Coach: Sean Kugler (9-16, entering third season; 9-16 overall)
2014 record: 7-5, 5-3 in Conference USA; third in C-USA West
Look back: Former UTEP player and Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Sean Kugler used a powerful rushing attack and potent defense to steer the Miners to the program’s first winning season since 2005. Kugler, who just wrapped up his second season at UTEP, could not differ more from former coach Mike Price, shunning a pass-heavy offense to a ball-control attack and a menacing defense.
After two early wins against regional rivals New Mexico and New Mexico State, the team struggled against Conference USA foe Louisiana Tech and the Big 12’s Kansas State. UTEP hit its stride during wins over Old Dominion, Texas-San Antonio, Southern Miss and North Texas.
UTEP sputtered during the New Mexico Bowl, with a 21-6 loss to Utah State highlighting its limitations on offense and leaving the team much to address.
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 5
Defensive starters lost: 6
Key losses: QB Jamiell Showers, RB Nathan Jeffery, WR Jarrad Shaw, WR Ian Hamilton, TE Eric Tomlinson, LT Jerel Watkins, DT Maurice Chavis, LB Anthony Puente, CB/PR Damian Payne, CB Adrian James, S Wesley Miller
Top returnees: RB Aaron Jones, FB Darrin Laufasa, LG Wil Hernandez, C Eric Lee, RG Derek Elmendorff, RT Jerome Daniels, DE Nick Usher, DE Roy Robertson-Harris, NT Gino Bresolin, LB Alvin Jones, S Devin Cockrell
Strengths: Junior Aaron Jones is a dynamic running back who has averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry during his first two seasons. He rushed for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. UTEP also returns four starting offensive lineman and fullback Darrin Laufasa, who joined Jones in helping the Miners rank No. 33 nationally in rushing offense (207.8 yards per game) and No. 2 in time of possession.
UTEP’s strong run game helped the defense, which ranked No. 33 nationally (368.1 yards allowed per game). While the team lost six defensive players, Kugler is confident the group will maintain the edge it developed last season.
“The defense was great all spring,” Kugler told the El Paso Times. “Since the mid-point of last year the light came on. These guys play with energy, they practice with energy.”
Weaknesses: UTEP is searching for a starting quarterback after the departure of Jamiell Showers, with Mack Leftwich, Garrett Simpson and Ryan Metz all battling for the job. The team ranked No. 118 out of 125 NCAA-recognized FBS teams in passing offense last season (142.9 yards per game). While the Miners will never pass first, they need the ability to sell a respectable passing threat to prevent defenses from smothering the ground attack.
The defense looks promising, but the team still has to offset the loss of key players like safety Wesley Miller, who led the team with 80 tackles.
Outlook: The Miners have the talent necessary to make back-to-back bowl appearances, but solid quarterback play, an imposing defense and dodging injuries will dictate whether the team can contend for a Conference USA title.
Sept. 5 at Arkansas
Sept. 12 at Texas Tech
Sept. 19 at New Mexico State
Sept. 26 Incarnate Word
Oct. 3 Texas-San Antonio
Oct. 10 at FIU
Oct. 24 FAU
Oct. 31 at Southern Miss
Nov. 6 Rice
Nov. 14 at Old Dominion
Nov. 21 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 28 at North Texas
College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com