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Fine-tuned UTEP team seeks bowl season

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The Miners head into the 2016 football season with a vastly different depth chart than they had this time last year.

The team returns 13 of 22 starters to the roster and an influx of new talent and players returning from injury. Last season 17 players were lost, which has reshaped the roster and has the Miners looking to improve last year’s 5-7 record.

Star running back Aaron Jones was injured during the second game at Texas Tech. Starting quarterback Mack Leftwich was lost due to a concussion at New Mexico State and then at other points during the season due to various injuries.

Although Leftwich will miss this whole season due to a shoulder injury, and back-up running back Treyvon Hughes will miss the entire year following a knee injury, the rest of the Miners’ roster is intact.

Transfer quarterback Zack Greenlee from Fresno State secured the starting quarterback spot and running back Aaron Jones is healthy. The offense has a plethora of weapons at receiver with emerging freshman Eddie Sinegal in camp and the further improvement of senior wideout Cole Freytag.

A beefed up offensive line will depend on the continued impressive play of center Derron Gatewood and right tackle Jerrod Brooks.

With the offense spreading out three or four receivers each play, defenses will no longer be able to stack eight men in the box against the Aaron Jones running attack. Expect Jones to eclipse his high of 1,321 rushing yards in 2014, if he stays healthy, with a stronger offensive line, a genuine passing attack and only six men in the box.

On defense, the Miners return leading tackler, linebacker Alvin Jones (93 tackles in 2015), who will play in new defensive coordinator Tom Mason’s 3-4 defense. Several transfers are on Mason’s new defense, which means that the unit could be considered untested on the defensive line. The unit is experienced in the secondary, where sophomores Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly return at cornerback, as well as senior free safety Dashone Smith.

Unlike last year when Beverly and Needham found themselves on an island in man coverage against some of the best receivers that the SEC, Big 12 and C-USA had to offer, Mason’s 3-4 difference will have the secondary in a zone the majority of the time. Smith, Beverly and Needham all finished the season with one interception each; but, in a zone defense, considering all three players’ intelligence and athleticism, there is no reason to think that all three should not improve on those numbers this season.

A look into the season

vs. New Mexico State (Sept.3)

The Miners will open Saturday against the NMSU Aggies, who look like they may be without their own star running back, Larry Rose III. In last season’s amazing 50-47 overtime win by the Miners at NMSU, Rose rushed for 186 yards and a touchdown in UTEP’s first game without Aaron Jones. Rose had minor hernia surgery and is questionable for Saturday’s game.

at University of Texas (Sept. 10)

In week two, the Miners will travel to UT Austin, with many UTEP fans expecting the team to shock the world and perhaps hasten Longhorns’ head coach Charlie Strong’s firing. With a new offensive coordinator of their own, a typically strong defense, the best freshman quarterback in the country and a loaded roster, it appears that the Longhorns could be the most improved team in the country this season. The last time that the Miners lost to the Longhorns in 2009, Texas went to the BCS Championship with a 13-1 record. They may not be that good this season, but it seems like they can stick it to the Miners come Sept. 10.

vs. Army (Sept. 17)

The next week, UTEP welcomes Army in a game in which the university hopes will pack the Sun Bowl because of its proximity to Fort Bliss. Army runs a triple option offense due to their lack of top quality players and should pose little problem for UTEP in what should be the team’s second win of the season.

vs. Southern Miss

(Sept. 24)

In week four, the Miners will play typically strong Southern Miss at home and will catch the Golden Eagles at the Sun Bowl in a down year, and should run their record to 3-1 for the first time in Kugler’s tenure.

at. LA Tech (Oct. 1)

In week five, UTEP will travel to Ruston, La., to face the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs and head coach Skip Holtz, who has had the Miners’ number during his time with the Bulldogs. Even though star running back Kenneth Dixon has moved on, the Bulldogs will win and move the Miners record against La. Tech to 2-10-1 in the series.

vs. Florida

International (Oct. 8)

Then, Miners are back home for an easy win against Florida International in front of the home crowd before an off week on October 15.

at UTSA (Oct. 22)

In the C-USA schedule, the Miners will travel to San Antonio to face UTSA, probably one of the worst teams in the nation. The last time the Miners were in San Antonio, the defense allowed just two first downs and 70 yards of offense. This game might not go that well, but the Miners should move their record to 5-2.

vs. Old Dominion

(Oct. 29)

The team will find themselves bowl eligible following a hard-fought victory against a game Old Dominion squad at the Sun Bowl. Despite the game being back and forth, just like last year’s game in Virginia, the Miners should come out on top and get the much-coveted sixth win.

vs. Houston Baptist

(Nov. 5)

A breather in the middle of the C-USA schedule comes on Nov. 5, when FCS team Houston Baptist visits. In the past few years, these games have not always been cake walks for the Miners, but this is a totally different team and this one is all Miners.

at Florida Atlantic (Nov. 12)

The letdown comes the next week at Florida Atlantic, when UTEP should receive their third and final loss of the season. Brother of former Louisiana Tech quarterback Jeff Driskel, Jason Driskel, has a lot of options in the passing game and the long trip to Florida will prove to be too much for the Miners.

at Rice (Nov. 19);

vs. North Texas (Nov. 26)

The team’s final two wins of the season should come on Nov. 19 in Houston against a very good Rice team as the Miners lock up the C-USA West. The Miners should also avoid a let-down against North Texas in their final home game on senior day and handily defeat the Mean Green as they prepare to head to the C-USA championship against Western Kentucky.

The Miners are predicted to finish the regular season with a 9-3 record and face Western Kentucky in the C-USA Championship game. The team has shown in recent years that post-season play is not necessarily their forte and facing WKU’s high-powered offense will turn the championship game into an all-out shoot out. The Miners may lose the game, but wind up with a very nice consolation prize in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 17.

Jason Green may be reached at [email protected].

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Fine-tuned UTEP team seeks bowl season