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Monday Lunch With Kugler

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Lunch was late for the media, but Sean Kugler filled us in on what the NMSU vs. UTEP matchup will look like.

Kugler on starting a new season

“We’re very excited about the start of the year. It’s always great to have opening day at your own stadium. I was really overwhelmed the other night, we had our Minerpalooza [preseason pep rally] with close to 20,000 fans showing up to support our athletics programs and the energy was outstanding. I’m hoping that carries over to the game on Saturday night. We’re expecting a great crowd. The weather is going to be perfect and what a great setting for what really is a bitter rivalry. We’re looking forward to playing New Mexico State as we always do and I know they’re looking forward to playing us. I’m sure they’ll have a large group of fans come down from Las Cruces. And I hope the Miner fans show up in full force to make things difficult for them.”

On the Aggies

“I think New Mexico State has really done a good job. They could’ve very easily been a 6-6 team last year. They could’ve very easily defeated us, more than likely should have. New Mexico, Georgia State, those are all games that kind of tilted out of their favor late in the game. They have really built that thing the right way. They recruited a lot of good high school players and developed them. They didn’t go the junior college route. The youth that they played with a few years ago, much like us, these guys are starting to grow up and be juniors and seniors. And you’re seeing it on the field.”

“Offensively their tailback (Larry Rose) is outstanding. He is an NFL-type talent. He gets bigger and stronger each year, just like our own Aaron Jones does. I know there are reports that he may be questionable for our game. I’ll believe it when I see him out there playing or not playing. We’ll prepare for their team like he’s going to play, and I hope he does. You never want to see a team without one of their players, especially due to injuries.”

“The quarterback had an outstanding game last year against us. He really gets the ball out quick and has a good understanding of their offense. They brought in a transfer quarterback from Southern Miss who we had already faced two years ago and he beat him out. It just shows that he’s got command of that offense."

“They’ve got an explosive group of wide receivers, maybe one of the better wide receiver groups that we’ll face all year. #5 Taylor is very explosive, he’s also their punt returner and kick returner. They’ve got a bigger wideout in Greg Hogan #7 and #1, another explosive guy, and they have added some other people to that group and some good size at some of the backup wide receiver positions. It’s a very deep group, very fast group and can make plays."

“Offensive line wise, their interior guys return intact. I thought their center was a real good player last year, a very physical player, very sudden. One of their players will be suspended for the first half of our game, their right guard #50 who is also a very physical player. They have really good size. That’s an area that they have really improved over the years. They’re 310 pounds plus across the board, much like we are. They will be playing with two freshman offensive tackles that have great size. From all reports they are really pleased with those guys’ athletic ability as well.”

“Defensively they were a young team three years ago when we played them. All those guys have grown up. The linebacking corps, I think is a real strength for them. They’ve got a lot of good speed, in particular #2, this guy can fly around. There is a report that #3 their leading tackler from last year may miss the game. Again, I’ll believe it when I see it. So we’ll prepare as though he’s going to be in there. #53 and #31, they have all made plays for these guys. They return their top five leading tacklers from 2015 so they have a lot of experience, they have grown up together as a defense."

"They do have a new coordinator. There will be some schematic changes for them. He was the head coach at Boston College. He had outstanding defenses when he was there. I think they have two very physical safeties in #1 and #21. They were physical last year against us. They’re downhill guys. They can play in the box and make tackles and they’ve got linebacker size. They’re both 200 pounds. They do have two new corners. So there will be some challenges against their defense. I think their team speed on defense is outstanding."

"They have explosive playmakers in the return game, they have explosive players on offense, they have a veteran quarterback who is a senior, they have very good speed at the linebacker position and I also think they have very good speed coming off the edge. They have some defensive ends that can get up the field and cause some havoc, especially #34. He led their team in sacks and tackles for loss last year. This guy is going to get off and we’re going to have to handle him to have success as well.”

Kugler talked about how he and the coaching staff approached keeping injuries down during camp

“You know, I had a long talk with David Bailiff from Rice, a guy I really respect in our conference. They went through a similar situation last year. We talked about how these guys are doing this thing year-round nowadays. It’s not like the old days where you came into camp to get into shape and during the summer you got a job and those type things."

"They’re here year round. You tend to forget, they get worn down sometimes. And probably at a fault of myself, we probably wore them down a little bit. We practiced live all the time when we went with padded practices, including the quarterback.”

