EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The 2020 college football season was far from a normal season. That is why the NCAA voted to grant an extra year of eligibility to all fall and winter sports student-athletes, whether they competed in 2020-21 or not.
The additional year will affect teams across the country differently, but for a program rebuilding like UTEP, the ruling aids a Miners team that played just eight games last season. Several seniors on their roster have already decided to participate in spring ball and take advantage of the extra year of eligibility to return for the 2021 season.
“It makes a world of difference to have those guys back because we wouldn’t have had them and now we have leadership,” said UTEP head coach Dana Dimel. “That’s the one aspect when you’re trying to have a really good season moving into next year. Leadership is critical and the locker room is critical.”
Perhaps the biggest returner is wide receiver Justin Garrett. Along with Jacob Cowing, Garrett emerged as one of UTEP’s biggest playmakers last season, hauling in 38 receptions for 510 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s definitely a blessing,” said Garrett. “I get to continue to work on my education and I get an extra year of football. It’s doesn’t really get much better than this.”
For underclassmen — as it pertains to eligibility — it’s as if last season never happened. It remains to be seen how this will affect recruiting numbers in the seasons to come, but for a program like UTEP who is desperate to win now, it’s huge.
Continuity has been a problem for a program that hasn’t played in a bowl game since 2014. Despite Dimel firing both his offensive and defensive coordinators at the conclusion of last season, the Miners have pieces in play to compete for a bowl game appearance in 2021.
“Every starter on offense is coming back and the couple defensive starters that aren’t back, we feel like there’s guys that are playing those positions that have either played really well at other programs or they’ve played well at times for us,” said Dimel. “I’m looking forward to watching these guys progress and, lord willing, stay healthy. They’re working to get themselves better throughout the spring and making some strides going into next season.”
With Gavin Hardison returning at quarterback, UTEP is miles ahead of where they’ve been in past springs. The chemistry is there, it just needs fine-tuning.
“We’re just going to continue to bond and grow tighter together — develop more chemistry and get a feel for each other,” said Garrett. “Just being able to feed off one another. Everyone back has a lot of experience.”
UTEP will wrap-up the spring practices with their Annual Spring Game on Friday, April 9. The Miners will open the 2021 season against Battle of I-10 rival New Mexico State on Saturday, August 28.