Who is in the mix?
There’s size, toughness, talent, and youth along the Miner defensive line, but the big question is can the Miners revamped depth chart up front provide instant production?
2016 was a rough transition for the UTEP front three as they only provided two-percent of Miners overall havoc rate which ranked 122nd nationally compared to other D-lines across the country.
To break that down quickly, the UTEP D-line in 2016 only produced two sacks, and 9 tackles for loss.
Those numbers must improve if the UTEP defense wants to improve as a whole. But while 2016 was a disaster, there are major reasons to be optimistic about this unit in 2017 due to the size and depth Sean Kugler has built through recruiting.
Starting at the ends, 6’4, 290 pounder sophomore Denzel Chukwukelu had a strong camp, and looks the part as a productive end when his motor his running high, and giving tackles fits.
Sani Buckingham was an interesting tight end prospect UTEP added prior to the 2016 season, but the 6’4, 285 pound American Samoa native has found a home on the defensive line and is penciled in as the opposite starter at defensive end.
Chris Richardson is another versatile, and large human who can play nose or end in certain packages, but the Miners have plenty of depth behind these three guys.
Gene Hopkins, Mike Sota, and Sky Logan all have lots of experience, and while these three were starters at one point over the past couple of seasons, UTEP’s recruiting has pushed these guys down the depth chart, but they will not be forgotten and will see plenty of snaps this season.
Speaking of forgotten, Luke Elsner has been fully healthy in camp, and will be a feature edge rusher in the Miner nickel packages as he works his way back into game shape.
Freshman Trace Mascorro has drew major praise from the coaches during camp, and looks the part as a quick and violent pass rusher from the nose spot in UTEP’s nickel package.
Another name who emerged with a strong camp was redshirt freshman and El Pasoan Christian Johnson, along with Houston native Dedrick Simpson who provides speed off the edge, and was also lined up at nose at times during camp.
One of UTEP’s most heralded signees under Kugler also turned some heads in camp, and that’s 6’7 rush end Keith Sullivan who seems to be climbing up the depth chart with his natural abilities as a havoc maker.
There were times, particularly early in camp that the UTEP D-line was getting the best of the UTEP O-line by just sheer motor, and want-to. Effort is a must have this year, and guys recognize that as a strength shown during camp.
IF that translates into success in 2017, this unit could make the biggest improvement jump of them all this coming season.
Predicting a breakout player
I could really see Denzel Chukwukelu breaking out to the tune of five or more sacks which would be a major upgrade to the production UTEP got in 2016.
His motor is a major key as he has all the physical tools to be a game plan issue for opponents this coming season. Look for Big Denzel to become a fan favorite with his high motor, and physical recklessness.
UTEP is pretty locked and loaded for the future as defensive line is another spot in where the future is here now and guys will have to grow up fast once the lights officially flip on.
Sullivan could develop into a major impact defensive player in the near future, and Christian Johnson continues to improve his craft as a future starter.
Mascorro and El Pasoan Josh Ortega look to be Miners future at nose tackle, and both are capable to help right away if need be this season.
But with sophomores like Hopkins, Chukwukelu, and Richardson mixed with the youth and experience that see the field this year, Sean Kugler must sleep well at night when thinking of the future of this important positon group in the 3-4 defense.