I’ll be honest, other than stud running back Aaron Jones, I really don’t know a whole lot about this UTEP Miners team. A few years ago, I covered UTSA for a couple seasons and saw a lot of Conference USA, including UTEP a few times. Since then, I haven’t really paid any attention to the Miners.
With that in mind, I used a lifeline and phoned a friend over at Underdog Dynasty for his insight on the type of team the Texas Longhorns will face on Saturday. (My friend is Jared and you can follow him on twitter: @JaredUTSA — and yes, he’s more of a UTSA guy but he knows UTEP football as well).
“While UTEP doesn't have the talent to smash a Big XII team head to head like Houston did they are the type of blue-collar, disciplined program that could serve Texas problems if the ‘Horns are feeling too good about themselves following the huge season opener against Notre Dame.
Fresno State graduate transfer quarterback Zack Greenlee will miss the game for the Miners due to a knee injury so Longhorn fans will be in for a huge dose of running back Aaron Jones. With a sturdy frame and deceptive speed, the El Paso product can do it all. He forced 16 missed tackles against New Mexico State last week so the Longhorn defense will need to break down in the open field and gang tackle to keep Jones bottled up.
If they do that then UT shouldn't have too much of problem putting the Miners away by the time the fourth quarter rolls around.” — Jared, assistant manager at Underdog Dynasty
Well, there you have it. UTEP will probably lean on Jones and its ground game against Texas. And with the starting quarterback out, UTEP head coach Sean Kugler has announced he’s going with backup quarterback Kavika Johnson, a run-first quarterback who even saw time at running back last season.
Heading into this week’s game, here are five things to watch.
1) UTEP running back Aaron Jones vs. the Texas defense
I’m starting things off with the defense. At first glance, given that Notre Dame scored six touchdowns and a field goal (not including the blocked extra point) to go along with the 444 yards of total offense, we can see why Texas Defensive Coordinator Vance Bedford gave his defense a “C” for the performance during his weekly press conference.
After going back and re-watching the game, I’d actually give the defense a C+. You may think otherwise.
Is this defense at the level it needs to be at?... Nope. And it probably will take another full year before it starts to hit its real potential.
Did the defense show improvements?... In a game where the Notre Dame offensive line was massive, the skill position players were athletic, and the quarterback was talented and will at least be drafted in one of the early rounds when he declares, I’d say the defense showed it had taken a step forward — even if it still has more steps to take.
This defense is still young in key areas. And you can’t just press the “easy button” to improve that. But a game like this, where UTEP will deploy a running back with NFL potential and a back-up quarterback known mainly for his mobility, will be another great opportunity and test for this young defense that needs to show it can slow down an opponent’s run game.
Holding Jones to under 100 yards should be the goal and will probably mean the defensive unit had a great day.
2) Can the Texas offense exceed 60 points this game?
Given how the offense looked against Notre Dame, that’s a serious question now even if the offensive line still has issues, the quarterback is still a freshman, and this game is just the second for offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and his new offense at Texas.
Of the 14 drives the Longhorns had in regulation against the Fighting Irish, they scored on half of those and put up 37 points of offense. This UTEP defense doesn’t have the type of athletes that Notre Dame has. And that’s not a knock against UTEP, just a reality of where the rosters stand.
I’m not an experienced sports bettor, but I believe the over/under opened around 56 points and is now (as of Friday morning) up to 59 points. I’d take the over all day in this one. I’m that confident in this offense at home against a UTEP team I don’t see as nearly as tough of an opponent as Notre Dame was.
Plus, I have to think Sterlin Gilbert will want to give this offense a chance to execute more shots downfield after missing on several easy touchdowns last week.
For reference, the last time Texas dropped 60-plus points on a team was in Oxford, Mississippi during the 2012 season against Ole Miss in a 66-31 win. Since then, the closest Texas has gotten close to the threshold was the 59-20 win over Kansas at home last season. And that offense was the Norvell-special by that point.
Scoring 60 points Saturday isn’t out of reach if Texas gets off the a fast start, but UTEP won’t do Gilbert any favors in that regard.
3) Will we see more freshmen play?
A total of 10 true freshman saw the field last weekend but it felt more like two, maybe three, actually got out there and made plays.
This week, we’ll all be watching to see which freshmen not only get on the field but which ones actually have a noticeable impact in the game.
The names that come to mind on offense are WR Devin Duvernay, WR Collin Johnson, WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and RB Kyle Porter. Duvernay and Johnson will most likely get into the wide receiver rotation right from the start. And Porter could work his way into at least a handful of carries as the game progresses. We could also get a dose of Porter or Duvernay on special teams.
An offensive linemen or two could also play, likely Denzel Okafor or Jean Delance, who are listed on the depth chart this week.
Defensively, I’d like to see the same five freshmen (Elliott, WIlbon, Roach, Jones, and McCulloch) get in there again. Other than those guys, I’d keep the other freshmen on the redshirt track aside from maybe Fowler if he’s ready to go, but I’m not sure where he’s at in his progress of getting acclimated to the defense and football after missing time finishing tests this summer.
4) The offensive line needs to have a cleaner game
The Longhorns may have dropped 50 points on Notre Dame but that doesn’t mean the offensive line played well to get an “A” or even a “B” grade from yours truly.
Credit Sterlin Gilbert, this new scheme, quick reads and throws by Buechele, and some tough running from Foreman, Warren and Swoopes all as factors that helped Texas score the points it needed to win.
I’m not saying the offensive line was a disaster. There were some positive plays and moments. But I am saying there are a few culprits that need to play better moving forward.
In the offensive line’s defense, it was the first time playing in this new scheme against a real opponent, their hands were full with a big and talented Notre Dame defensive front, and some of the Texas linemen were trying to play through injuries.
This week, I’ll be watching the offensive line every few plays or so. And given some of the linemen may still be dealing with some injuries, we probably see some younger guys get in there as well.
5) Will we see the running-Heard in Austin on Saturday?
Maybe this package is one Gilbert and company don’t want to showcase just yet for strategical reasons. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to see what Jerrod Heard could do out of a true Wildcat package.
Plus, it’s probably wise to have some sort of second option to the 18-Wheeler package should anything happen to Swoopes. (Note: This is not a jinx.)
Even if we don’t see the running-Heard (I’m going with that name if we all like it. We all like it, right?), a single trick play involving at least two of the three quarterbacks would be a sight to see.
Or maybe Texas keeps it vanilla if they get a good lead going...
What will you be watching for?