Spring practices start up on Monday March 6th, and here a few story lines we will be following over the next month.
Replacing Aaron Jones
This is the biggest area of concern heading into 2017.
Quadraiz Wadley figures to grab most of the first and second team reps, then after him and Kevin Dove, it appears wide open.
Kevin Dove, Ronald Awatt, and TK Powell will all get their chances and carries, and will need to maximize their chances in putting out good film throughout every practice session.
It appears 2016 signee Antonio Dupree will not participate in spring practice, which opens the door for Dove, and others to improve their stock in the spring with extra reps.
Two things could separate a starter and rotational players: Pass blocking, and catching out of the backfield are two things Aaron Jones did really well.
Wadley and Dove have the upper hand as the ‘most experienced’ if you will, but Awatt is certainly a name not to forget.
UTEP lost Nick Usher and Silas Firstley at outside linebacker, but return Jayson VanHook and Lawrence Montegut who appear to be taking over the reigns at the SAM and the WILL outside linebacker spots.
In the middle, of course Alvin Jones and Dante Lovilette are proven returners, but so much unproven depth will have a shot to crack the depth chart.
Treyvon Hughes will move to linebacker, and try to work his way back from injury, making his comeback an interesting story to watch this spring.
Kalaii Griffin is going to make a mark spring. The hybrid athlete will probably wear a plethora of roles this year, and carving those out will be important for one of the Miners most important picks up on the recruiting trail.
Freshmen Dedrick Simpson, Chris Barnwell, and Sione Tupou could be names Kugler raves about during the spring. Simpson and Barnwell could be outside backers, while Tupou will be working in the middle behind either Jones or Lovilette.
Returners like Dylan Parsee, Johnny Jones, and Stephen Forester round up the names fighting for depth chart spots during the spring.
UTEP was short handed with linebackers last spring, but now have bodies who can compete, and fight for rotation spots, and even starting spots with a solid spring showing.
Who are the pass catchers?
Aaron Jones, Hayden Plinke, and Jaquan White were UTEP’s most productive pass catchers over the past couple of seasons, and a returning crop of pass catchers will need to step up, and step up fast.
Folks are going to be surprised at how good David Lucero actually is. He has a little more explosion and speed than Plinke, and is a legit athlete who should become Ryan Metz’s security blanket like Plinke was.
Former BYU tight end Josh Weeks gives UTEP a nice tandem with potential, but more is known about what Lucero can bring than Weeks at this point.
At wide receiver, it would not be a surprise to see Eddie Sinegal take a huge step forward. Sinegal had a strong spring last year, and could be UTEP’s number one receiver head into the fall.
Tyler Batson was somehow forgotten last season, but he’s a proven deep threat who needs his number called like Cole Freytag was utilized last season.
Warren Redix, Kavika Johnson, Walter Dawn, Terry Juniel, and Brannon Bullitt all return and have a year under their belt in Brent Pease’s system. All but Bullitt, who red-shirted, saw significant playing time and should show flashes of consistency.
But there are two more names to watch who could crack that rotation and add major speed.
El Paso’ Richie Rodriguez and Keynan Foster will bring speed to the slot position, and add some much needed explosion.
Rodriguez is a natural born play maker, and how that translates to the FBS level is an intriguing factor as Rodriguez was one of the most productive play makers to ever play high school football in El Paso.
Going through the list you see why Kugler wasn’t panicking about his skill positions, but the spring is going offer up a chance for these guys to develop their craft into reliable production in a passing game that needs to show up in 2017 if UTEP wants to compete in C-USA.
What’s the offensive line going to look like?
Sean Kugler tinkered with the offensive line last year more than usual, leaving some questions for 2017 on the table.
Jerrod Brooks and Greg Long will be front runners for starting roles at both tackle spots but in the interior, depth is plentiful.
Tanner Stallings may have locked up the center spot with his strong play late last season. Leaving the right guard spot up to Derron Gatewood and/or Derek Elmendorrf.
Will Hernandez is well......Will Hernandez, but it will be interesting to see what UTEP does at center and right guard as the depth looks to be solid there.
UTEP will integrate new faces like Markos Lujan, Bobby De Haro, Josiah Gray, and Ruben Guerra as future pieces who will be thrown out on the second and third teams in the spring.
A defensive line shuffle?
Stopping the run, and pass rush were two weaknesses UTEP’s 3-man front struggled with at times, so is a defensive line shuffle in order?
UTEP will have to replace Gino Bresolin at nose tackle, but I really like the returning depth Tom Mason has at nose tackle.
Chris Richardson, and Denzel Chukwukelu made noise as freshman, providing versatile depth at either nose or rush end, giving UTEP some prove options. El Paso’s Christian Johnson will also get his chances to make some noise this spring.
Gene Hopkins and Mike Sota also return as starters at rush end, but their is actual depth to share snaps, and sharpen packages to increase production from UTEP’s pass rush.
2016 three-star signee Keith Sullivan is not the on spring roster, although it doesn’t mean he’s not going to be on the field come fall, but his status is completely unknown at the time.
Defensive line is an area UTEP looks to major improvement in on the defensive side which appears to be an early overall strength.
Defensively, UTEP looks to be okay returning stud corners Kalon Beverly, Nik Needham, and a safety corps integrated a new starter in JUCO Kahani Smith and senior Devin Cockrell returns.
UTEP’s passing game will also be a focal point of improvement as a way to move past Aaron Jones departure.
Can Ryan Metz and the passing game take the next step?
How much different will UTEP’s offense look without Aaron Jones?
This UTEP team has plenty of questions and holes, and the hope is spring ball can answer a few.
UTEP’s 2017 schedule is daunting, and expectations might be very low for 2017, but how far this team can go depends on a strong spring as a spring board to some optimism on what could happen in the fall.