Source: USA TODAY
Former Texas-El Paso coach Mike Price’s lasting legacy isn’t that he won four or five games in five of last seven seasons with the Miners, but that he made winning four or five games a disappointment. Stick with me here.
UTEP played football before Price arrived, did so for the better part of a century, yet never — OK, almost never — did it well. How many times did the Miners win four or more games from 1975 through 2003, the year prior to Price’s arrival? Six times.
So Price’s run ended on a low note, especially given how well the Miners opened under his watch — at least eight wins each season in 2004 and ’05 — but in the long run, Price changed the way UTEP views itself. That’s some legacy, right?
LAST YEAR’S PREDICTION
In short, UTEP needs quite a bit to go its way in order to crack through the ceiling and reach bowl eligibility. The year could get out of control before it begins, thanks to a tough early stretch, and the Miners also get Houston and Southern Mississippi on the road over the final four games. If UTEP wins three or four games, does the program make a coaching change? If the school wants to snap out of this funk, it might have no choice.
— In a nutshell: Price’s run with UTEP ended poorly, at 3-9, though the Miners can take some solace in the fact that six of those nine losses were by 11 points or fewer. A seventh loss came to Oklahoma, 24-7, and an eighth to Mississippi. On the other hand, the three wins came against New Mexico State, Tulane and Southern Mississippi — nothing to write home about, in short. So this wasn’t a great team by any means; nor was it a terrible team, and certainly not one that should have lost nine games during the regular season. Eight, maybe. Seven. Not nine.
— High point: A 34-33 win over Southern Mississippi in November. UTEP could exhale: USM was winless, and no one wants to lose to a winless team in November.
— Low point: The offense was missing in action most of last season, but never more so than Oct. 6 in a 17-0 loss to SMU. The shutout was the second of Price’s career, joining a 48-0 loss to Montana State as the coach at Weber State in 1984.
— Tidbit: UTEP has only two winning streaks of more than six games in program history: 2004 (under Price) and 2000 (under Gary Nord). The Miners have only one 10-win season, the fewest of any FBS program in the state of Texas with the exception of Texas-San Antonio, which only christened its program in 2011.
— Tidbit (turnovers edition): UTEP is 10-6 the past six seasons when not committing a turnover. As that total suggests, it’s not an overly common occurrence. Twice in this span, in 2011 and 2007, UTEP had at least one giveaway in every game.
FORMER PLAYERS IN THE NFL
— 10: WR Kris Adams (New York Giants), G Eloy Atkinson (Tennessee), RB Joe Banyard (Minnesota), S Antwon Blake (Jacksonville), CB Cornelius Brown (San Diego), OT Oniel Cousins (Cleveland), S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith (Pittsburgh), WR Donavon Kemp (Dallas), CB Drew Thomas (St. Louis), CB Darren Woodard (St. Louis).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST
— Alabama coaches, 1997-2007
1. Dennis Franchione (18-8, 2001-02).
2. Mike Price (0-0, 2003).
3. Mike Shula (26-23, 2003-06).
4. Joe Kines (0-1, 2006).
5. Mike DuBose (24-23, 1997-2000).
— Sean Kugler (UTEP ’89), entering his first season. Kugler played at UTEP and later spent eight seasons as an assistant, the last six with the offensive line, making him an attractive candidate for the university following Price’s retirement after last season. “We’re so pleased to get Sean back at UTEP,” UTEP athletics director Bob Stull said when Kugler was hired, and the feeling is mutual. After spending a dozen years away, one on the FBS level and 11 in the NFL, Kugler is back at his alma mater.
Kugler was an offensive lineman for the Miners — playing for position coach Andy Reid, now of the Kansas City Chiefs — from 1984-88, helping UTEP to its lone 10-win season in 1988. All but one season of his college coaching career has taken place in El Paso, beginning as a graduate assistant from 1993-94 before taking over with the line from 1995-2000. His final season, in 2000, saw the Miners finish 8-4 and earn a bid to the Humanitarian Bowl, where UTEP suffered a 38-23 loss to Boise State. Then his career took off.
Kugler went from coaching the offensive line at UTEP to coaching the tight ends for the Detroit Lions, a fairly major leap for any college coach — and doubly so for a position coach at UTEP, one could say. This is a theme with Kugler: Though he’s far from a household name, his name carries significant cachet in coaching circles. After three seasons with the tight ends, Kugler shifted back to the line, leading the Lions’ front from 2004-05. In 2006, Kugler spent a season at Boise State as Chris Petersen’s assistant head coach, helping the Broncos finish 13-0, before going back to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. Three years with the Bills, three years with the Steelers, and here we are. Oh, one more thing: Petersen calls Kugler “the best football coach” he’s ever been around. And that’s with “no question.” That’s good enough for me.
