NCAA Football Preview - UTEP Miners

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: It was a muddy season for the UTEP Miners in 2013, as they went 2-10 overall with a 1-7 mark in Conference USA play. The Miners finished at the bottom of the C-USA West Division with the dismal record, and tied for last in the entire conference with three other squads.

UTEP nearly began the season 2-0, however. The Miners dropped a season-opening contest to New Mexico, 42-35, in overtime on Sept. 7, then rebounded nicely from the defeat to take a sound 42-21 decision against New Mexico State. Led by quarterback Jameill Showers, the Miners were seemingly in good position to earn some wins and compete in the conference.

But seven consecutive losses derailed the season for UTEP, and the Miners only picked up one more win (against FIU) the rest of the way. A poor offense was primarily to blame, as three different quarterbacks combined to throw just 14 touchdown passes all season. Only one receiver caught more than 30 passes, and the saviors of the offense - a running back tandem of Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffery - still only managed 1,343 net yards and nine scores. Showers pitched in with four rushing scores of his own.

Coach Sean Kugler enters his second season with UTEP, and will be looking to build upward after a disappointing first season. UTEP last played in a bowl game in 2010, and while there's plenty of work to be done, it seems as good a time as any to make moves in Conference USA.


OFFENSE: The best thing for the Miners and their coaching staff to do following last season is to look forward to a fresh start. That's exactly what they get with the 2014 season, although there likely won't be much of a change in personnel once the first kickoff is sent up into the air to start the new season.

"We've maintained the entire offensive philosophy and defensive philosophy, we kept our entire coaching staff intact, and we feel consistency is going to be the model to turn this thing around," Kugler said.

Kugler returns eight offensive starters from 2013, including the quarterback Showers and both Jones and Jeffrey at the running back slots. Showers is the favorite to win the job under center as a senior, but he'll get a push from sophomores Garrett Simpson (6-foot-7) and Mack Leftwich. Showers was the leading statistical quarterback in 2013, registering 1,263 passing yards and 11 touchdowns on 107-of-188 passing. He added four interceptions and four rushing scores to go with his stats. The passing game only managed 163.2 yards per game, however.

Jones led the running backs with 155 carries for 849 yards and four scores as a freshman, while Jeffrey racked up 133 attempts for 549 yards and five touchdowns, which led the team. The running duo with Showers makes for a potentially explosive ground game. Jones and Jeffrey both suffered injuries in the 2013 season, but will be looking to bounce back at 100 percent health.

Jordan Leslie was the team's leading receiver in 2013 after hauling in 44 receptions for 612 yards and seven touchdowns. He's no longer with the program, so the bulk of the pass-catching work should fall, quite literally, in the hands of receiver Ian Hamilton (25 catches, 354 yards, one touchdown) and tight end Eric Tomlinson (30 catches, 304 yards, one touchdown). There will likely be some shifting of positions on the offensive line with three starters returning.

DEFENSE: UTEP's defense didn't exactly pick up the slack in 2013. Last season the Miners allowed opponents to score over 40 points seven times. The opposition scored more than 30 points against UTEP in 10 of the team's 12 games. And much of it had to do with the run-stopping ability, or lack thereof.

The Miners surrendered 247.8 rushing yards per game to opponents, which was the majority of the problem. Luckily for Kugler and defensive coordinator Scott Stoker, UTEP returns its top three tacklers from a year ago - two of which were freshmen defensive backs. Devin Cockrell led the team with 76 tackles and added a pair of pass breakups, while Dashone Smith checked in at second with 69 stops, adding a team-high two interceptions. Both are expected to start once again in the backfield.

Linebacker Anthony Puente registered 60 tackles in 2013 with two tackles for loss. He'll likely anchor the middle of the linebacking corps, while Trey Brown, Alvin Jones, Cooper Foster and Justen Tatum all fight for spots.

Up front, Roy Robertson-Harris returns for his junior season as the only returning starter on the defensive line. Robertson-Harris is a monster at 6- foot-7, 255 pounds, and will be joined by other big men on the line in Alex Villareal (6-4) and Nick Usher (6-3). Size does matter amongst the front seven for UTEP as the Miners look to shut down the run much better than last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Sophomores Jay Mattox and Mike Ruggles will retain their spots as the starting place kicker and punter, respectively. Mattox connected on 7- of-15 field goal tries last season with a long of 45, while Ruggles punted 56 times for an average of an even 40 yards per punt. He added an impressive long of 73 yards.

OUTLOOK: The good thing for coach Kugler is that he doesn't have to worry much about players he desperately has to replace. Instead, he'll be focusing on how he can get the most out of his players production-wise as they get set to start up the 2014 season.

The Miners open up their slate with an away game against New Mexico - the same team that took them to overtime last year on opening weekend. Then UTEP has back-to-back home games against Texas Tech and New Mexico State, which is followed by an away clash with Kansas State to end the Miners' non-conference schedule.

Once October rolls around, it's all C-USA for UTEP, which begins with an away contest against Louisiana Tech. Key conference games include home against Old Dominion (Oct. 11), away at UTSA (Oct. 25), home against North Texas (Nov. 15) and home against Middle Tennessee (Nov. 29).

"We really feel we've made a lot of improvements already," Kugler said. "In the spring we saw the competitiveness and work ethic improve. Again, we're just trying to set standards in place for the players to improve upon."

It's possible for UTEP to match its 2013 win total of two games before the Miners hit their conference schedule. But it will take a strong effort from returning players on both sides of the ball to better their 2013 stats. It looks to be a better season for the Miners, but they're still not ready to contend just yet.