Mountain West Football: First Look at the UTEP Miners
Boise State and New Mexico will both face UTEP as part of their 2021 non-conference football schedule.
Are the Miners prepared for the next step?
Two Mountain West teams will play against the UTEP Miners when college football season kicks off in the fall. The Boise State Broncos will host UTEP on September 10, while the New Mexico Lobos will travel to El Paso on September 25.
While it’s possible both teams will be favorites against the Miners, both the Broncos and Lobos will be seen as benchmarks for how much work is left in what has been a substantial rebuild out in west Texas.
Location: El Paso, Texas
Mascot: Paydirt Pete
Conference: Conference USA
2020 Record: 3-5 (0-4 CUSA)
Head Coach: Dana Dimel (fourth year; 5-27 at UTEP, 35-66 overall). UTEP has long been one of the toughest places to win consistently at the FBS level, with just six winning seasons since 1987, but the program bottomed out completely after a New Mexico Bowl berth in 2014 and is only now showing real signs of competing consistently under Dimel.
Finishing 2020 with three wins may not sound like much, especially when you consider two of those wins came against Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian, but it topped their combined win total from 2018 and 2019 and belies the fact they were pesky in conference play. Other than a blowout loss to UTSA, the Miners didn’t lose any other CUSA game by more than ten points. Considering they lost by two touchdowns on average the year before, that’s solid progress.
DL Praise Amaewhule
The Miners found a gem in Amaewhule, following a fine freshman campaign in 2019 by solidifying his standing as the defense’s most disruptive athlete. He led the defense with seven sacks, eight tackles for loss and, amazingly, nine pass breakups, so while UTEP might still have holes to fill elsewhere, Amaewhule is a playmaker who deserves attention.
DL Keenan Stewart
While Amaewhule brings heat from the edge, Stewart has emerged as a dependable athlete who can make waves on the interior of the defensive line. After transferring to UTEP from the junior college ranks, he racked up 34 tackles and seven tackles for loss and, at 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, he’ll make offensive linemen notice him one way or another.
UTEP’s Keenan Stewart (#54) and Praise Amaewhule (#23) are going to be a problem for opposing offenses next year. Both can get after the QB with ease and were really good down the stretch. Constantly in the backfield. #NFLDraft #DraftTwitter @KeenanStewart54 @Praise_2k pic.twitter.com/kuf8f4vxVE
— Jack Borowsky (@Jack_Borowsky) January 8, 2021
WR Jacob Cowing
Questions might exist elsewhere on offense, but there’s two years of evidence to suggest that Cowing is one of Conference USA’s best pass catchers. Cowing led the Miners in receiving yards as a true freshman in 2019, then did it again in 2020 with 691 yards and three touchdowns on 41 catches. Still just a sophomore, perhaps no one better exemplifies the program’s ongoing development.
RB Deion Hankins
Holding anyone up to the standard of Aaron Jones, the current Green Bay Packer who’s also UTEP’s all-time leading rusher, might be unfair but at least Hankins is off to a good start in matching Jones’s career numbers in El Paso. He averaged 84.6 rushing yards per game in 2020, a figure bested only by SMU’s Ulysses Bentley IV and Central Michigan’s Lew Nichols III among freshman running backs in the Group of 5, and scored nine touchdowns, giving the offense a valuable runner who can shoulder a big workload.
LB Tyrice Knight
Another juco newcomer last fall, Knight stepped up to make six starts and finish second on the team with 54 total tackles while also contributing 2.5 TFLs and a sack. Given the defense’s playmakers in the trenches, simply having someone capable of cleaning up and stopping big plays in their tracks is a net positive for UTEP.
Despite the obvious steps forward in 2020, the Miners are still very much a work in progress on offense. They had their best overall performance since 2016 in averaging 5.17 yards per play, but that ranked 97th nationally and didn’t move the needle much by more advanced metrics like SP+ (they finished 123rd and project 120th for 2021).
One thing that could help is better quarterback play. Gavin Hardison started every game for the Miners last fall and had some clear growing pains, but a normal off-season with plenty of first-team reps can only help him improve.
Other than that, the name of the game is establishing depth. Hankins and Cowing are rising stars, but they can’t do it all by themselves. Thankfully, secondary options like junior running back Ronald Awatt and senior wide receivers Justin Garrett and Walter Dawn Jr. return for 2021, too, so recruits from Dimel’s most recent classes will get time to learn and contributing sparingly.
On its face, the defense wasn’t great and SP+ takes an even dimmer view of it than of the offense, but a number of other rate metrics paint a picture that provides at least a little more hope. What do you choose to believe?
A lot will depend on how well new defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto can support the established stars with new talent. UTEP didn’t really size upon the transfer portal like a number of other teams, but cornerback Walter Neil Jr. (Kansas State) could step in and contribute right away, as could 2021 juco imports like cornerbacks Torey Richardson and Dallas Burke. It is more likely, the team will count upon greater contributions from younger talents such as defensive back McKel Broussard and defensive lineman Jalen Randolph, both of whom are redshirt freshmen. This is a young unit which will have every opportunity to grow together.
UTEP might finally emerge from its doldrums, but it seems like a safe bet that they won’t be anywhere close to Boise State and that, despite last year’s headaches, New Mexico has much better footing on the defensive side of the ball in particular. Despite the offense’s playmakers, that should be enough for both Mountain West teams to secure a victory.
Boise State 42, UTEP 14
New Mexico 28, UTEP 24