Rice football’s lone victory of the 2017 season came against the UTEP Miners who have also moved on to a new coach. What can Dana Dimel accomplish in his first year in El Paso?
As Mike Bloomgren ushers in a new era at South Main, Dana Dimel hopes to bring an injection of new life into a UTEP program that finds themselves, with Rice, working their way up from the bottom of Conference USA. The UTEP Miners were the only winless team in the FBS last season, making the bar for improvement manageable in Dimel’s first season. It just might take some time.
Rice would have been in the cellar themselves, had it not been for a 31-14 victory over the Miners last season. The Owls and Miners have met 21 times; the Owls lead the series 14-7. The two squads will square off next on Nov. 3 in a game will serve as a benchmark for the rebuild being undertaken by each program.
UTEP has the fortune (or perhaps misfortune given 2017’s results) of returning a fair amount of starters on both sides of the ball. That puts the onus on Dimel to coach up a group of largely veteran players who he hopes have learned a lot over an extremely challenging season that led to the dismissal of his predecessor, Sean Kugler.
Here’s how UTEP stacks up on both sides of the ball in 2018:
Dimel will have to start from scratch in more ways than one. Last year’s starting quarterback Zach Greenlee is gone, so is leading receiving Tyler Batson. Those are two significant holes that will need to be filled, quickly.
At quarterback, the Miners will choose between two distinctly different commodities. Dual-threat Kai Locksley, the 2017 NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year put up 2,238 passing yards, 705 rushing yards and 40 combined touchdowns for Iowa Western. He’ll battle it out with returning senior pocket passer Ryan Metz. Metz was less impressive a year ago, throwing three touchdowns and six interceptions in eight appearances.
UTEP opens against Northern Arizona. ESPN FPI projections give UTEP a 49.9 percent chance of winning their season opener against NAU, a decidedly more lenient opponent than last year in which they fell to eventual College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma, 56-7.
There are no “sure things” after the 0-fer campaign in 2017, but there won’t be another contest this winnable for the Miners, who could choose to put both guys through some live game action to finalize the quarterback battle if that’s the route Dimel chooses.
Whoever wins the starting job will have the benefit of an experienced offensive line in front of them. The Miners bring back four of their five starters from a year ago, led by 6-foot-2, 305-pound center Derron Gatewood.
The Miners are fairly well set up at the skill positions as well. Senior wideout Kavika Johnson (15 receptions, 178 yards and two touchdowns in 2017) leads the receiving corps and Quardraiz Wadley and Treyvon Hughes will battle for the starting job in the backfield.
Similar to the offense, the defense is also filled with returning players at several key positions. Again, not necessarily a good thing. The UTEP secondary was one of their stronger units last season, surrendering 212.3 passing yards per game, the 48th best mark in the country. Outside of the 496-yard thrashing from Baker Mayfield, UTEP allowed just one other opponent top 230 yards through the air against them in 2017. The Miners return almost the entirety of that unit, which should see a step up in production immediately if the front seven can give them more help.
UTEP registered 11 sacks in 2017, one more than Air Force who finished last in the entire nation in the metric. The Miners couldn’t figure out how to get the quarterback, no matter how hard they tried. If the upperclassmen tandem of C.J. Reese and Denzel Chukwukelu can be even the slightest bit more disruptive this year they could make an already strong secondary that much better.
The linebackers are where the optimism fades. Gone are Alvin Jones, Dante Lovilotte and Julian Jackson. That leaves Jayson Vanhook as the only member of the 2018 unit with meaningful playing experience. The youth infusion leaves the position group wide open. Players like incoming freshman Cal Wallerstedt and returning juniors Jamar Smith (34 tackles, four for a loss) and Dylan Parsee (26 tackles, two for a loss) will be thrust into starting roles. If this unit can anchor the middle of the field the Miners have a chance to make significant strides on this side of the ball in 2018. That’s a big if.