EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — UTEP last played in a bowl game in 2014. The Miners have since gone 21-54 after their appearance in the New Mexico Bowl seven years ago, and they are picked to finish last in the Conference USA West Division this season. But head coach Dana Dimel has high hopes for his team in 2021.
The Miners finished the 2020 pandemic-shortened season 3-5 (0-4) and won their only two home games of the season, albeit against a pair of FCS opponents (Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian). Even in just eight games, there was a noticeable difference in last year’s UTEP team than the previous three under Dimel. The biggest difference came on offense where the Miners showed glimpses of an explosive offense with sophomore quarterback Gavin Hardison throwing the football to Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett. Freshman running back Deion Hankins, the local fan-favorite on the team, ran over, around and through opposing defenses.
“I really love the talent we have [on offense]. It starts with the running back position, and we are very, very deep at the running back position. It goes three-deep,” said Dimel. “We were close to being a .500 team last year and now the guys know what it takes to win.”
UTEP returns virtually every starter from a season ago, including a handful of super seniors who received an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic. But for all the continuity on the roster, Dimel did clear the deck at coordinator. Mike Canales and Mike Cox were both fired after the season and replaced by Dave Warner and Bradley Dale Peveto. Warner will be tasked with leading the offense to the next level and comes to the Miners from Michigan State, while Peveto makes his way to El Paso from Texas A&M to take over the defense.
“Expecting to win in the critical thing and that’s where we need to get ourselves to as we progress through the season,” said Dimel. “Once you reach that stage where your guys walk on the field and they expect to win each and every ballgame, then you know you’ve arrived. We know we have the talent to do that, now it’s just about putting it all together and making that happen.”
For all the talk on offense, the defense will also have a special playmaker. Sophomore defensive end Praise Amaewhule emerged as one of Conference USA’s best pass rushers. The Miners will also have an improved secondary with the return of junior Justin Prince, but the linebacker position will be an area of concern, which is seemingly why UTEP will move to a 4-2-5 defense.
“We started to become a lot more disruptive with what we’re doing,” said Dimel. “We had a lot more loss yardage plays, a lot more turnovers caused, and I think this year we’re really going to emphasize that and really try to make a big step in that direction.”
With all the preseason talk out of the way, what are realistic expectations for this year’s team? Dimel has said numerous times that year four could be a turning point for the program. However, bowl or bust is not how he sees the upcoming season.
“Oh, you can’t ever look at anything like that,” said Dimel. “I just want our football team to play really good football, continue to improve and continue to put UTEP on the map. We want to make UTEP a respectable program. That’s the thing I think we made big strides in last year and that’s what I want us to do this year, too.”
UTEP’s schedule in 2021 favors their chances to become bowl eligible, but it will require winning games they are supposed to win. Believe it or not, there are quite a few of those on the schedule: New Mexico State, Bethune-Cookman, New Mexico and even Conference USA foes like Old Dominion, North Texas and Rice. There’s a path to six wins, but if the Miners stumble along the way, it will take winning another couple Conference USA games to get where they want to be in the most important football season at Sun Bowl Stadium in recent memory.