Dana Dimel enjoys a rebuild.
UTEP’s head coach was at Kansas State as a player and a graduate assistant before helping Bill Snyder turnaround the Wildcats. Dimel built a reputation as a program builder in stints at Wyoming, Houston, and Arizona before returning to Kansas State to help Snyder rebuild the Wildcats one more time.
So, when the opportunity to take over a winless UTEP program came about after the 2017 season, Dimel saw gold where most see dirt.
“I’ve never been anywhere that wasn’t a turnaround,” Dimel said. “It is fun for me to be a part of making a difference at a program.”
The turnaround at UTEP could make Snyder blush. The Miners didn’t win a game in 2017. Dimel only managed one win in each of the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He could feel his program turning a corner ahead of the 2020 season, but the pandemic prevented the Miners from making a splash in Conference USA. That opportunity came in 2021, and UTEP won seven games to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2014.
Success presents a new challenge. Dimel must now turn a roster of underdogs into a group poised enough to meet higher expectations. Climbing a mountain rarely proves as tricky as remaining on top of it.
“I’m always concerned about handling prosperity,” Dimel admitted. “I’m guarded against that and keep a keen eye out to make sure no one starts slipping. This is a new challenge for this group.”
The spring offered Dimel an opportunity to see if his players felt entitled. He raved about their work ethic leading into the 2021 season. Would his players be satisfied? Would they work as hard to stay relevant as they did to become relevant? Dimel was pleased with the answers his players provided.
“Our best players are working harder than I’ve ever seen them work, and that’s rubbed off on the new guys in the program,” Dimel said. “They’ve had a taste of success and they see what it can do for them personally and as a team.”
The players are also guarded against complacency. UTEP returns most of its defensive productions from 2021, along with its starting quarterback, two best running backs, an improving tight end, and numerous offensive linemen with starting experience. The biggest losses came at wide receiver and cornerback.
Reaching a bowl game is no longer a goal. It is the expectation.
“We want to build off what we did last year by doing the little things correctly,” UTEP running back Ronald Awatt said. “If we lock in and worry about the details, that will help us out in the long run.”
Dimel wants his players focused on the process rather than the results. Winning today is the only way to win tomorrow, as the old saying goes. UTEP can’t qualify for a bowl game before the season, but the Miners can win the day.
“Our big picture goal is the Bill Snyder 1-0 theory,” Dimel said. “Let’s not take things for granted. Let’s take advantage of home field, be tough on the road, and see where that takes us in the season.”
A good team is a player-led team. Dimel would leave practices frustrated with the efficiency and cohesiveness early in his UTEP tenure. He spent most of the first two years in the program establishing expectations and teaching his team how to work on and off the field. Now, some of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the players he’s groomed.
“The coaches don’t have to be as hard on us as they were when I first got here because the older players are basically coaches,” defensive end Jadrian Taylor said. “If someone messes up behind me, I can tell them and get it corrected before a coach needs to get involved. They can worry about other stuff.”
The other stuff includes recruiting, and Dimel is already seeing the fruits of his labors.
“There is so much more respect from people because we’ve put UTEP on the map again over the last couple of years,” he said. “They see our progress and like the story of building a program from scratch. Obviously, we develop players and coaches see that and think their players can be improved in our program.”
The Miners reach their second straight bowl game for the first time since the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
UTEP misses a bowl game and returns to the basement of Conference USA thanks to key losses at the wide receiver position.
Game of the Year
UTEP at Rice — November 5
The Miners want to reach a bowl game in consecutive years for the first time since 2004 and 2005. UTEP plays five winnable games – New Mexico, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, Old Dominion – prior to the road trip to face Rice in November. A win over the Owls could be the golden ticket.
Balance is a buzzword on offense heading into 2022 as the Miners felt like they became too pass-heavy over the last three games of the 2021 season. That’s easy to do with the likes of Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett at wide receiver. Cowing transferred home to Arizona, while Garrett ran out of eligibility.
UTEP still expects to pass the ball with success thanks to the return of quarterback Gavin Hardison and a calvary of wide receivers led by Tyrin Smith, but a two-headed monster at running back and an experienced offensive line anchored by center Andrew Meyer means the Miners are poised to be more physical.
“This spring, we’ve made an emphasis to be more physical in the run game so we can be more balanced,” UTEP head coach Dana Dimel said. “That’s a big push for us and a place we’ve made some strides. We want that to be one of our identities.”
Ronald Awatt, a Lubbock product, led the Miners in rushing last year with 844 yards and six touchdowns. Deion Hankins added 458 yards and six touchdowns. The two combined for 280 carries. The rest of the team carried the ball 202 times. Awatt admits friendly competition takes place between the pair, but the duo cooperates as often as they compete.
