Heading into camp last season the main question was how would Sean Kugler fare in his first season at the helm, 2-10 season later and more questions are up in the air about the 2014 version of the football Miners.
Kugler handled a 2-10 season the best way any coach can by just continuing to work, not making schematically driven changes, and pushing guys harder each week, while earning respect from the players, and continuing on building a "brand" of UTEP football.
Now its time to figure out the personnel rotation for an optimistic outlook for 2014 after the basic learning part of a new system appears to be grasped.
Here are somethings to keep an eye over the next couple of weeks as camp officially starts on Monday August 4th.
Battle of both trenches
One sure thing heading into last camp was the experience of the offensive and defensive lines, which of course lead to a huge personnel turnover heading into this past spring.
On the offensive front, UTEP has shuffled last year's starting center in Paulo Melendez to right guard, while returning right guard Jerel Watkins is penciled in as a starter at left tackle now. Eric Lee takes the reigns at center but that leaves one of the biggest position battles of camp wide open: left guard.
I spotlighted the offensive line a few weeks ago detailing who all could be in that mix. When I asked Coach Kugler if he had specific names in mind out of the incoming freshman who could possibly steal the show, the obvious answer was we will see once things get started, but he also noted another obvious point we have seen under his watch, if a freshman comes in and dazzles, Kugler will not hesitate to give the kid some playing time.
Youth will hold true on the defensive line, Roy Robertson, Nick Usher, Gino Bresolin, and Silas Firstley all saw significant action in the defensive trenches a year ago, but outside of them the experience cupboard is dry along the defense line.
UTEP has some freshman depth incoming with Joseph Kraemer, Luke Elsner, and Stephen Forester who I think are names we could see emerge as rotation guys along the defensive line.
First year JUCO defensive tackle Alex Villarreal is healthy now after shoulder surgery kept him out of the spring, though he will have to fight for a spot at nose or the other tackle in the middle, battling Maruice Chavis who was listed first on the depth chart during the spring at defensive tackle.
Once the pads get strapped up on August 8th, look for Kugler to be closely watching the two groups, physicality, nastiness, and grasp of the systems are keys to playing time during camp for the big ems up front.
Before the spring the biggest hole to fill from graduation on the defensive side of the ball was replacing linebacker Horace Miller who is now in Seahawks training camp. Now the question is which guy, after a solid spring from the defense saw Jimmy Musgrave, Trey Brown, and Alvin Jones emerge as all very capable replacements for the job.
Musgrave was listed behind Anthony Puente at Mike in the spring, although it looked like he and Alvin Jones saw time at the Will in the spring game, both provide extreme athleticism and elite pursuit in the middle, giving UTEP an upgrade at either spot in year two of the 4-2-5.
At times a year ago it seemed all UTEP had was Puente and Miller at linebacker, though now Scott Stoker has some tools to work with in the middle.
One of the biggest struggles on defense a year ago was bad alignment by the linebackers which usually led to them to be out of place, and the ball going the opposite way. Puente, Musgrave, and Jones all looked solid in that department during the spring game, now its about figuring who can do that consistently, and rack up tackles more consistently especially on third downs.
This will be an important position battle to also keep an eye on, if Alvin Jones is way ahead of his transition from defensive back to linebacker, the Miners will boast some decent depth there, with guys like Musgrave and Brown vying for a starting job, that competition appears to be fierce all through camp.
Running Back Rotation
Loaded, stacked, plentiful, just a few words to describe the healthy, recharged backfield UTEP will bring into camp.
There was no 1 or 2 on the depth chart at running back, but rather Aaron Jones or Nathan Jeffery listed on top, which leaves the rotation wide open after those two thoroughbreds.
Autrey Golden is the obvious choice at 3rd, though I could see Golden getting more touches out of the backfield this season, particularly in the passing game.
Newcomer Jeremiah Laufasa caught a short TD pass in the spring game, his brother Darrin is coming off a solid rookie season and is fully recovered from a season ending injury last year, giving UTEP uber depth in their two back system.
Sometimes forgotten is senior Josh Bell who leads all running backs with 11 career receptions good for 93 career receiving yards, and he also filled in for Darrin Laufasa in the final five games of the year at fullback. Bell can bang inside the tackles, and has decent breakaway speed, though his experience is key.
Offensive coordinator Patrick Higgins has a fun task of using all these capable weapons in the offense, question is can UTEP be more creative, and take the octane level a bit higher than last year's at times potent run attack.
Jones and Jeffery are 1a, and b as far as carries, but the other guys mentioned have proven they can be game changers in certain situations, making big plays in the Miners' scrimmages in Alpine could dictate touches and rotation.
Can a defensive star emerge?
The talk of camp last season was the emergence of offensive star Aaron Jones, but can a defensive player please stand up this year?
Early candidates based off last year are, Roy Roberson, Devin Cockrell, and Anthony Puente. But I think a few new/old names could be in that mix.
Jameel Erving, Wesley Miller, Traun Roberson, and Adrian James are all veteran guys who all have the potential of a breakout season. The transition from wide receiver to corner for Ishmael Harrison looks smooth, and he is another guy who fits the mold of a potentially good season.
For conversation sake, I would even throw Jimmy Musgrave, and Alvin Jones also in the mix.
A huge part of a defensive star emerging is the overall improvement of a dismal, and broken defense of a year ago.
Kugler said during C-USA Media Days that the players enjoy playing in the defense after the first full year of its installment.
To me that is half the battle because it shows players are responding, grasping concepts, now its time to make plays, and for the stars to shine.
The biggest question I get from fans is who will step in to replace Jordan Leslie?
There are tons of unknowns in the receiving corps, but one guy who proved him self last year will have a bigger role, and bigger expectations.
Ian Hamilton had a solid start to the season, though just like rest of the offense when Jameill Showers went out with injury last year, Hamilton's numbers fizzled out as well.
Hamilton caught only five balls in the last five games of the year, his targets couldn't have been much higher than that number, though this year the former JUCO transfer will have his number called quite a bit especially early on in the season.
Showers said the guy outside of Eric Tomlinson and Hamilton who has emerged as passing target thus far has been former Chapin High standout Brandon Moss.
Moss platooned with Mike Ruggles at punter last season, but will see in an increased role this year at wide out.
UTEP busted out a few three receiver looks during the spring game, Showers noted the change and is excited at the prospect of UTEP throwing more.
Malcolm Trail had three catches a year ago, and will also figure into the rotation along with Jarrad Shaw and talented freshman speedster Tyler Batson.
The most unknown is within the receivers, lets see who can keep the ball off the ground during camp, and hope it translates on August 30th and beyond.
Key Camp Dates:
|August 4th-Camp Opens In El Paso|
|August 6th-First Practice In Alpine|
|August 8th-First Day In Pads|
|August 9th-First Scrimmage|
|August 14th-Practice in Full Pads|