The Rant Sports 100 in 100 series rolls on, this time heading to Conference USA to check in at No. 83 with the UTEP Miners. Coming off a disappointing 3-9 season in 2012, the Miners turn the reins over to Sean Kugler who takes over the retiring Mike Price. He was quite a revamping job to do on this roster.
The Miners were disappointing pretty much across the board in 2012 and will have major improvements to make at just about every level if they hope to win in 2013. Kugler, a former UTEP offensive lineman, will bring his high-accountability style of coaching to the team and hope that discipline will help the Miners get back to the top of Conference USA.
Sophomore Blaire Sullivan has been announced as the starting quarterback coming out of spring ball after out-dueling both senior Carson Meger and redshirt freshman Garrett Simpson. Sullivan appeared in five games as a freshman in 2012 and led the team in both quarterback rating and yards per attempt, though in very limited action. He completed just 48.8 percent of his passes for 390 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception.
But he may not hold onto the job for long. The quarterback position is going to get a boost in August when Jameill Showers gets to campus after transferring from the Texas A&M Aggies. Showers lost out on the quarterback job to some guy named Johnny Manziel (maybe you’ve heard of him?) and decided to take his talents to El Paso for the 2013 season. He will be eligible to play right away after graduating from College Station this June, and will bring a playmaking ability that no other quarterback on the UTEP roster can match.
The driving force of the offense, however, will still be the running game. Junior Nathan Jeffery returns after leading the team in rushing last season, gaining 897 yards on 184 carries with seven touchdowns despite a nagging groin injury that kept him from really getting on track. When healthy, Jeffery is a playmaker as he showed in the Miners’ final four of last season when he averaged 120.25 yards per game. He has shown the ability to carry the running game, but should get some help next season from the quarterback position whether Sullivan or Showers is under center.
The defense will be a major project for Kugler as the roster does not appear to have a wealth of talent coming in for next season. The strongest piece of the unit will be the secondary thanks in no small part to safety Richard Spencer being granted a sixth year of eligibility after a knee injury cut his 2012 campaign short. He is one of only two returning members of the back seven, so the Miners will undoubtedly rebuild their secondary around him and hope his knee is back to 100 percent.
At middle linebacker, A.J. Ropati will be the team’s leading returning tackler after logging 58 tackles a season ago. The team will need him to be much more disruptive in 2013 after he recorded just two tackles for loss in 2012, but he will act as the cornerstone for the defensive rebuild one way or the other. As the only other returning starter out of the team’s back seven other than Spencer, the pressure will be on Ropati to step up his game in his senior season.
On the defensive line, Horace Miller will make his return for a senior campaign after leading the team with six sacks as a junior. The issue that UTEP faces, however, is a lack of size on the line. All but one player on the depth chart weighs in at under 280 pounds, though they try to make up for it with excellent athleticism and quickness, like Miller. If teams are able to lean on this line with a running game, they may not be able to hold up.
The Miners are fortunate to not have a lot of elite offenses on their schedule that would make them look too terrible, outside of a trip to College Station November 2 to take on the Aggies. A relatively soft schedule will help UTEP keep games competitive, and with some luck they could steal a few victories here and there. Will it be enough to get bowl eligible, however? That’s the question.