— Tidbit (coaching edition): Kugler reached into his coaching past to fill out his staff, beginning with new offensive coordinator Patrick Higgins, the former Purdue receivers coach — and interim coach for last season’s bowl game — who coached alongside Kugler at UTEP from 1998-2000. New defensive line coach Andrew Browning was a defensive lineman on Boise State’s team in 2006, Kugler’s lone season with the program. Kugler also added some assistants with prior head coaching experience in receivers coach Todd Whitten and defensive coordinator Scott Stoker. My only question with Stoker: Why did it take this long for him to get an FBS coordinator job? Stoker replaced former Boise State linebacker coach Jeff Choate, who left after three months for an assistant position under Will Muschamp at Florida.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
— Offense: Kugler has already announced sophomore Blaire Sullivan as UTEP’s starting quarterback, saying Sullivan had separated himself from senior Carson Meger and redshirt freshman Garrett Simpson over the latter stages of spring ball, so that settles that. No, not really. Yes, Sullivan was UTEP’s best option under center during the spring — this is true. Having said that, it would be a surprise to end all surprises if Sullivan did not join Meger and Simpson in watching from the sidelines come August, when Texas A&M transfer Jameill Showers takes full and firm control as the star of this offense and the face of Kugler’s first team as UTEP’s new coach.
You don’t know Showers, perhaps, but you all know Johnny Manziel, the Heisman winner who outdueled Showers last spring and summer to nab the starting role at Texas A&M. That spelled the end of Showers’ run in College Station after one season and garbage snaps, sending him gift-wrapped with a bow to Kugler and the Miners. Hey, there’s no shame in losing a competition to a player such as Manziel, as did Showers, and that loss gave UTEP a superbly athletic, strong-armed underclassman with immense potential. He’ll have moments of brilliance, moments of youth, but Showers is the sort of quarterback talent rarely seen with this program.
Showers’ favorite target will be junior receiver Jordan Leslie (51 receptions for 973 yards), an all-conference talent, but the Miners are short on overall ability in the passing game. Can Leslie do it alone? He’s good enough to put up similar numbers with Showers delivering the football, but as last season proved, UTEP needs additional assistance at the skill positions. At least the Miners return receivers with game experience, such as juniors Jim Jones and Devin Patterson (11 for 126) and sophomore Cole Freytag, but the group as a whole needs a boost from an as-yet-unproven second line. Watching these receivers a season ago, one couldn’t help but be struck by the group’s ability to get over the top (Leslie in particular) and inability to make even the simplest plays with regularity.
Showers might end up being the star of this offense — or its most recognizable name, at least. Yet the engine behind what the Miners want to achieve offensively will remain junior Nathan Jeffery (897 yards, 4.88 yards a carry), last season’s leading rusher despite a nagging groin injury that limited his effectiveness for much of the first two months. Jeffery can produce when healthy, as evidenced by his breakout game against Oklahoma in the opener and his solid close; he averaged 120.25 yards a game over the Miners’ last four. The running game as a whole is intriguing, in fact: Jeffery can churn out yards, for one, but UTEP should add another running aspect from the quarterback position.
— Defense: A schedule largely devoid of elite offenses — outside of that team in College Station — should keep UTEP’s defense out of the bottom 10 nationally in most major categories in 2013. Not that the Miners shouldn’t deserve to be there: Stoker is a very nice hire for this program for several reasons, one being that his scheme fits well with what the program has done in recent years. But on paper, this defense looks as weak as any in college football. They play the games for a reason, of course, but the Miners and this new staff have a difficult path to follow before the defense is put in order.
The strongest slice is the secondary, especially after the NCAA granted safety Richard Spencer a sixth season of eligibility. Spencer was on his way to an all-conference 2012 before suffering a knee injury four games into the year. His return gives UTEP an unquestioned leader not just in the backfield, not just on defense but on the entire roster; such leadership is in high demand, and returning Spencer gives the Miners an enormous boost.
But he’s the only returning defensive back with extensive starting experience. He’s also one of only two returning contributors along the back seven: UTEP loses four starters in the secondary — one, sophomore Shane Huhn, transferred to Texas A&M — and two at linebacker, so this is a concern. So the Miners’ secondary rebuilds around Spencer. What are the options? Pencil senior C.J. Haley in at one cornerback. Junior Wesley Miller will have a huge role at safety, whether strong or free. UTEP added five defensive backs, two off the JUCO level, in February’s recruiting class. Someone needs to step up.
Senior A.J. Ropati (58 tackles) returns at middle linebacker, so he’s the building block on the second level. UTEP shouldn’t have to look too far to find a replacement on the weak side, as junior Anthony Puente seems poised to move up to starting role, but losing would-be sophomore Gage Sharp robs the Miners of a likely starter on the strong side. As in the secondary, UTEP has at least three redshirt freshmen at its disposal at linebacker. Nevertheless, that the Miners have only two returning starters along the back seven — and that one is coming off a pretty significant injury — is concerning. That the back seven is still in better shape than the defensive line is of even greater concern.
Here’s the biggest issue: Outside of senior nose tackle Marcus Bagley (32 tackles), UTEP doesn’t have one defensive lineman heavier than 280 pounds. That would help explain why few teams were so worthless at the point of attack a season ago. What the Miners do have is some quickness off the edge in senior ends Horace Miller (31 tackles, 6.0 sacks) and James Davidson (36 tackles, 6.5 for loss), followed by sophomore Roy Robertson (17 tackles), so the line could be effective on clear passing downs. Of course, UTEP needs to stop the run to get to that point. The interior gets a boost from JUCO transfer Peter Nonu and redshirt freshman Devonte Richardson to Bagley and fellow seniors Adam Ayala and Germard Reed (38 tackles, 7.0 for loss), but the line as a whole is not in good shape.
