After injuries last season minimized UTEP's depth, and chances at a respectable record, this spring offered up some hope that the depth is there for UTEP to compete again in the continuing to change C-USA landscape.
One of the biggest question marks that haunted UTEP all last season was the poor production, and lack of bodies on the defensive side of the ball.
Things seem to be figured out as far as numbers goes with a few players switching positions to help the Miners get over the 4-2-5 struggle it has been since the late implement of the defense before the start of last year.
Redshirt freshman Alvin Jones moved from safety to Will Linebacker, and is listed second on the depth chart behind junior Trey Brown who has emerged has a possible impact starter this season replacing the graduating Horace Miller.
Jones appeared to be a stop gap guy once the move was announced, but really fits into the Miners plans with his athleticism, and nose for the ball.
Jones returned a pick six to the crib in practice earlier in the spring, and will help in 3rd down passing and even blitzing situations, though the question is in his run stopping ability as an every down backer that I feel will be a weakness at least in the infancy of his transition from high school quarterback, to college safety, and now linebacker.
Senior Anthony Puente is another guy to keep your eye on during the spring game. The heady leader had some nice games last year, but struggled in stopping the run at times, the only returning senior linebacker will be looked upon to make big plays all year as the man in the middle.
Another solid move to bolster the defense was the move of former running back LaQuintus Dowell to safety.
Dowell was slowed by a hamstring after he broke a 54 yard run for a score against NMSU, and just never fully recovered to be a force in the backfield down the stretch of last season.
He shined in a recent scrimmage with a pick six of his own, then scooped a fumble and took it back 99 yards to the house, giving UTEP more depth in a much needed area.
The move makes perfect sense, as the Miners can now go 7 or 8 or even deeper at the safety position now with so many versatile guys that can play corner or either three of the safety spots. UTEP took only a handful of dressed DB's last year when they played at Texas A&M, those 7 or 8 guys all saw significant playing time a year ago and can only get better while getting acclimated to the defensive scheme in year two.
Traun Roberson, Adrian James, and Wesley Miller are the most experienced defensive backs listed on the depth chart and are all healthy after injuries slowed their seasons down a year ago.
I really like the mix of young guys who saw a lot of playing time last year along with the three leaders, can't forget to mention senior Jameel Erving who started at safety for most of last season as a JUCO transfer, and showed flashes of a solid play maker at times last year. Erving is another guy who can emerge as a factor along with last season's leading tackler Devin Cockrell who showed he has All-Conference potential down the road.
Upfront, UTEP looks to be young with a strong veteran who came on really strong last year leading the way.
Roy Robertson had a solid year despite low production in stats, although at 6'7 250 he really learned to used his speed and size toward the end of the year making himself an impact player on a defensive line that was begging for a leader to emerge. Robertson has to be a six sack-plus guy this season for the defense to even sniff any type of dominance.
Silas Firstley, and Nick Usher also return after seeing tons of action as a freshman at defensive end. The youth in the trenches continues with sophomore Geno Bresolin, and unproven senior Mariuce Chavis listed as starters at the defensive tackles.
We should all expect big things out of Usher at defensive end. Usher showed some promise as well towards the end of the season, and one side of the defensive end spot is all his it appears.
JUCO transfer, and key recruit in 2014 Alex Villareal missed the spring recovering from surgery but will also be in the mix come fall along with DeVonte Richardson who also figures to be in the rotation come fall camp.
Losing Jordan Leslie was a huge blow to the Miners offensive attack, obviously opening up a spot for another receiver to emerge, but I think that missing production will come from a tight end.
Namely Eric Tomlinson who caught 30 balls last year, and was ranked fourth in the conference among receiving yards for tight ends. Jameill Showers is back healthy and like he did last year against Colorado State, he knows where Tomlinson is, and Tomlinson is as reliable as they come running routes across the middle.
Receivers like Jarrod Shaw, Brandon Moss, are names we have heard throughout the spring as emerging guys, but UTEP needs a surefire deep threat; enter Ian Hamilton.
Hamilton started off last season on fire in the first four games with 16 total catches and an 81 yard effort against NMSU. Then fizzled as the rest of the offense did after the first six games catching just 11 balls the rest of the season.
He has the ability to be a consistent home run hitter, proven with his 108 yard performance against Rice, Showers showed great chemistry with Leslie, I would expect the same with Hamilton as we inch closer to the fall. Red flag alert though is Kugler was quoted as saying he was not pleased with drop balls from the receiving corps.
Of course, UTEP's strength on offense is in the run game with Nathan Jeffery and Aaron Jones returning, though the offensive line has had some re-tooling work done that is still not complete.
Paulo Melendez moves from center to right guard, while last season's starters at guard, Jerel Watkins and Kyle Brown move to the tackle spots.
Eric Lee has been named the starter at center, but the left guard spot seems to be still up for grabs.
A pair of freshman, former Franklin standout Derek Elmendorff, and Will Hernandez are listed at alternate starters on the Kugler chart of depth.
Leaving a burning question I have, if these two aren't up to Kugler's blessing, will a true freshman fill the void come the fall?
The success in the running game will go as far as the chemistry on the the offensive line which was evident with last years group, and with the way Nathan Jeffery exploded for 130 yards late last year against FIU, UTEP will have one the best one-two punch at running back in the conference, health baring.
Overall the spring has been deemed a success by UTEP's head man, I would have to agree as far as the depth goes, and the improvement of the defensive continuity with the 4-2-5, but plenty questions still remain.
Its seems as UTEP now has the bodies to compliment the proper rotations, and substitute packages that are invloved in the 4-2-5, its just about who will step up to the plate and deliver.
The ultimate eye test will be Friday night.
How the spring game will work:
*-7:00-7:05 p.m: Pat N" Go/Team Takeoff (5) Group Warmups
*-7:05-7:10 p.m: Team Stretch (5)
*-7:10-7:20 p.m. Individual/ O/D Group Work (10), Blue (Offense)/Orange (Defense)
*-12 Play Move Ball (-20) 1 vs.1 / 2 vs. 2
*-Two Man Pod
*-Gotta Have It (3rd & 7, +50) 1 vs. 1/ 2 vs. 2
*-Two Man Pod
*-10 Plays Redzone (+20) 1 vs. 1/ 2 vs. 2
*-1 ON 1 (WR-DB)
*-Gotta Have It (4th &1 *4, +50) 1 vs.1 / 2 vs. 2
*-1 ON 1 (RB/TE-LB)
*-Short Yardage (4th & 1 *4, +50) 1 vs.1 / 2 vs. 2
*-1 ON 1 (RB/TE-LB)
*-Goal Line *4 (+2) 1 vs.1 then 2 vs. 2
*-1 ON 1 (RB/TE-LB)
*-2 Minute (-40) 1 vs.1 / 2 vs. 2
*-(-40, 53 Sec., 1 T.O, Need Td) 1 vs.1 then 2 vs. 2
*-Approximately 8:30 p.m. Spec. Team Pat/Fg-S.L/A.B (6 Kicks)