UTEP was a solid defensive football team in 2018. The Miners ranked fifth in Conference USA, allowing 198.9 passing yards per game. Overall UTEP yielded 394.7 yards per contest, a number good enough to win with.
However, the defense fell on hard times in 2019 following the loss of playmakers like A.J. Hotchkins and Nik Needham. UTEP surrendered 430.8 yards per game, the second-highest total in C-USA, and 35.9 yards per outing, last in the league.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” UTEP defensive coordinator Mike Cox said. “I didn’t coach good, we lost some key players, and we didn’t play right at times. That’s the biggest thing that we’re emphasizing right now, to own up to our assignments and not bust ourselves. We did that [in 2018]. We didn’t make our own busts, and we played ok. That’s what we’ve got to get back to. We’ve got to be very consistent. And the emphasis this spring is to be consistent about our jobs, get off blocks and play with tenacity.”
If the Miners are going to improve their win-loss record in 2020, they’ll need to be able to stop people. They struggled to do that a year ago, but they also lost some key personnel from that squad.
“In order to replace those guys, we went the junior college route and we were very lucky and very fortunate to get guys who could come right now rather than after the spring,” Cox said. “So they’re all here and showing a lot of promise. We needed these guys to get our depth back to where it needed to be.”
Specifically, the Miners brought in DB Dennis Barnes (Fort Scott CC), DB Verenzo Holmes (NW Mississippi CC), LB Tyrice Knight (Independence CC), DT Kelton Moss (Kilgore College), DT Keenan Stewart (Iowa Western CC), DE Jadrian Taylor (Kilgore College), LB Gary Theard (Chaffey College) and DE Deylon Williams (Independence CC).
“The thing that we liked about them, number one, is their character,” Cox said. “We really emphasized the character of these guys, and then matched it with their athletic ability and the football playing side of it. We really like all of the guys that we brought in. First and foremost they’re great people, they’re hard workers and they can learn. They’ve gone about all of this the right way. And we’re proud of that. The biggest thing that we’re trying to figure out is where they fit in with this defense. That’s what we’re trying to do this spring, plug them in where they’re going to help us win.”
If the Miners are going to make major strides this fall, they’ll need several of their returning players to ramp up their production as well. And Cox likes what he has seen from his core through two days of spring ball.
“The last couple of days, [cornerback] Duron Lowe has done a really nice job,” Cox said. “He has really stepped up his game. The same with [cornerback] Josh Caldwell. I think having our two safeties back healthy means a lot. We didn’t have two starters last year in [Broderick] Harrell and [Justin] Prince. Getting them back has added some stability to that position. [Linebacker] Stephen Forester is very consistent, and a great role model and leader for our team. Those are the main guys, plus a couple of guys who played up front. [Defensive Tackle] Josh Ortega brings great leadership. So if all those guys continue to grow with the leadership part, we change our attitude on defense, play with a lot more tenacity and do things the right way, we’ll improve vastly.”
The Miners have also altered their approach to spring ball and their schematics to produce better results in 2020. First of all, fans will see hitting and tackling in practice, something they didn’t a year ago at this time.
“Last year, we were concerned because we had been hit by injuries so much the year before. That’s why I didn’t do it last year,” UTEP head coach Dana Dimel said. “But this year, just watching how we tackled and our angles that we took on Saturdays, I thought it was better for us to get more live tackling. I thought it would improve our tackling angles and our body positions on tackling.”
The Miners have also switched their base alignment from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
“One of our big goals is to create more pass rush and be able to get to the quarterback better,” Dimel said. “We feel like by getting our guys spread out and covering up defensive linemen a little bit more, that we’re going to be able to create some pass rush angles for our defensive ends.”
All of this should add up to some spirited workouts this spring.
“I think coach Dimel decided that we’ve got to get more physical,” Cox said. “We’re tackling and today you saw some 1’s versus 1’s [in practice]. The guys enjoy it I’m sure, and all we want to do is get better.”
Fans can renew their UTEP Football Season Tickets, or request new season tickets for the 2020 season now. Renewals will be accepted online until April 10 here, by calling (915) 747-6150, or by visiting the UTEP Athletics Season Ticket Office, located in Room 109 of the Brumbelow Building next to the Don Haskins Center, Monday thru Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information, visit the UTEP Miners ticket page.