— Special teams: Sophomore running back Autrey Golden scored twice on kickoff returns last fall, against East Carolina and Southern Mississippi; while still young, Golden has already accounted for two of the program’s four return touchdowns over the last six seasons. Meanwhile, another run continued: UTEP has allowed at least one touchdown on kickoff returns in each of the last five years. In the kicking game, the Miners lost punter Ian Campbell to graduation while kicker Steven Valadez was dismissed from the program in late April. Campbell was a big asset for this defense. That leaves UTEP without a kicker or punter on scholarship heading into August.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH
— Offensive line: If given time, I have little doubt that Kugler will eventually work out the kinks with UTEP’s offensive front. Unfortunately, he has less than 110 days until the start of the 2013 season. Don’t expect any miracles, basically, even if Kugler’s touch will yield greater technique, increased stability and slightly improved line play in 2013. The Miners need to hit the recruiting trail hard for two kinds of linemen: one, the sort of under-the-radar, room-for-growth two-star prospect, and two, the JUCO transfer who can bridge the gap right from the start. Though the top five is workable, a lack of depth up front could cripple the Miners’ offense.
The star is senior left tackle Brander Craighead, a 23-game starter over his career, followed by junior left guard Jerel Watkins, who carries 21 career starts into 2013. At least Showers can feel secure in what UTEP has protecting his blindside. A second junior, Kyle Brown, returns at right guard. When it comes to filling open spots at center and right tackle, UTEP could promote last season’s understudies — Paulo Melendez and Mike Amdall — or open the competition up to three or four linemen coming off redshirt seasons or fresh off the JUCO ranks. One addition, Chris Thomas, has something the rest of the line lacks: size. A lack of beef is a major concern; so is an overall lack of depth.
GAME(S) TO WATCH
— Texas-San Antonio: UTEP begins with three very winnable games, leaving the Miners with a chance to kick off the Kugler era on a high note. First comes New Mexico, followed by New Mexico State, followed by UTSA, followed by Colorado State — so three wins in September is a very real possibility. It gets more difficult from there, but there’s no question that UTEP’s schedule is conducive to a nice debut. Oh, and before I forget: UTEP at Texas A&M on Nov. 2.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION
— In a nutshell: Very quickly, a few reasons for pessimism heading into 2013: inexperience at quarterback, lack of reliability at receiver, zero depth along the offensive line, an extremely troubling defensive front, almost zero experience along the back seven, little depth anywhere on defense, the coaching change. While the schedule is easy enough to expect three or four wins, UTEP does not enter 2013 in a great place.
Let’s get that out of the way. While waiting for Kugler to implement his system, restock the cupboard and remake UTEP’s personality, the Miners can focus on a few returning starters worthy of some level of excitement — with that level of excitement solely up to your discretion. How about Showers? Getting a quarterback with this level of athleticism and ability doesn’t happen often in El Paso. Leslie and Jeffery? Along with the Showers, that’s a pretty nice building-block trio for this offense. Getting another season out of Spencer can’t be overstated: UTEP needed a leader, and Spencer is back to lead by example. Craighead is a potential all-conference pick at left tackle.
There are bright spots, with perhaps none bigger than Kugler. But the holes and voids are immense and unavoidable, beginning on both lines and extending outwards. Here’s where Kugler comes into play: he’s a line coach first and foremost, which is a tremendous asset, but his work with schemes and technique is secondary to his work reworking UTEP into a more physical team at the line of scrimmage.
— Dream season: The Miners start strong, hit a midseason road bump and close strong, winning two in a row in November to end 7-5.
— Nightmare season: UTEP goes only 1-3 in September, setting a poor tone for a season that quickly unravels over the final two months.
IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING
— Where UTEP fans hang out: For recruiting news, check out Miner Digs and Miner Report. For more coverage, Joe Muench of the El Paso Times talks UTEP sports on his blog, while Miner Rush is the newest addition to UTEP’s blog footprint.
— All-name team nominee: DE Eddie Custard.
— Who is No. 111? This school’s director of new media graduated from the same university as a former midfielder for the San Jose Earthquakes.
2013 TEAM OVERVIEW
— Conference: Conference USA, West
— Location: El Paso
— Nickname: Miners
— Returning starters: 11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
— Last year’s ranking: No. 108
— 2012 record: 3-9 (2-6)
— Last year’s re-ranking: No. 102
— 2013 schedule:
Sept. 7 New Mexico
Sept. 14 at New Mexico State
Sept. 21 Texas-San Antonio
Sept. 28 at Colorado State
Oct. 5 Louisiana Tech
Oct. 12 Tulsa
Oct. 26 at Rice
Nov. 2 at Texas A&M
Nov. 9 at North Texas
Nov. 16 Florida International
Nov. 23 at Tulane
Nov. 30 at Middle Tennessee State
Paul Myerberg is on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.