Mountain West Football: First Look At The UTEP Miners
The Miners will battle with both Boise State and New Mexico in non-conference play this September.
Will the Miners have staying power?
New Mexico Football: First Look at 2022 Non-conference Opponents
Boise State Football: First Look at 2022 Non-conference Opponents
After emerging as one of last year’s best college football stories, the UTEP Miners will look to keep their momentum going in 2022 against a pair of Mountain West teams, the Boise State Broncos and New Mexico Lobos.
Location: El Paso, Texas
Conference: Conference USA
Series History: Boise State leads the all-time series against UTEP, 6-0, while New Mexico leads its series over the Miners, 43-33-3.
2021 Record: 7-6 (4-4 C-USA)
Head Coach: Dana Dimel (fifth year at UTEP; 12-33 with Miners, 42-72 overall). It took a little while for things to come around, but the Miners broke through for their first winning season since 2014 on the strength of a pretty good defense and an explosive offense. Granted, pretty much all of UTEP’s wins came against teams they probably should have beaten, anyway — Old Dominion was their only victory over a bowl-eligible opponent — but that in itself represented a major step forward from years past.
Praise Amaewhule, DE
Amaewhule is simply one of the best defenders anywhere in Conference USA, following a second-team all-conference showing in 2020 by earning a spot on the first-team defense in 2021. Last season, he led the Miners with 13 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles, adding 5.5 sacks and seven passes defended, as well.
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) October 10, 2021
Keenan Stewart, DT
Amaewhule’s running mate on the defensive line is pretty good in his own right. According to Pro Football Focus, Stewart’s 81.0 overall grade ranked third among interior defenders in Conference USA, which makes sense considering that he collected 35 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, and two sacks in 2021, good enough to earn an all-conference honorable mention.
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
Breon Hayward, LB
The defensive line isn’t the only unit with some real stalwarts in El Paso. Hayward finished fourth in Conference USA with 108 tackles and also chipped in with 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three passes defended, and a fumble return for a touchdown. There are few athletes in the conference more capable of cleaning up messes and shutting down plays near the line of scrimmage.
Ronald Awatt, RB
UTEP’s ground attack was vital to its revival, which made Awatt a major factor all season long. Though he had just 158 carries in 2021, he led the way with 854 rushing yards and six touchdowns while adding 11 receptions for 159 yards. He could be in line for even more reps as the Miners look to better establish their foothold in the conference.
Gavin Hardison, QB
Few quarterbacks in the country lived or died on big plays like Hardison, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Though his completion rate on 359 attempts was only 55.9%, he was one of just 13 FBS quarterbacks to average nine yards per attempt and had 18 touchdowns. If he can improve on last year’s 3.6% interception rate, the Miners will be that much better.
UTEP’s offense wasn’t perfect last year — the Miners finished just fifth in C-USA by averaging 6.02 yards per play, and they were 83rd nationally by points per drive and 80th in available yards percentage earned — but that still marked a substantial improvement from 2020. New offensive coordinator Dave Warner inherits a pretty good situation, but some major pieces will need replacing.
The backfield, at least, is more or less with Hardison, Awatt, Deion Hankins (121 carries, 453 yards, six touchdowns), and an offensive line that returns three starters, including right guard Ezra Klein (76.3 PFF grade, third in C-USA). Elsewhere, the departures of both Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett leave a huge void that other pass catchers like Tyrin Smith (33 catches, 570 yards, four TDs), Josh Farr, and Kelly Akharaiyi will look to make up.
Where the offense could be up and down last year, the Miners defense was flat-out good. UTEP allowed 5.22 yards per play, good for fourth in C-USA, and finished 33rd among all FBS in points per drive allowed and 24th in available yards percentage allowed. They also finished in the top 20 by stuff rate, power success rate, and opportunity rate, and bring back eight starters who could help them match that high bar.
If nothing else, the Miners should be able to create lots of havoc with Amaewhule and Stewart joined by Kelton Moss and Jadrian Taylor along the defensive line, which looks like one of the best units anywhere in Conference USA. The linebacker situation is pretty solid, too, with Hayward flanked by Tyrice Knight (102 tackles, nine TFLs, two sacks) and nickelback Dennis Barnes (59 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two INTs). The secondary, by contrast, is undergoing major changes after losing both cornerbacks and one starting safety, but Justin Pierce returns after his 2021 season was cut short by injury.
Feel-good vibes only take you so far. The biggest question that UTEP now faces is whether they’ll be able to connect on as many big plays as what fueled last year’s rise, to supplement a defense that should be no fun to face every week. That could mean they’ll scuffle against some of the better defenses on their schedule, like Boise State, and struggle to put away others with offensive concerns of their own, like New Mexico.
Boise State 31, UTEP 17
UTEP 27, New Mexico 19