2020 UTEP Season Preview

By Paul Roberts

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Dana Dimel was honest about the need for a wholesale four-year rebuild when he arrived in El Paso two years ago. Still, the worst three-year stretch in program history – dating back to the previous coaching staff – isn’t easy to stomach. 

By every metric, UTEP was one of the worst teams in America in 2019. The defense ranked last in Conference USA in scoring defense and second-to-last in total defense. The offense wasn’t much better, ranking No. 12 in both categories. To make matters worse, Utah is the only program nationally that graduates more production than the Miners. Losing spring practice makes development even harder. 

“We had six practices in the spring, and I really thought we were building some momentum,” Dimel said. “It’s taken time to build a roster.” 

No question, the roster was in a tough spot when Dimel arrived on campus. Just two starters from his first depth chart in 2018 are still on the roster – and running back Quardraiz Wadley is only back after an injury redshirt in 2019. The staff leaned hard on transfers to try and fill holes on the roster while developing high school talent behind the scenes. 

However, the high school talent is slowly starting to develop, especially from the staff’s first full recruiting class in 2019. For the first time, there’s intriguing young talent in almost every position group that could be close to performing at a Conference USA level. 

Projected starting quarterback Gavin Hardison threw for 5,000 yards in high school. Running back Deion Hankins ran for more yards than any running back in El Paso high school history. Receiver Jacob Cowing posted 22 catches for 355 yards in the final four games alone. Offensive lineman Jeremiah Byers will compete for a starting job with his SEC-sized 6-foot-5, 315-pound frame. Defensive end Praise Amaewhule led the team in sacks as a freshman. All have at least three years of eligibility remaining.

“I think we’re a lot bigger than we were in years past,” offensive coordinator Mike Canales said. “In previous years, we’re looking at how big other teams were and saying, ‘good Lord.’ Now, we’re getting to where we want to be.” 

While the young talent is developing nicely, UTEP’s top priority in 2020 is rediscovering the hard-nosed defensive culture that made the Miners a tough out in Dimel’s first season. UTEP played four single-score games against FBS opponents in 2018. That number dropped to just one in 2019.

The staff has been aggressive shoring up holes with transfers, especially as the unit transitions to a 4-3 defense to get a stronger pass rush on the field. The return of several injured defensive backs to the rotation will help. The transfers have to show up.

“My typical type of team is going to be great on defense and that helps us stay in ball games,” Dimel said. “We’re trying to build the same style of football that we played at Kansas State, and you know the defense they play there. I have to have that to have success.” 

The schedule does the Miners no favors. UTEP plays Texas and Texas Tech in nonconference. New Mexico State is on the schedule as always, along with Nevada. The Miners don’t have an FCS opponent on the books. 

Additionally, the few manageable conference games against Charlotte, UTSA and Rice are all on the road. Outside of the rival Aggies, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Miners less than a 20 percent chance to win in every game next season. 

UTEP is still in the midst of a massive rebuild. The Miners are still setting the foundation of this program. Dimel’s goals stretch far beyond the first three seasons – that’s why athletic director Jim Senter gave him a five-year guaranteed contract. But still, winning just a single game for the third season in a row won’t cut it. 

“There’s not a number with our schedule being what it is and the youth of our quarterbacks,” Dimel said. “I just think we need to keep improving and show confidence from our kids. Then I really think Year 4 will be our breakthrough year when we turn a corner.”

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