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MinerRush Roundtable: Q&A on UTEP's 2-1 Start

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All of our MinerRush writers came together at the table of Rush to discuss the 2-1 start and what to look for over the next couple of months.

Tom Gonzales-MinerRush.com

 

What is your overall impression of the 2-1 start?

asalom: I think the 2-1 start is promising, but I would also say that it was somewhat expected, and was almost necessary if we were going to see any significant improvement in Kugler's second year. Most people looked at the New Mexico game as a must win, considering the tough opening stretch. Likewise, most people considered the New Mexico State game a must win, simply because its the Aggies. Again, the 2-1 mark, and coupled with a solid performance against Tech, lends some promise and optimism for most about the season. However, we're not out of the woods yet, and if we lose to K-State, it will be tough to get above .500 the rest of the year.

PayDirtRenzo: I'm happy with it considering where this team was last year. They beat two bad teams in New Mexico and New Mexico State and lost a close one to a middle of the road Big XII team. I'm surprised the run game really is this good. My honest opinion before the season was a 1-2 or 2-1 start with 2 close games against the New Mexico schools and a blowout at home against Tech. The fact that UTEP essentially dominated the two NM schools and hung tough with Texas Tech leaves me optimistic.

Alex Nicolas: It's a start most of us expected, though we all know UTEP should be 3-0.  Identities on both sides of the ball as well as huge confidence marks were instilled, and I think those are important pillars going forward for this team and program. It may also say UTEP is heading back into the beat the teams you are supposed to beat mantra that we got used too under Mike Price.

Dom Lewis: I am very impressed, I think this team should be 3-0 headed into a tough matchup with K-State after the bye week. The run game has been the strength of this team the past few years and it is great to see them have a nice start to the season on the ground. If the Tech game shows you anything, it's that this team can play match the moment on the big stage. They will go as far as the o-line and Aaron Jones can carry them.

What has surprised you the most about the start of the 2014 season?

Dom Lewis: Honestly it's the play of Jameill Showers. I thought heading into his final season he would look more polished, more composed. He looks flustered and never seems comfortable in the pocked in 3 games thus far. Hoping he can turn it around to make this Miner team even more dangerous on offense. The run game depends a bit on Showers arm to help free up defensive tendencies. Now every one knows UTEP can run the ball. But can they switch it up?

asalom: For me, the improvement of the defense has been the biggest surprise. I think we all expected this unit to be better than a year ago, but how quickly they've come along is really a testament to this coaching staff, and the players buying in to the program. In 2013, the UTEP defense ranked 117th in points allowed, giving up 39.3 points a game. Through three games, the Miners rank 71st giving up just 26. Granted, we're only three games in, but we've faced some decent offenses. Also, we managed just 3 interceptions in all of 2013. We've already matched that number in three games in 2014. The rest of the season will tell us just how much this unit has improved, but thus far its been a pleasant surprise.

PayDirtRenzo: The extent to which Kugler has managed to put his stamp on this football team in early year 2. Remember when UTEP was a pass first team with guys like Jordan Palmer and Trevor Vittatoe setting game and season passing records? Yeah it was not too long ago and already we're seeing that the star on a Kugler team will be the running back. I would expect nothing less from a former offensive lineman like Kugler. Running the ball means taking it to the defensive line and moving forward in blocking. I love the change. At the same time, it has been downright startling to see how out of sync the passing game can look at times.

Alex Nicolas: The way the young offensive line has played.  Like Renzo says Kugler has put his stamp on this team and to me it starts upfront.  Derek Elemndorrf and Will Hernandez are monsters in the middle, UTEP did a good job of building this year's line with what they had returning and they have been lights out from a chemistry, and production standpoint.  Going into the season I had huge questions about this group, though if you had to place an MVP label on a position group through the first three weeks the men upfront would get my vote.  And not solely by their play and yards the have helped gain but also the current and future depth.

Who is your team MVP through the first three games?

PayDirtRenzo: As a fellow Burges alum, I have to go with my guy Aaron Jones. It should really be no other single player. The dude leads the nation in rushing.

asalom: The obvious answer here is Aaron Jones, and in my opinion, he is our team's best player. But, I'll go a different direction and say that our most valuable player(s) is our offensive line. Not only have they done a great job opening holes in the run game, but they've kept Jameill Showers upright allowing just 1 sack in three games, and if I'm not mistaken they've only had 1 penalty against them as well. They've done an outstanding job, and if they continue to play as well as they have, they will continue to give this offense an opportunity to succeed.

Dom Lewis: Aaron Jones without a doubt. If you told me before the season UTEP would have the leading rusher in the NCAA through 2 games or maybe any point of the season i would have said probably not. He has blown away my expectations and hopefully he can run away with the C-USA rushing crown and pick up some accolades down the road.

Alex Nicolas: Aaron "Showtyme" Jones (in my Harry Ruiz voice).  To think we have two more years of his service just makes me feel all warm inside.

Based off the first three games is it safe to say Kugler has this thing righted in a positive direction?

Alex Nicolas: No doubt about it.  Like I wrote last week, this is Kugler ball, and its a joy to watch for old school football purists.  Not only is the team improving but their are having fun, and building a family like chemistry.  I also think his recruiting efforts are going way unnoticed, I believe about 60 guys are "his guys" which is not very common in year two of a coaches tenure.  While the 2014 class was not heralded, you can see his vision for building the program to compete now, and build solid depth to sustain the identities that have came about.  Really excited to see the next two classes he brings in.

Dom Lewis: Yes. You can tell in his players tone of voice and the way the carry themselves. I am new to the Miner experience and Miner football team but it doesn't take a rocket science to sense confidence and a positive body language. Whether it's on a radio interview or on the field, this team looks like they are headed for something. Whether it be a winning season, a bowl, or whatever their team goals may be. I don't want to speak too soon, but I feel it's going in the right direction.

