UTEP leaves for Ruidoso today, and hits the practice field Tuesday for the first time in the 2017 season.
Here are the major storylines we are watching this month.
Who will get carries?
The question everyone has asked since he declared for the NFL draft is… Who will replace Aaron Jones?
Over the next few weeks, five running backs will battle for carries in camp.
Kevin Dove was the only running back listed on UTEP’s preseason depth chart, but because he has the most experience, if you will.
Walter Dawn is another name who can emerge early, but guys like TK Powell, Ronald Awatt, and Josh Fields will all have their chances to shine in camp.
Another thing to watch in regards to the running game is the newcomer who takes over at fullback. David Jackson, Robert Pufahl, and Forest McKee are names battling for a wide open fullback spot.
Ball security, production, and a solid grasp of pass protection will be major marks these running backs will have to etch.
Will depth improve the defensive production?
There were two areas UTEP was pretty good at last year, and a lot of areas of struggle on the defensive side.
Minimizing explosive plays were a positive according to advanced stats, and UTEP was really good against the pass.
But stopping the run consistently, generating a pass rush, getting off the field, and forcing turnovers are improvements marks for 2017 worth hoping for. Improved depth could help those issues, but being in year two of Tom Mason’s defense should pay off in a bigger way.
UTEP’s secondary could be one of the top units in the conference, but havoc from the defensive line is a major need.
Along the defensive line, opposing offensive lines created almost four yards of offense per play last season, and the unit was ranked 122nd nationally in havoc rate which measures sacks, QB hurries, and tackles for loss.
Returners like ends Gene Hopkins, Mike Sota, and nose tackle Chris Richardson should improve the unit and improve on their production from last season. While Luke Elsner is also back after dealing injury, and can also help rushing off the edge.
Linebacker could be another strong point once the season ends, but all eyes will be on the pass rush in 2017. Wake Forest transfer Julian Jackson gives UTEP a nice pass rush weapon, and the linebacker depth built in recruiting will be tested.
Who steps up to help Metz in the passing game?
UTEP returns some experience at wide out with names like Tyler Batson, Warren Redix, Kavika Johnson, Eddie Sinegal and Terry Juniel.
The major question here is who breaks out consistently enough to become a major weapon?
Throw in new tight ends David Lucero, and Josh Weeks, giving Ryan Metz a number of capable targets to work with in camp who have been around and understand the offense.
Keep an eye out on slot receivers Richie Rodriguez, and Kenyan Foster who bring speed to the table.
Another question is now that Metz is in his second year as a starter, will the offense open up enough for these targets to get their number called?
Everyone in this mix will have to maximize their chances in camp and provide some production and big play ability. Kugler is high this group, but there are plenty of questions to be answered.
UTEP has superior offensive line depth
Simply put, UTEP is stacked along the offensive line.
Proven experience, size, and depth is something Sean Kugler has built upfront the past four years, and the offense should reap those benefits.
Will Hernandez is the anchor, but the Miners have plenty of options along their two deep depth chart.
Derek Elmendorrff has played a lot of football over the past three seasons, and Derron Gatewood and Tanner Stallings give UTEP interior strength.
Greg Long and Jerrod Brooks will hold down the tackle spots, but UTEP also added a 6’7 transfer tackle.
Logan Tuley-Tillman is the grad transfer who will help out at the left tackle with Long. UTEP will use their unbalanced line to help the run game, and they also have some talented youngsters who will get looks in camp.
Newcomers to watch list
Brady Viles, Kicker
The JUCO transfer will have to replace the consistent Jay Mattox at kicker.
Julian Jackson, OLB
Jackson only had three sacks last season, but played in a 3-4 defense with one of the highest havoc rates at linebacker. Expect Jackson to become a pass rushing centerpiece.
David Lucero, TE
Tall, fluid athlete who can help UTEP stretch the field on the TE under routes, and in the redzone. Can he help vertically will be a big question.
Josh Weeks, TE
Weeks is another fluid athlete, who is also a big target to help out Metz and the offense. Could develop into a nice third down security blanket.
Keith Sullivan, DE
One of the highest rated recruits signed under Sean Kugler back in 2016 will be in camp in 2017.
Kahani Smith, DB
The free safety had a strong spring, and gives UTEP plenty of depth on 3rd down packages defending against the pass.
Kalaii Griffin, LB
UTEP improved their athleticism at linebacker, and Griffin could be a major reason. He’s just a sophomore as well.
Jamar Smith, LB
Kugler has struck gold with a few JUCO linebackers, and Smith could be another.
Josh Fields, RB
The former El Paso prep star will see his chances in camp, is he ready for the job?
Camp Ruidoso Key Dates
Aug. 7 Miners leave for Ruidoso
Aug. 8 First Practice 8:45-10:45 a.m.
Aug. 9-12 Practice 8:45-10:45 a.m.
Aug. 13 First Scrimmage 8:45 a.m.
Aug.14 Players Day Off
Aug. 15-19 Practice 8:45 a.m.
Aug. 19 Community BBQ
Aug. 20 Second Scrimmage 8:45 a.m. (Miners Return to El Paso)
Aug. 21 Players Day Off
Aug. 22-25 Practice 8:15-9:45 a.m.
Aug. 24 Kickoff Luncheon
Aug. 26 Fan Day