Head coach Sean Kugler’s UTEP Miners had a promising start to the 2016 season, whipping New Mexico State 38-22 in their season opener on the strength of Aaron Jones’ 249 yard rushing performance (he added another 43 yards receiving). Fresno State transfer QB Zack Greenlee overcame a slow start to go 15 of 27 for 229 yards and throw 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. UTEP led 24-3 at half and then blunted a brief second half rally to coast to a more dominating win than the final score suggests.
If they remain healthy, 2016 sets up for a clearly improved UTEP squad to earn a minor bowl bid and be a Conference USA West contender. This is an actual opponent, not Prairie View SEC-style scheduling.
UTEP PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Aaron Jones. The El Paso native was a high school star at Burges, but a 170 pound senior season playing weight and suspicions about El Paso competition kept the big boys away. At UTEP, Jones amassed 2,132 yards rushing as a freshman and sophomore before losing most of his junior season to an early season injury against Texas Tech. Before he went down, Jones had 162 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns against the Red Raiders. In the first half.
Now 215 pounds, Jones has great balance, top notch vision and cut back ability and he runs with deceptive power. He’s also a major threat out of the backfield. He wrecked New Mexico State for 292 yards from scrimmage on 34 touches (including a 75 yard touchdown run) and Texas will face a determined NFL caliber runner who would be splitting equal time with D’onta Foreman if he were wearing Burnt Orange. Jones knows that playing Texas in Austin is his NFL scouting reel and he’ll play accordingly.
#29 is a pleasure to watch.
QB Kavika Johnson/Ryan Metz. Wait, isn’t Zac Greenlee the UTEP QB? He was until his MCL strain last week. Expect the Miners to hold him out for their conference season opener. Kavika Johnson is a mobile, run-oriented QB who was athletic enough to log snaps at WR last week. Ryan Metz offers a similar profile in a 6-4 package. Both will play if either struggles.
TE Hayden Plinke. The 1st Team All Conference TE is a huge target (38 catches last year) who also acts as their sixth OL (he’s 6-4, 265). He’s a big body who can move the sticks on 3rd down and whip your edge defenders on 1st and 2nd. Look for him on play action. Whoever draws this assignment better pack their lunch.
UTEP OL. They return four starters from 2015. These big boys average 323 across the board and when you add in Plinke, they’re one of the largest blocking fronts in college football. They’re very physical in the running game, but they will struggle with our quickness and athleticism if and when they’re behind the sticks.
ILB Alvin Jones. The standout inside linebacker is the undersized heart and soul of UTEP’s 3-4 defense. He’s a big hitter with great football instincts.
OLB Nick Usher. The most athletic player on UTEP’s front goes 6-4, 245 and is their best hope for pressuring our passing game and creating the sorts of disruption plays we saw from Notre Dame’s Isaac Rochell.
UTEP’s offensive coordinator is former Boise State OC Brent Pease. Given their assets, that should tell you what you need to know about their offensive approach. Lots of formations, motion and probing for mental errors to set up one play kill strikes. Which might be available if Dylan Haines is a game day scratch and our DBs lose their minds like Davante Davis did last week. The Miners will run and throw it to Jones 30+ times, toss it to Plinke on play action and take their shots when they see us cheat against a formation.
Longhorn fans should be extremely encouraged by the showing of DTs Boyette, Nelson and Ford against Notre Dame last week, so I expect the Miners to try to create some assignment conflict and involve their QBs rather than just rely on a conventional running game. Tackling and good pursuit angles are paramount as Jones is capable of humiliating defenders who lose their fundamentals.
On defense, the Miners showed themselves to be susceptible to running quarterbacks last week and it’s doubtful their corners can hold up against Foreman and Burt outside for four quarters without substantial safety help. They also have trouble mounting a conventional pass rush without blitzing. If the Texas offense can avoid sluggishness and mental errors, yards should be there for the taking.
Defensive backs four through six (UTEP’s worst starter, nickel, dime) are a major concern for any smaller program, so don’t be surprised if UT’s inside receiver rotation finds plenty of green. Texas will pound the ball inside, throw it from maximum protection and let Swoopes do his thing when the game situation warrants. UTEP may simply lay off, drop 7 or 8, play zone and demand us to execute.
If the Texas offense is humming and penetration is rare, expect the coaches to try to get Chris Warren going to raise his confidence and save some wear and tear on Foreman.
This game has plenty of potential for a post-Notre Dame emotional hangover and it’s crucial that the Longhorns respect their opponent, not allow UTEP to take the air out of the ball, and punish athletic mismatches. A nice early lead would be a godsend as UTEP isn’t well suited to playing from behind.