Those hits do add up. I’m not saying we didn’t get our work in, we did a lot of physical practices up in Ruidoso and since we’ve come back. But we did cut down the live portion and what that requires is everybody has to practice smarter. With that being said, I think it benefited us this year because we’re really going into this game, if we practice smart this week, with one injury and that’s to Treyvon Hughes, which was a season-ending injury and it was kind of a freak deal where he got hit from the side.

On Quadraiz Wadley breaking out in camp

"It was kind of like an Aaron Jones moment in camp. Every time this guy touched the ball he did something with it. We just kept giving him the ball and we realized we’ve got another talent on our hands. He’ll back up Aaron Jones and probably get a lot of quality carries in this game. I’m looking forward to seeing him go. It’s unfortunate for Treyvon. He’ll miss the year but he’s a young back. He’ll come back healthy and stronger than ever.”

Will UTEP's defensive scheme change help against vertical passing attacks like NMSU?

“We were in man coverage a very high percentage of the snaps [last year] and one guy gets beat. It’s a chance for a big play. When you’re playing more zone coverage, even if a guy were to get beat, you still have somebody over the top to protect that. You’re trying to make them go the long way. I’m not saying that can’t be defeated as well, but it does give you a better chance in pass coverage.”

Kugler touches on the I-10 rivalry

“I think it mean a lot to the two cities. There are a lot of people from here that go to school up there and vice versa. I think it’s kind of split down the line when you live here in the Borderland, you’re either an Aggie fan or you’re a Miner fan. They don’t like each other. That’s what rivalries are all about and that’s what makes it fun. It was fun for me when I was a player here, it was fun for me when I was an assistant coach and I love the series again. It’s a heated rivalry and the two teams get after it and play with passion. It’s how a game should be. To have it as the opening game in the Sun Bowl, with the large crowd and perfect weather, it couldn’t be a better setting for two teams trying to get after each other.”

How have the recruiting efforts improved special teams coverage depth?

“That was really tested last year with our depth. We have improved our depth all the way across the board and really more body types. By switching to the 3-4, we have more linebacker types, more fullback/tight end types. Instead of really throwing out a special teams unit of just defensive backs and wide receivers that weight 170, 180 pounds, we’re throwing out guys that weigh 220, 230 pounds. You have a chance to be a more physical coverage unit. I think our coverage units over the last few years have been outstanding."

On improving punt returns in 2016

"Where we really needed a boost was the return game. I really feel a lot of that has to do with the guy that’s actually returning it and fielding the punts. That’s why I’m very confident in Terry Juniel, getting him healthy. We were banking on him last year and he missed the entire year with a broken foot. He is back healthier than ever. He is moving great. He’ll be our punt returner and kick returner. I also love what I am seeing out of some of the other returners like Warren Redix and Jaquan White. We have this little freshman, Walter Dawn that is electric, and I think at some point early in the season Miner fans are going to see what he can do as well. He’s a guy that can take it to the house. He’s got outstanding speed. I think our return units are going to be much improved. I think if you had to point to any one unit offensively or defensively, the biggest improvement is going to be on special teams because I really like where we’re heading depth wise and schematically wise.”

On what NMSU is doing different on defense

“Whenever you get a new coordinator, you try to gather as much film and resource as you can from where he was in the past, in this case Boston College. They were a 4-3 quarters team, they played a lot of quarters or they roll up on one of the receivers and play like quarter quarter halves coverage. They will pressure you, they’ll blitz, they’ll come off the edge, they bring a lot of corner blitzes, so there’s a lot of preparation that goes into it but you probably spend time studying film of New Mexico State for personnel and you study film of his previous stops for schematics. It is an unknown. And they’ve got some unknowns too, because we have a new coordinator on defense and offense with entirely new, different schemes. They have the same challenges that we do.”

On Zach Greenlee proving himself to garner more trust

“We’ve all got to prove ourselves. Every player on the field has to prove themselves throughout the season. As a head coach I’ve got to prove myself week in and week out, and the coaches do as well. That’s why it’s a great game, it’s a show me now type thing. We’ve got to be good each week, and at the quarterback position that’s even more important. The thing that I’m going to ask of Zack is not put pressure on him, just go out there and play your game, manage the offense, handle the right situations if we do have a run/pass option, make the right decision, make accurate throws which he did an outstanding job of all camp and minimize turnovers. If he can do that, he’ll be fine. I feel confident in all three of our quarterbacks and don’t be surprised if you see two or three of those guys on the field at one time.”