTEP special teams problems as points of emphasis during the week of preparation.
But the punt team isn't the only issue.
Jay Mattox is notorious for low kicks, and has had one blocked, also missing a PAT.
UTEP's return game was supposed to be a strong point, but Autrey Golden has struggled with teams who take him out of the game with sky kicks, and UTEP had its longest punt return of the Sean Kugler era just last week which was good for 19 yards.
Many fans have respectably called out the coaching and schemes of the special teams which is a pretty fair observation.
UTEP does not have a "true" special teams coach as tight ends coach Brian Natkin, and defensive back coach Robert Rodriguez both run the unit.
Interesting to see what adjustments are made during the bye, UTEP cannot afford to have any more mishaps in key spots, bowl teams don't make mistakes on special teams to give the other squad momentum.
With all the grades combined and I rounded the overall average to up a notch to a fair B-.
Its very justifiable because you can see the great improvement from this entire team when you compare things to this time last year.
To me it all starts with the hard work from the head man who has instilled his culture, and guys have bought it,
UTEP needs more depth to turn the consistently being over .500 corner, though UTEP is headed in the right direction, and the final six games of the season will be more than interesting to watch.