Football season has arrived. The 2015 college football slate kicks off tonight with a handful of games, and while things won't heat up in El Paso for still another few weeks, the Miners do get their campaign started Saturday at #18 Arkansas.
Branden Allen returns under center for the Razorbacks, coming off a junior season that saw him pass for 2,285 yards, 20 touchdowns, and just 5 interceptions. He did, however, complete just 56% of his passes, and had 4 of his touchdowns come in a 73-7 romping of Nichols St. in week 2.
While he did have a fairly productive year, and one that saw him lead his team to an impressive 31-7 victory over Texas in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, no doubt many in Fayetville will be looking for his 2015 self to be much improved from that one of a year ago.
Much like the Miners, Arkansas will rely heavily on their run game. The two headed monster of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins dominated a year ago, combining for nearly 2,300 yards, 24 touchdowns and an average of 5.5 yards per carry combined.
Those two were virtual mirror images of each other, as far as production went, and they looked to carry that momentum into this year. That was until Williams went down with a season ending foot injury early in August. He's since had surgery and will be out for the year.
Collins will still be a force to be reckoned with, and will get the bulk of the load, but look out of for Kody Walker and freshman Rawleigh Williams III to be in on the action as well. Walker averaged 4.8 yards a carry on 31 touches a year ago.
It also won't hurt that the Razorbacks feature an offensive line that averages 6'6 and 328 pounds. 2014 All SEC team honorable mentions Denver Kirkland (LT 6'5, 340lbs) and Dan Skipper (RT 6'10, 330lbs) will anchor what is an extremely experienced offensive line with 4 of 5 regular starters returning.
The story is much the same on the opposite line, as two of four starters in the base 4-3 defense return, with all four starters having played in at least 12 contests a year ago. They did say goodbye to a couple via graduation, and the NFL though, so that 11th ranked rush defense from a year a ago will have to do a bit of regrouping.
The group is highlighted by nose tackle Taiwan Johnson (6'2 290lbs) who recorded 26 tackles, 8 for loss and 4.5 sacks. Defensive end JaMichael Winston will also be a force off the edge, and could give the Miners fits in both the run and pass game.
Perhaps the least experienced group on the defensive side of the ball is the linebacking corp. That's not to say they don't have experience, but only one real starter returns, and gone is 1st team All SEC backer Martrell Spaights, a 5th round selection of the Washington Redskins.
Brooks Ellis, a junior, returns as the most experienced Hog linebacker, playing and starting in 11 contests a year ago while tallying 72 total tackles. Junior Josh Williams and highly touted sophomore Khalia Hackett round out that group.
The secondary looks to be another strength for the Arkansas defense. Senior strong safety Rohan Gaines with look to be the leader of the group, coming off a 2014 campaign that saw him rack up 59 tackles and 5 pass break ups.
Juniors DJ Dean and Jared Collins hold things down on the outside, with Dean being the returning leader in interceptios (2) and Collins coming off a season with 13 pass breakups (T-12 nationally).
Needless to say, the Miners will have their work cut out for them. While there are some inexperienced players sprinkled throughout the defense, this is a unit that as a whole will be likely the best the Miners will see all season.
Obviously, Aaron Jones and the rest of Miner running backs will be looked to in order to get things going for the offense, but the truth is the coaching staff is going to have to get creative to keep this defense honest, and keep the run game alive.
There's no question that Arkansas will be keying on Jones and if the Miners become too predictable, it will not take long for the Razorbacks to take control of the game.
Likewise, the defense will have to do its part as well. Our secondary and its depth will be tested early and often. The Arkansas run game will force the Miners to cheat up into the box as much as possible, leaving our corners to fend for themselves on the outside. Its no secret we've had issues locking down the long ball, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Arkansas take a few shots early.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
Control the tempo
Arkansas will look to get their run game going early, but they will be a very balanced offense, and will look to score quick when the opportunity presents itself. The Miners need to control the pace by moving the chains, getting off the field on third down, and not getting beat on the deep ball. The more this game is dragged out, the more it will benefit the Miners.
Take care of the football
The Razorbacks, especially on their home turf, are not a team that will need any gifts given to them. The Miners cannot afford to have a negative turnover ratio in this one, and in fact, will need a positive one in order to stay close and give themselves any opportunity for a win.
Same as the turnovers here. The less mistakes we make, the better chance we'll. Holding calls to back drives up, personal fouls, other penalties, and missed tackles are all things that can stall drives or keep drives alive for the opponent. If we're going to have any chance, the mistakes have got to be minimized.Make sure to stay tuned to MinerRush for coverage of all things UTEP sports. Also, make sure to Follow @sbnminerrush on Twitter and as always don't forget to like our Facebook Page. Picks Up, and Go Miners!