It didn’t take Aaron Jones long to shake off any remains of a calendar year full of rust, and showed why he is the best running back in C-USA.
On the Miners first play from scrimmage, Jones was motioned out to the left, and took a swing pass 10-yards for a quick first down on his first touch.
Then he carried twice for 47 yards, pinned NMSU at their own one yard line with a key special teams play which set up his 37-yard scoring opening touchdown and quickly erased any doubts of possible rust.
“It felt great to be back out there with all my guys.” An all smiles Jones said. “I enjoyed myself, I had fun.”
It was also fun for UTEP fans who saw him reach a career high with 249 rushing yards, average eight yards per carry, pass Donald Buckram for 6th all-time on the career rushing list, and walk up the Sun Bowl stairs with Brass Spittoon in hand.
“I didn’t know to expect, I was just happy to be on the field.” Jones said. “You don’t want to lose to those guys (NMSU).”
Besides a few bumps and bruises that came with a career-high 31 carries, Jones said he was physically fine, but Sean Kugler said don’t expect to see Jones carry the load like that in the coming weeks.
“Probably 31 carries is maybe a little bit too many.” Kugler said of Jones’ carries. “Today was kind of a reward for him, you’ve been out a year and he wanted that ball.”
Jones had 10 carries in the first quarter, and Kugler said he would like get the ball in the hands of Quadraiz Wadley as well who picked up 36 yards on his first ten collegiate carries.
“I think now what you’re looking at is a capable replacement that can give him (Jones) some spells once he learns the value of ball security, which he will.” Kugler said of Wadley.
No matter how the carries are divided up going forward, Jones is back in full throttle after a 51-week absence.
UTEP defense shows flashes of good, still work to be done
UTEP’s new 3-4 defense was uber effective in some parts, and for the first time really slowed down NMSU quarterback Tyler Rogers who completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
“I thought the coverage was great.” Kugler said. “We had one mishap in the first half where we gave up a big play, other than that I don’t recall that many big plays.”
UTEP’s secondary had 10 pass breaks, all via the secondary, with a handful coming on some vicious hits from safeties to wipe out a would-be gain.
“The hits after coverage were excellent.” Kugler said with a big smile. “I saw some pretty vicious hits out there where the ball was dislodged from their receivers on some pretty accurate throws from their quarterback.”
Nik Needham and Dashone Smith delivered back-to-back blows in the first quarter for PBU’s which set the tone early.
While UTEP did not register any sacks, they did manage to get pressure and flush Rogers out of the pocket in key situations, but getting to the quarterback remains a work in progress.
“A lot of us said we missed the call, we weren’t communicating very well.” Alvin Jones said. “We got to get better on that, and play hard for each other.”
Terry Juniel instantly upgrades UTEP’s punt return unit
The easiest improvement mark for the Miners was in the punt return department in where Terry Juniel used some shifty moves for a nice per return average.
The former JUCO all-american averaged 17.3 yards in his six returns with a long of 43, and looks like he could break a game changing return sometime this seaosn.
“I’m looking over and this guy is shaking his head.” Kugler said of Juniel. “He’s irritated with himself and he’s getting 20-yards a return, and I’m going, hey you haven’t been here the last three years, you’re doing a good job.”
The high expectation for himself is very encouraging, and he also had two catches for 15 yards, one of which resulted in a nice first down on a 19-yard gain.
Expect more production from a potential breakout player who could change the dynamics of UTEP’s return units, and passing game.
Zack Greenlee’s gritty performance
Sean Kugler said quarterback Zack Greenlee tweaked an MCL on the Miners first drive, had his shoulder popped out of place, jammed his thumb later in the game.
But still threw for 229 yards, three touchdowns, and managed the game perfectly.
“I think we found out a lot about our quarterback.” Kugler said. “I came out of this game and learned the most about Zack Greenlee is his toughness”.
Greenlee perfectly managed UTEP’s numerous personnel packages, and the Miners did not have a single pre-snap penalty due to high number of shifts, motions and substitution groups.
After a shaky start, Greenlee finished the first half strong by going 4-of-4 for 64 yards on third downs on the Miners final scoring drive. And delivered beautiful balls on each of three touchdown passes.
“Anytime you come out in your first game, you want to start fast.” Greenlee said. “But you get those first game jitters, and things are going to happen but I think we pulled it together well.”
As for the nicks and dings, Greenlee gave all the credit to UTEP’s training staff.
“I took a few shots today” Greenlee said with a playful smirk. “But its part of the game we have some great trainers who were able to get me back in the game.”
UTEP also used Kavika Johnson at quarterback to spell Greenlee, and Johnson caught two passes for 26 yards which gives UTEP more offensive diversity.
Greenlee proved his leadership, throwing abilities, and mental capacity of handling the offense (the drive at the end of the first half particularly), but admits timing is a big improvement mark he will have to improve going forward.
“Timing is one of them.” Greenlee said of things he needs to improve. “I felt I could have worked the pocket better a few times, and got the ball into better places to let guys run after the catch.”
This and that
- Sean Kugler said ever player who was injured in the game, returned at some point and said everyone is healthy minus some war marks after week one
- Sophomore running back TK Powell was not dressed out for Saturday’s game indicating he could possibly be red-shirted for 2016
- Freshman Linebacker Dylan Parsee was also not dressed and could also be redshirted.
- Safety Michael Lewis was also on the sidelines in a jersey so he is still on board with the program.
- Eight freshman made their UTEP debuts
- UTEP’s 30,119 attendance figures were the highest across C-USA’s Saturday games.
- UTEP’s 38 points is the most since 1965 (61 points vs. North Texas) to open a season against an FBS program.
- UTEP’s 518 total yards is the third most during the Sean Kugler era (all vs. NM State). The Miners gained 546 at NM State in 2013 and 542 at NM State in 2015. UTEP gained 289 yards rushing tonight, the most since rushing for 351 versus North Texas on Nov. 15, 2014. Sean Kugler improves to 4-0 against NM State,
- Aaron Jones’s 292 all-purpose yards are also a career high.
- Aaron Jones (2,590 yards) ranks no. 6 on the program’s all-time rushing list. Marcus Thomas (2,615 yards) ranks no. 5 and Toraino Singleton (2,635 yards) ranks no. 4.
- Alvin Jones recorded a career-high 12 tackles, surpassing his total of 11.
- The Miners converted 11-of-17 third downs. Four of them were from 3rd & 10 or longer Aaron Jones rushed for an 18-yard gain on a 3rd & 13, Quadraiz Wadley gained 29 yards on a 3rd & 22, and Jaquan White converted receptions of 21 yards and 15 yards on 3rd & 10 and 3rd & 14,