USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
For injury upon injury upon injury, you, Sean Kugler, get a pass. But it's a one-year get-out-jail-free card, not a lifetime membership: UTEP would still like to win – at some point, sooner rather than later – so let's get moving.
Kugler's earned a first-year grade of Incomplete for 2013, a year that saw the Miners finish last in Conference USA's West Division, thanks to the slew of injuries that defined the Miners' season more than the two wins, the double-digit losses, the paltry work on defense and the record-setting output on the ground. From quarterback through the secondary and at all points in between, the Miners played patchwork with a two-deep already stretched to the limits of competitiveness.
2014 COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
It's hard to play poker when you start with less than a full deck and lose cards along the way, as Kugler learned last fall. This is a lesson that extended through February, when the Miners reloaded a diminished talent pool with a number of prospects on the offensive and defensive line, two areas of enormous concern. The lesson: It pays to be prepared.
And if you have an idea of how to avoid injuries, all the better. UTEP is clearly a different team with Jameill Showers at quarterback, for example, and can't afford to lose one of its two potential all-conference running backs. A defense still learning the tricks of the trade in coordinator Scott Stoker's defense needs to trot out its best 11 to remain competitive. A year later, the same rule applies: UTEP will be an afterthought if the Miners can't remain healthy.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
But the holes and voids are immense and unavoidable, beginning on both lines and extending outwards. Here's where Kugler comes into play: he's a line coach first and foremost, a tremendous asset, but his work with schemes and technique is secondary to his work reworking UTEP into a more physical team at the line of scrimmage.
In a nutshell: Due to its rotating cast of characters, UTEP managed only two wins – New Mexico State and Florida International, two of the nation's worst – against eight losses by 14 or more points. Among the worst was a home stretch to forget: UTEP sandwiched that victory against FIU with five losses by 31 or more points, including a 42-point loss at Tulane. Injuries are an excuse, but not a crutch; the Miners would have been poor even had the entire lineup remained upright, as evidenced by a 1-5 start when Showers was available, and merely slid further down the Conference USA totem pole after contributors left for the medical tent. What did the Miners do worse than most? Play defense. Better? Run the football: UTEP rushed for 2,213 yards, the program's best mark in a decade.
High point: A 42-21 win against New Mexico State on the second Saturday of the season. Following on the heels of an overtime loss to New Mexico, this victory painted UTEP as a competitive team, if not one prepared for a leap to the postseason.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Conference USA
Low point: That run down the home stretch. Rice, Texas A&M, North Texas, Tulane and Middle Tennessee State dropped a combined 236 points on the Miners' hapless defense.
Tidbit: UTEP ended the year with 2,213 rushing yards, a program-best since 2003, and gained at least 200 yards on the ground six times, tied with the 1994 season for the most in the Miners' modern era. But as good as the run offense was – and it was pretty good, if up and down – the run defense was worse: UTEP allowed 2,974 yards on the ground, 119th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, along with 35 touchdowns, tied for 118th. This continues a troubling trend. The Miners' run defense has dropped in the national rankings in each season since 2010, starting with 62nd, dropping to 86th, sliding to 89th and then hitting rock-bottom last fall.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
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5. Tom Watson
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: UTEP's offense has a shot at being competitive with a healthy Showers under center; without Showers, this run-based offense loses any sense of balance and, eventually, any chance of keeping pace with Conference USA's top half. So keeping the former Texas A&M transfer is a priority, which helps explain why Kugler – himself a former offensive line coach – went so deep into line recruits during his first full recruiting class. The issue? Those incoming recruits may add depth, if the Miners' are lucky, but can't be relied upon for starter's snaps as rookies – meaning UTEP needs to see drastic improvement from its holdovers.
The biggest void is at left tackle, where Kugler must replace a good one in Brander Craighead, a multiple-year starter. His replacement, senior Jerel Watkins, will make the move out from left guard. In Watkins' stead, UTEP will give a long look to redshirt freshmen Will Hernandez and Derek Elmendorff; another option is Chris Thomas, who spent last season behind Craighead on the blind side. You'll see movement across the board: UTEP wants to start junior Eric Lee at center, which would push Paulo Melendez to right guard, which would slide senior Kyle Brown to right tackle, where he'll battle Christian Harper for the starting job.
This group blocks for one of the best backfield combinations in Conference USA. The only question: Who starts? Better yet, does it matter? Sophomore Aaron Jones (811 yards) and senior Nathan Jeffery (532 yards) are interchangeable, to a degree, because each will produce if given touches in Kugler's run-centered attack. You see this down the stretch, when Jeffery replaced an injured Jones and ran off two 100-yard games in three tries, keeping the run game afloat. But to truly hit its stride, the running attack needs to be balanced with a productive passing game.
Enter Showers, and cross your fingers. Consider: UTEP ran for at least 200 yards in four of Showers' six complete games; the offense as a whole had its three best games – NMSU, Colorado State and Louisiana Tech – with Showers under center. When on his game, the senior can lift UTEP's offense to a different level of production, giving the Miners a puncher's chance of victory when combined with a defense still struggling to gain traction. What's missing for Showers is experience, as evidenced by his off-and-on efficiency for the first half of last season. That's the biggest negative from last season: Showers is still a relative neophyte. But the arm is there, the legs are there, the athleticism is there and the confidence is there … so Showers, once again, is one of the most promising quarterbacks in the conference.
