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Texas can’t afford to underestimate UTEP

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The Miners are an improved team with some talented players.

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-Utah State at Texas El Paso Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the UTEP Miners will come to Austin to face off against the Texas Longhorns and there won’t be any national buzz about the match up. Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium certainly won’t hold another record-setting crowd for the game.

But with the ‘Horns back in the AP and Coaches polls for the first time since 2013 and as much positive momentum around the program as any point since the national championship loss in early 2010, Texas can’t afford to take a step backwards this week.

It’s a sentiment that the coaches have adamantly expressed this week.

For one thing, UTEP has some talent, including senior running back Aaron Jones, who just gashed New Mexico State for 249 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.

Jones missed most of the 2015 season with injury, but when he’s healthy, he’s extremely dangerous, possessing solid size at 215 pounds and a low center of gravity since he stands only 5’10.

What makes the El Paso product so effective, however, is his combination of quickness, balance, vision, and overall toughness — he’s a difficult guy to bring down with arm tackles, as Texas Tech found out over two years as Jones gained 283 combined yards against the Red Raiders.

But just how dangerous is Jones? Consider this — despite only carrying the ball 32 times in 2015, he managed to rip off a 91-yard run, meaning that with the addition of his 75-yard in the season opener, he’s now had runs of 71 or more yards in each of his four seasons.

His other touchdown run against New Mexico State went for 37 yards.

Now that’s explosive. Oh yeah, he also has a devastating stiff arm, so watch out for that, too. All put together, Jones was able to break 16 tackles against New Mexico State, the most by any player over the last two years, according to Pro Football Focus.

Then there’s junior quarterback Zack Greenlee, a Fresno State transfer who once finished fourth in the Elite 11 quarterback competition. The 6’1, 215-pounder was up an down with the Bulldogs, but threw six touchdowns passes against Hawaii last season and three against Utah in only six completions.

In his UTEP debut, Greenlee was efficient in completing 15-of-27 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, so the early returns on his new team are positive.

On the defensive side of the ball, most of the Miners rush defense returns from last season and a young group of defensive backs benefited from a trial by fire in 2015. Against the Aggies, the more experienced secondary allowed only five yards per attempt by forcing incompletions on nearly 60 percent of New Mexico State’s throws.

In the past, the Miners under head coach Sean Kugler has been known for fielding teams that slow down the tempo, avoid mistakes, and force opponents to execute at a high level.

With an improved coaching staff that features former Boise State and Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease, UTEP may now be able to execute those types of game plans at a higher level.

Recent history provides some stark examples of the differences between the baby ‘Horns in big games and those that don’t spark quite as much anticipation — just go back and look at the contrast between performances against Baylor and Oklahoma last season and the 24-0 disaster against Iowa State in Ames.

Now, this game will come at home against a team that likely isn’t as strong as the Cyclones last season, but the point still stands. One of former head coach Mack Brown’s Longhorns teams lost to Iowa State at home, after all.

One game won’t make the season, as head coach Charlie Strong said this week, but a loss to a team like the Miners would certainly derail it and once again raise questions about how the Longhorns will be able to navigate a difficult early schedule that features the season’s single bye week right before the start of conference play.

Time to show some focus on a smaller stage and take talents like Aaron Jones seriously.