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UTEP football: Despite turnover, tight end position regroups quickly

The position with some of the most roster turnover is next up in our position group focus.

Alex Nicolas

Once M.J. McFarland confirmed he would be attending UTEP, the possible ways the Miners would use him seemed endless.

Then he was announced ineligible by the NCAA, and what was a possible strength on the depth chart sent the coaching staff scrambling for answers.

Cedrick Lang was projected to be a defensive end, but was moved to tight end, freshman Cole Ford was possibly going to be red shirted in 2015 (still could be), and another freshman Augie Touris moved from defensive end over to tight end.

Tight end all of a sudden was a very worrisome concern heading into camp.

Then fall camp started, and Hayden Plinke showed why he could become an impact player on offense this season.

"The tight ends are doing well. Plinke is doing a great job considering he hasn't had a spring with us," coach Sean Kugler said. "Lang hasn't had a spring with us. We have some young guys who haven't taken snaps, but they have ability. Plinke's played at the Division I level; he's probably the most experience at camp.

Plinke is a fluid moving athlete, with above average hands, and very good top speed for his 6'3, 255 pound frame.  He also seems to know how to use his body to get himself free from out of his initial stem, which is a huge plus for Mack Leftwich.

He's pretty much taken every snap with the first team in camp, but of course UTEP will employ multiple tight ends on any play.

Cole Rogers maybe the most experienced out of the group as far as being around and knowing the offensive system, as he was in on a lot of UTEP's passing plays last season.

If I'm going into the Segundo Barrio late at night, I'm taking UTEP tight end Sterling Napier with me.

Napier defines playing physical and brings a leadership type of high energy approach to the meeting room.  He also should develop into one of the offense's physical enforcers.

He battled at foot injury and missed the open of camp, but made his fall camp debut on August 19th and has won himself a job.

Napier is listed as the starter on the depth chart, as he has been very good since his return, but you will also see Plinke, Rogers, and former basketball star Cedrick Lang in a number of packages.

"I'm trying to get better every day," Lang said. "There's a lot to be learned. I haven't played the sport in a long time. Players are coaching me up; the coaches are doing a great job teaching me fundamentals."

Lang is in on a quite a few packages, and will be a big (no pun intended) red zone target for Mack Leftwich, or Kavika Johnson out of the Wild Miner.

Having not played a down of football since his freshman year of high school, Lang has excellent body control in the air, and has a pretty high football IQ despite playing over 100 college basketball games the past four years.

"You have to." Lang said of the physical adjustment he's gone through.  "If you don't adjust you're going to get hurt.  Football is very physical and I'm definitely finding that out."

"Its completely different from high school." Lang added, "There's a lot more to it.  We have a bunch of different packages.  It's just a lot of time, you have to put a lot of hours in the study room and learn all the plays."

The tight end rotation will be very heavy, with Plinke, Rogers, and Lang possibly used the most in passing situations, and Napier used as a main blocker.

Don't be surprised if you see Rogers move over to wide receiver during the season.

UTEP also has two freshman tight ends who have future potential with more reps and practice time.

True freshman Cole Ford is another big target who moves well and looks the part of a prototypical tight end.  And red shirt freshman Augie Touris has made a few nice plays across the middle against the threes during my time watching camp.

Both figure to use this year as a mental development year as both have the physical tools to be productive players down the line once the experience factor hits home.

The question now is not if this group can play, but can they produce and help the offense?

Plinke is a guy who is capable of catching 20 or more passes, and having nice overall receiving numbers.   Rogers has the experience to compliment him in the passing game.   Lang will surprise some folks, and it will be interesting to see Napier fully develop with his increased playing time this year.

All four seem to have something they do very well, next step is how will the coaching staff round up each players strength to put points up on the board.