(Part 6 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)
Texas El Paso will need an infusion of new faces to come through at the skill positions as it pursues only its second winning season in the past 11 years.
Only four starters return from an offense which ranked 82nd nationally in scoring (26.3 points per game), 103rd in passing (183.7 yards per game), 102nd in total yardage (369.2 ypg) and 98th in turnover margin (minus-5).
Veteran quarterback Ryan Metz is surrounded by an inexperienced group of backs and receivers. Entering his junior year, Metz has appeared in 19 games with 12 starts over the past two seasons. Completing 64.7 percent of his passes in seven starts last fall, Metz threw for 1,375 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions.
UTEP (4-8, 2-6) finished a respectable 53rd in rushing, but is now without its all-time leading rusher, Aaron Jones (4,114 career yards). Jones averaged a whopping 7.7 yards per carry while racking up 1,773 yards and 17 TDs in his final season. UTEP's first draft pick since 2008, Jones went to the Green Bay Packers in the fifth round.
Fullback Kevin Dove (19 carries, 101 yards, 1 TD) and tailback Walter Dawn (15-59-2), a couple of sophomores, are the top two returning rushers. TK Powell (21 carries, 134 yards), who averaged 6.4 yards as a true freshman walk-on in 2015, is back from a redshirt season. Joshua Fields, a promising true freshman from El Paso Americas, could contribute immediately.
Eddie Sinegal (29 receptions, 338 yards), a part-time starter as a true freshman, and junior Warren Redix (12-84-3) are the top returnees among wide receivers.
Arizona Western Community College transfer David Lucero is the primary candidate at tight end.
Under the tutelage of former NFL offensive lineman Sean Kugler, the program's fifth-year head coach, the Miners have gained notoriety for their physical play up front. This year should be no different.
Senior left guard Will Hernandez — UTEP's first first-team All-Conference offensive lineman since 2009 — is the best of the group. Since being redshirted as a true freshman, Hernandez has been in the starting lineup for all 37 games.
Junior Derron Gatewood started all 12 games (5 at center, 7 at right guard), while senior Tanner Stallings started the final seven games at center.
Also expected to figure into the equation are sophomore left tackle Greg Long, senior right guard Derek Elmendorff and junior right tackle Jerrod Brooks.
UTEP is looking for improvement on the defensive side after ranking 105th nationally in points allowed (34.9 ppg), 96th against the run (210.3 ypg), 41st against the pass (209 ypg) and 70th in total yardage (419.3 ypg).
Seven starters return from a unit which produced just 11 turnovers and 14 sacks.
Junior end Mike Sota (47 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss) is the lone incumbent up front. Also pushing for playing time at the ends are juniors Christian Buckingham, Gene Hopkins (13 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack) and Chris Richardson (21 tackles). Another sophomore, Denzel Chukwukelu (8 tackles), has the inside track at nose guard.
Three of the four linebackers return. Senior linebackers Alvin Jones (93 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks in 10 games) and Dante Lovilotte (89 tackles, 6.5 TFL) ranked 1-2 on the team in tackles. Jayson VanHook (36 tackles, 5.5, 1 sack) started nine games as a true freshman.
Sidelined for the entire 2015 season with an injury, senior strong safety Devin Cockrell (58 tackles, 3 TFL) started all 12 games and contributed a team-high 10 special teams stops. Juniors Nik Needham (54 tackles, 11 pass breakups) and Kalon Beverly (41 tackles) are fixtures at the corners. Sophomore Michael Lewis, who redshirted last season, recorded 38 tackles while drawing eight starts in 2015.
Sophomore Andrew Zubia takes over at placekicker after the Miners attempted only seven field goals.
Senior punter Alan Luna averaged 41 yards on 62 attempts, with nine of 50-plus.
Junior Terry Juniel returned 22 punts for a 9.3-yard average and nine kickoffs at an 18.2 clip.
2017 UTEP SCHEDULE
(All times Central and subject to change)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 at Oklahoma 2:30
Sept. 9 Rice* 7:00
Sept. 15 (Fri.) Arizona 9:15
Sept. 23 at New Mexico State 7:00
Sept. 30 at Army 12:30
Oct. 7 WKU* 7:00
Oct. 14 at Southern Miss* 6:00
Oct. 28 UTSA* 7:00
Nov. 4 at Middle Tennessee* 6:30
Nov. 11 at North Texas* TBA
Nov. 18 Louisiana Tech* TBA
Nov. 25 at UAB* TBA