PayDirtRenzo: Yes, but let's be cautious. 3 games into year 2 of the Price era we were all ready to make Price mayor of El Paso for life. Step 1 in the rebuilding process was to make put his own personal stamp on the team and make it his. After more than a year, it looks like Step 1 is complete. I'm not sure what the next steps are, but I'm pretty sure they involve turning that Kugler stamp into an identity, pulling a big upset somewhere along the line, building consistency in conference play, competing for conference titles and winning conference titles. He's still got a lot of steps to go and could trip up on any one of them. But like I said, very promising start.

asalom: I think its completely fair to assume things are headed in the right direction. Its clear that Kugler's coaching style is having a positive impact on the program and the players are buying in. I think we still need more of a sample, as most expected this 2-1 start, but its clear that this program is in much better shape in year two than it was a year ago

What do you want to see or expect this team to be at in a few weeks?

asalom: What I want to see, and what I expect are two completely different things. As previously stated, I think its going to be tough for this team to get back above .500, should they lose to K-State. They follow that up with a road trip to La Tech, and then have Old Dominion at home before heading to San Antonio to take on UTSA. None of those game will be easy. What I'd like to see, is for this team to go 2-2, if not 3-1 in that stretch, setting them up for a real possibility at a bowl game, and potentially even a run at C-USA West. What I expect though, is for them to be competitive in all, but likely come away with the lone home win. That might sound bad, but considering the level of opponent in front of us, and the fact that three of four are on the road, I think its pretty realistic. Again, I hope its 2 or 3 wins in that stretch, but it will be tough to do.

PayDirtRenzo: I expect them to be about a .500 team competing for bowl eligibility. I expect them to keep pounding the ball and improving slowly in all facets. I'm not sure I've seen enough to believe this team can pull off numerous wins in a row and win the West, but I could be wrong. I of course would like to see them pull off some road victories and have a chance to go to the C-USA Championship game heading into the final weeks.

Alex Nicolas: I just want to see this team compete, and knock off someone they aren't supposed too in conference. I expect the passing game to improve, and the defense to continue creating turnovers and good field position.  I would also expect them to hover around .500, though everyone has to stay healthy for that to happen.

Dom Lewis: I would like to see the passing game open up so it can not only feed our talented wideouts but free the run game as well. Also, tackling in space can be much improved as well.

How important is a good showing at Kansas State in making UTEP's case as a contender for the C-USA race?

Dom Lewis: It's important because these players care about it. In the grand scheme of things, it won't hurt/help their chances of winning the C-USA title. BUT, winning this game could vault them to another level where it won't be a matter of if, but how they take C-USA by storm.

Alex Nicolas: I think its a pretty good barometer to see if they are worthy, but not a must win. Seeing how UTSA kinda, sorta hung in with Oklahoma State, I think your depth could be exposed against a Power Five team and for me its more of a depth test than a scoreboard or contender test. UTEP will have to be the physical enforcers just like Texas Tech, so Kugler ball will be put up to its highest test so far.

asalom: I don't think it really has anything to do with making a case for being a contender. Granted, if they win that game, all of C-USA will be on high alert. But, the real places to make a case are in the games against La Tech and UTSA. You could get blown out at K-State, but beat those two teams, and not only will your case be made, you will be the outright leader in the race to win Conference USA West.

PayDirtRenzo: Not important at all I think. Sure a blowout against K-State would leave the team feeling a little more unsure heading into conference play and a close loss or big upset would elevate confidence levels and buy-in, but I don't think we'll look at the K-State game when the season is over and think it was the key  to UTEP's finish in C-USA.

Surprise C-USA teams?  Disappointment in C-USA teams?

Alex Nicolas: My surprise team is UAB.  With Manny Diaz and Skip Holtz together I expected LA Tech to make a huge stride after their drop off year last season, though to see UAB doing what they're doing early its pretty eye opening for me and by far they are the most surprising team.  I think the most disappointing thing or team is Marshall not smashing squads and putting up ridiculous points like most of us expected. Their offense has video game numbers potential, though its early and Marshall could be just warming up after their drubbing of Ohio.

Dom Lewis: La Tech is my surprise. Over 40 points in two games is impressive. Cody Sokol looks to be having a nice season through the air. Disappointment for me would be Rice. Though they had 2 tough opponents in Notre Dame and Texas A&M, they got thrashed. A match up with ODU should get them on track if they can gather themselves.

asalom: Right now for me the biggest surprise is Louisiana Tech. I think people expected Holtz to get this program headed back in the right direction, but the way opened up the season by blowing our Lafayette and North Texas has been impressive. Cody Sokol is playing extremely well and they've already picked up two road wins. This team will not be an easy out for anyone in C-USA. Most disappointing, I'd have to say is North Texas. Many people expected them to be a contender out of the west, and while they still may be, other than a thrashing of SMU, they just haven't looked very good.

PayDirtRenzo: The surprise really is La Tech, but I'll say UAB just to give props to another team. They're 2-1 like UTEP and their two wins are against even worse opponents, but they still blew those teams away and managed to put up 34 points against SEC dark horse Mississippi State on the road. Mississippi State has only allowed 3 points total in their other two games. It's hard to pick a disappointing team and that's a good thing for C-USA. We sort of expected FIU and Southern Miss to be bad and they are again. I'll pick UTSA for what could have been. C-USA has had a good year so far beating a ton of American Conference teams, but imagine the dap the conference would be getting if UTSA had pulled off that home win on national tv against Arizona and followed it up with a decent showing against Oklahoma State. They're still one of the best in the west though.