Who is in the mix?
Replacing Aaron Jones has been the main question lingering over the program since he declared for the NFL Draft, and now the answer is almost days away from being answered.
Coming into the spring, UTEP had six candidates vying for carries, and now it’s down to five after talented sophomore Quardraiz Wadley will be on the shelf for this season with a shoulder injury.
At the top of the current projected depth chart sits Walter Dawn Jr. and Kevin Dove.
Both are similar in that they have the most experience inside the running back room, but their different styles should complement each other as UTEP’s main backs to start the season.
Dawn was a multitasker last season on offense, playing receiver, running back, and returning kicks. He only put up 180 all-purpose yards last season from the line of scrimmage, but showed his potential in the 5 OT win over UTSA last season in where he hit the end zone three times.
Running back is Dawn’s natural position, and gives UTEP a home run threat with his speed, and electric style of running.
Dove had a very strong fall camp, showing he will be UTEP’s short yardage and goal line back, but also showed he can carry the full load if need be.
At 6’1, 245 pounds, Dove is clearly a physical bruiser, but is also a versatile running back who can block, and catch out of the backfield like Dawn. He also showed off his juice and strength on a 70-yard plus run in camp.
While those two have seemed to cement their spots for the season opener, there is still plenty of young talent that could make impacts as the season goes along.
Josh Fields was UTEP’s top rated 2017 signee, and the El Paso native is working his way into the mix while learning UTEP’s offense and improving his pass protection duties.
Fields along with Ronald Awatt and TK Powell will battling each week for carries.
From my observations at camp, all five have seen carries with the first and second teams, meaning the running back rotation between all who have been mentioned will be fluid until a consistent producer steps up.
Running behind a talented and deep offensive line will help, but I would expect some growing pains until that consistent producer puts out a string of solid games together.
Even though Dawn and Dove have separated themselves as “starters”, it would not be surprising to see a running back by committee particularly early on in the season.
UTEP’s running game was the 54thefficient attack in the nation last year, and the most explosive nationally thanks to Mr. Jones. Improving their rushing success rate which was 91st in the nation last season will be a key stat to improve on all while implementing new bodies.
At fullback, freshman Forest McKee looks like the real deal in replacing graduated four year starter Darrin Laufasa who is on the Cincinnati Bengals roster at the moment.
McKee is an explosive downhill blocker and runner out of his three-point stance, and looks naturally gifted there after being a standout linebacker in high school.
Johnathan Milan, Robert Pufahl, and David Jackson will be depth chart pieces at fullback, but McKee looks be the Miners main starter there.
The youth replacing a straight up legend at tailback will be thrown into the fire right away, who will sink and who will swim is the next step in UTEP solidifying their running back rotation for 2017.
Predicting a break out player
If Wadley was healthy, the former Texas 2A Player of the Year would be the easy choice, but Walter Dawn will be UTEP’s most improved player overall this season.
A year after getting acclimated to the college game, Brent Pease has a dangerous weapon to use, and his versatility will help his production rise to a high level in 2017.
Dawn only averaged 3.9 yards per carry last season, but most of his carries came off end around misdirection plays in trying to get him in space. Getting him around the edge, and into open space will key for him being an effective producer.
Now that Dawn will see his touches rise, expect Dawn to be UTEP’s next big play, and main scoring threat.
I still feel Wadley has All C-USA potential in the near future, and looked very capable in the spring before he got hurt.
When he returns, Wadley will still be a sophomore and the running back spot will still have plenty of talent around, but I still feel Wadley is UTEP’s most talented running back.
Josh Fields is another player who will continue to grow and improve, along with Awatt who showed some strength, and speed in camp as a potential complete back.
Dove is still a sophomore as is Dawn, so the future of the Miner run game is here now and will be around for the next few seasons.