Defense: The biggest culprit for last year's miserable performance was simply inexperience: UTEP didn't hire Stoker until April, meaning the defense couldn't begin to digest his unorthodox 4-2-5 system until fall camp. One year later, a growing sense of familiarity with Stoker's attack is a major bonus. But that ignores the Miners' general lack of talent defensively, unfortunately. Depth is slightly improved, particularly in the secondary, the key to the entire system; at the same time, there's a clear lack of playmakers at each level. To work against Conference USA's offenses, Stoker's defense must have speed and aggressiveness along the back seven. UTEP is still working to that point.
Three seniors must be replaced on a defensive front that couldn't sniff the backfield, which is either a good or bad thing, depending on your sense of optimism. As expected, last year's reserves seem poised to take a step up the two-deep: Gino Bresolin will move to nose tackle, replacing Marcus Bagley, while ends Nick Usher, Silas Firstley and Roy Robertson-Harris step in for James Davidson and Adam Ayala. The key to the whole deal is Robertson-Harris, who must develop into the edge-rush presence this defense needs from its front four. Even if he delivers, however, the interior is an area of great concern. Much is riding on JUCO transfer Alex Villarreal's ability to hit the ground running in August.
If not the greatest athlete, senior Anthony Puente (60 tackles) does bring reliability to UTEP's second level – even if the Miners could use an upgrade in stopping the run. With Puente in the middle, the Miners will look to get quicker on the weak side with junior Trey Brown and redshirt freshman Alvin Jones, the latter a converted safety. That position change says much about Stoker's vision: UTEP wants its 4-2-5 to be brawny up front and increasingly athletic as you move to the back, with that weak side linebacker essentially serving as a larger safety – one with the strength to shed one block, though not two, and the speed to run with tight ends and slot receivers in the intermediate passing game. Let's see if Jones' background at safety translates to the position.
By the end of last season, UTEP's starting secondary featured two juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen. That youth – now a year wiser – and last season's injuries will pay some dividends for the Miners in 2014. Three players coming off injury-hampered seasons will at least add depth, if not more: Wesley Miller is back at safety and Adrian James and Traun Roberson at cornerback. More depth comes from converted running back LaQuintus Dowell, a very strong athlete with a nose for the football, as seen during the spring. Competition will extend into the spring, but UTEP's best quintet would have James and Ishmael Harrison at cornerback and Devin Cockrell (76 tackles), Dashone Smith (69 tackles) and Jameel Erving at safety. I can't help but think Dowell is going to find a role somewhere, however.
Special teams: Junior running back Autrey Golden is a knee-shaking threat in the return game, giving the Miners' offense a needed boost in field position. Unfortunately, Golden's production is tempered by UTEP's shoddy kicking game – especially the case on field goals – and unreliable coverage teams. I imagine Kugler's patience is running thin.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: In a perfect world, a healthy Showers spells a more balanced offensive attack: UTEP has shown it can throw – when Showers is under center – and certainly run, but we're waiting to see if the offense can work in concert. Hence the sense of concern over a dearth of reliable targets at receiver, one exacerbated by would-be senior Jordan Leslie's decision to leave the program. Where is this passing game without Leslie? Short on a security blanket, for one: Showers loves working with senior tight end Eric Tomlinson (30 receptions for 304 yards), but the Miners need an option to stretch the field and loosen defenders from the box. That could be senior Ian Hamilton (25 for 354), who started last year with a bang but whimpered down the stretch. Look for Jarrad Shaw, Brandon Moss and Malcolm Trail to round out an underwhelming rotation – but also look for Showers to make this group look better than it is. The lack of a bona fide threat on the perimeter remains a major concern.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
New Mexico State: UTEP is facing another 10-loss season if it can't knock off the Aggies in September – because wins are hard to come by, for one, and any team that can't beat NMSU at home doesn't deserve to win more than two games. We'll probably know all we need to know about the Miners by the midway point: UTEP starts with New Mexico, NMSU, Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion before a tough final stretch against some of Conference USA's best.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: There are too many unknowns to project a substantial leap forward in Kugler's second season. That's the safe bet, though it lacks imagination: UTEP is still learning the ropes on defense, is still untrustworthy on offense and still lacks the depth needed to survive another rash of injuries, though it's difficult to imagine lightning striking the Miners twice. The offense clearly needs a full season from Showers, a potential all-conference pick if healthy; Showers would team with Jones and Jeffery to give UTEP a loaded backfield, even if the rest of the offense falls short of expectations. The defense must make a major improvement merely to reach respectability – and the UTEP attack might need to more than respectable to mount a charge to the postseason.
So UTEP isn't a contender – not yet. But you can see some positive signs, a lean here and there that paints Kugler as the right fit in a tough situation. You have to admire how the running game worked last fall even without a genuine threat under center and an unimposing offensive front; Kugler is going to work wonders with the line, it seems. The recruiting class, if not jaw-dropping, filled the Miners' needs. He's done a nice job identifying transfers who can provide an immediate boost. More than anything, UTEP has developed an offensive identity. It's a good start.
But the team still lags behind the curve. The promise seen on this roster is balanced out by the painful present: UTEP lacks a go-to target at receiver, is worrisome at left tackle, is messy at defensive tackle and remains – in my mind – an obvious work in progress at linebacker and in the secondary. This team, despite some high points, is not built to make a run at the postseason. A move to four wins would be a sign of progress.
Dream season: UTEP rides Showers and an improved defense to six wins and a postseason appearance.
Nightmare season: Injuries are a nuisance, following a trend, and the Miners notch another 10-loss season.
Who's No. 113? Last fall, this team ended its season with a win for the fifth time in nine years.