UTEP 2024 Roster Autopsy: Welcome to Walden's World

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UTEP Miners

2023 Finish: 3–9
Off. PPG: 19.9 (119th in FBS)
Def. PPG: 28.5 (88th)
Key Losses: OL Andrew Meyer, OL Elijah Klein, WR Kelly Akharaiyi, RB Deion Hankins, LB Tyrice Knight, DE Praise Amaewhule,
New Faces: 26 signees, 21 transfers
Top Additions: RB Jevon Jackson (Austin Peay), OL Brennan Smith (Austin Peay), WR Jaden Smith (Eastern Kentucky), S Kory Chapman (Austin Peay), Edge Jaylin Jones (West Brook), DT Ashton Coker (Katy Taylor)

Offensive Overview

In six years under former head coach Dana Dimel, the UTEP offense ranked in the triple digits nationally in points per game four times. The most potent unit was the 2021 team that scored 25.1 points per game (89th in FBS). With a new staff and roughly 50 new players ahead of spring football practice, it's hard to gauge what the UTEP offense will look like in 2024. But new head man Scotty Walden promised his team would "be the funnest product you've ever seen in UTEP history to watch." His results at Austin Peay back up his words. The Govs set school records in 2023 for scoring offense, total offense and passing offense.

While the quarterback will most likely be a holdover from the previous regime, Walden imported some wide receivers to spice up the passing game. Jaden Smith totaled 173 catches for 1,922 yards and 14 touchdowns over three seasons at Eastern Kentucky. Austin Peay transfer Trey Goodman was a home run hitter in 2023 with 21.2 average yards per reception. Running back Mike Franklin didn't get much work behind Deion Hankins and Torrance Burgess Jr. last season, but with their transfers the 6-foot-2, 225 pound back could compete for a feature role.

Projected Starters

*Please Note*: As is the case with all Roster Autopsies, but especially UTEP, this is my projection ahead of spring ball and it could be entirely different come season's start. A new staff and a bevy of new faces means every posiiton is up for grabs.

Position Player Year
QB Cade McConnell Rs Jr
RB Mike Franklin Sr
WR Trey Goodman Sr
WR Jaden Smith Sr
WR Emari White Rs Jr
TE Judah Ezinwa Jr.
LT Isaiah Wright  Sr,
LG Joseph Immediato RS-Jr.
C Ivan Escobar RS-Jr.
RG Brennan Smith RS-Jr
RT Aluma Nkele RS-Jr

Breakout Candidates

RB Jevon Jackson – Jackson is one of the headliners of the Austin Peay migration. He was a 2023 FCS Second Team All-American after leading the Govs with 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns. Walden likes to air it out, but Jackson's numbers prove UTEP will have balance with the run game.

RB/WR/PR Kam Thomas – Put Thomas wherever on the field, just make sure he gets the football. He had 629 receiving yards and led Austin Peay in punt returns and kick return yardage. UTEP has the 5-foot-7 redshirt junior listed as a wide receiver/Miner Back, which means Thomas could set the standard for a new position in the Walden era.

TE Martavious Collins – Tight end is the most unknown position on a UTEP roster full of unknowns. Collins was a stud defensive end at South Pittsburg High School in Tennessee but also played offense, and UTEP has him listed at tight end. The former Alabama and Auburn commit has the size (6-foot-4, 265) to grab early playing time.

Key Unit

Quarterback – On our Republic of Football interview with Walden, he described how he lets his quarterbacks sit in on offensive meetings with the staff. It's a tactic passed down to Walden, a former quarterback, by his Cleburne High School coach, Phil Young. If this offense is going to fly, Walden and his signal caller need to be in lock-step. Cade McConnell rose from fourth-stringer to starter after Gavin Hardison went down for the season with a throwing arm injury. He was electric in his first start, a win against FIU, completing 11-of-17 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns. While McConnell cooled a bit to finish the season, he showed enough to have the inside track to start in 2024. He'll compete with redshirt senior Kevin Hurley.

Biggest Question Mark

Offensive Line – There's change everywhere on UTEP's offense, but the biggest loss (figuratively and literally) is on the offensive line. All five starters from the season opener against Jacksonville State have left. The Miners lost two first team All-Conference USA offensive linemen in center Andrew Meyer and guard Elijah Klein. Justin Mayers transferred to Colorado this offseason after starting the past two years at left guard. Walden brought his starting tackles - Brennan Smith and Isaiah Wright - from Austin Peay, but expect them to get some work on the interior line. Redshirt junior Aluma Nkele has tackle size at 6-foot-6, 355 pounds.

Defensive Overview

UTEP ranked first in Conference-USA in passing yards allowed per game last season with 184.7 and returns four players in the defensive secondary who saw significant playing time. They'll be unproven along the front seven, however, after losing linebackers Tyrice Knight and James Neal, along with long-time defensive end Praise Amaewhule. Knight was a three-time all-conference selection while Amaewhule is the program's record holder for sacks.

Maurice Westmoreland is the defensive headliner entering 2024 after leading the Miners with 7.5 sacks. He'll garner more offensive attention without Amaewhule, but the first team all-conference selection has the motor to combat it. Returning interior linemen KD Johnson and Sione Tonga'uiha were rotational guys in 2023 who could see an increased role. Keep an eye on Missouri State transfer defensive end Devin Goree opposite Westmoreland. The Denton Guyer alum totaled 92 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 15 sacks in four seasons.

Projected Starters 

*Please Note*: As is the case with all Roster Autopsies, but especially UTEP, this is my projection ahead of spring ball and it could be entirely different come season's start. A new staff and a bevy of new faces means every posiiton is up for grabs.

Position Player Year
DE Maurice Westmoreland Sr
DT Sione Tonga'uiha Sr.
DT KD Johnson Sr
DE Devin Goree Sr
LB Dorian Hopkins Grad
LB Tray Dunson Sr.
NB Josiah Allen Sr.
CB Amier Boyd-Matthews RS-Soph
CB AJ Odums Sr.
FS Kory Chapman Sr.
SS Oscar Moore Sr.

Breakout Candidates

LB Dylan Brown-Turner – Brown-Turner was a late bloomer at South Oak Cliff after missing all but three games his junior season with injury. He parlayed a monstrous 120-tackle senior season into a Florida State commitment, but is back in Texas after one year. 

DT Ashton Coker – Coker was a four-year letterwinner at Katy Taylor High School who earned District Defensive MVP as a senior. He's physically mature at 6-foot-2, 290 pounds and could push for early playing time along the interior defensive line.

DB Xavier Smith – Smith was all over the field for Austin Peay as a freshman, totaling 75 tackles and eight pass breakups. A host of returning players in the secondary means he might not start Day One, but he'll be one to watch as the season progresses.

Key Unit

Secondary – UTEP returns the most production from last year's unit in the defensive secondary, and new defensive coordinator J.J. Clark served as Austin Peay's DC and safeties coach last season. Nickel Josiah Allen is the leading tackler among returners from last year with 41. AJ Odums tied for the team lead with eight pass breakups. Kory Chapman is new to El Paso but no stranger to Clark. He started the entire 2023 season at Austin Peay, tallying 73 tackles and two interceptions from the safety spot.

Biggest Question Mark

Linebacker – While UTEP saw perhaps the most attrition on the offensive line, no singular loss is more impactful than Tyrice Knight, who led the FBS with 84 solo tackles last year. Walden and Co. looked to the transfer portal to replace him in the aggregate. Graduate transfer Dorian Hopkins had 45 tackles and a sack at Tulsa in 2023, while senior Tray Dunson had 99 career tackles and 10 tackles for loss in four seasons at Gardner-Webb. 

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