“We try to incorporate the other’s strengths into our own games,” Awatt said. “I’ll help him with quickness, and he’ll talk to me about balance through contact. We complement each other well.”
Hardison became the first UTEP quarterback to throw for more than 3,000 yards since 2009. His 3,217 passing yards last year were the fifth-most in a single season in program history. He’ll need to find new targets in 2022. Cowing and Garrett leave giant gaps in the Miners’ offense. The pair of receivers combined for 119 catches for 2,039 yards and 11 touchdowns, which was more than 57 percent of the team’s production in each of those categories.
“It won’t be easy (to replace Cowing and Garrett), but we’ve done it by mass,” Dimel said. “In terms of overall talent and athleticism, we’re better than we were last year at the position.”
Offensive MVP: Gavin Hardison
Hardison was a boom-or-bust quarterback in 2021. He broke a school record in passing yards despite only completing 55.46 percent of his passes.
Offensive Name to Know: WR Kelly Akharaiyi
UTEP must replace its top two wide receivers from the 2021 season. Tyrin Smith, who was the third-leading receiver for the Miners in 2021, is poised to fill Jacob Cowing’s shoes as wide receiver No. 1. The staff believes Tyler JC transfer Kelly Akharaiyi is talented enough to replace the production lost by Justin Garrett’s graduation. Akharaiyi is a 6-1, 195-pounder who led Tyler JC in 2021 with 52 catches for 681 yards. He’s an Irving native.
Gavin Hardison’s 3,217 passing yards in 2021 were fifth-most in program history. The junior was the first UTEP quarterback to top 3,000 yards since 2009.
RUNNING BACKS: B-
Top rushers Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins return after combining for more than 1,300 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns in 2021 despite nagging injuries.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: C+
UTEP suffered massive production losses at wide receiver following 2021 with the graduating Justin Garrett and the transfer of Jacob Cowing. Tyrin Smith leads the new group.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
UTEP remains in search of a reliable two-deep along the offensive line. The Miners averaged fewer than four yards a carry in 2021.
UTEP expects its defense to be the strength of the team in 2022 thanks to the return of numerous defensive stars. The Miners allowed 25.22 points per game in 2021, helping the program reach seven wins and a bowl game for the first time since 2014. Winning at least six games in 2022 would allow UTEP to reach consecutive bowl games for only the second time in program history.
The linebacker pair of Breon Hayward and Tyrice Knight are back after combining for 210 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. The Miners allowed 3.9 yards per rush. The unit is also bolstered by a second year under the direction of defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto.
“I feel great about our front seven,” UTEP head coach Dana Dimel said. “We don’t have to take a backseat to anybody’s front seven that we play. That is going to be the strength of our football team, along with our safeties.”
The defensive line also possesses a dynamic duo at defensive end with Jadrian Taylor and Praise Amaewhule. The two combined for 12 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Keenan Stewart anchors the middle of the defensive line. He accounted for seven tackles for loss and a pair of sacks in 2021. The defensive staff is excited about the progress of Kilgore Junior College defensive end Maurice Westmoreland.
“We call each other ‘Shake and Bake’ to feel more like a dynamic duo,” Taylor said of he and Amaewhule. “I’m just as happy when he gets a sack than when I get the sack. We’re racing to the quarterback every play.”
Safeties Dennis Barnes and Tyson Wilson lead the secondary. The two combined for 107 tackles and were third and fourth, respectively, on the team in that category. The Miners added Louisiana transfer Kobe Hylton to add an enforcer to the mix. Cornerback is the main question mark for UTEP defensively. Junior Torey Richardson came on at the end of 2022, but a second player is needed for the other side of the field.
Defensive MVP: Praise Amaewhule
The Katy, Texas product is making a name for himself in West Texas. Amaewhule was awarded first-team All-Conference USA after an impactful sophomore season in 2021.
Defensive Name to Know: DE Maurice Westmoreland
UTEP struck gold at Kilgore College with defensive end Jadrian Taylor, who led the Miners in sacks during the 2021 season. The defensive staff thinks it repeated the trick with Westmoreland, an edge player with even more length and size than Taylor. Westmoreland, a sophomore, was tied for the team lead at Kilgore in 2021 with five sacks. He’ll combine with Taylor and Praise Amaewhule to form a tremendous pass rushing trio.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
Praise Amaewhule and Jadrian Taylor return after combining for 12 sacks in 2021. Keenan Stewart sets the tone at defensive tackle.
Breon Hayward and Tyrice Knight both return after combining for 210 tackles in 2021. The duo is among the most productive in Texas.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: B
Tyson Wilson and Dennis Barnes lead the way for UTEP in the secondary. The duo was third and fourth on the team in tackles last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Gavin Baechle remains on the roster following an 18-for-24 season that included a long of 50. He might also punt in 2022.
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