UTEP Offense Shows Promise Ahead of 2022 Season
Editor's note: 600 ESPN El Paso will be previewing the UTEP football team ahead of fall camp this week. Stay tuned to SportsTalk for exclusive interviews with coaches, players and football personalities ahead of the season's kick-off on Aug. 27. For the season overview, click here.
This could be a boom-or-bust year for the UTEP football offense.
The unit took a major step forward in 2021, returning quarterback Gavin Hardison at the helm of the offense and mixing in a ground attack led by Deion Hankins and Ronald Awatt. Receivers Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett each elevated their game. However, the offense still came short at times. They were a bottom-five scoring offense in C-USA (25 points per game) and right in the middle of the league for total offense (392 yards per game).
They made enough progress in 2021 to give nine returning starters valuable experience going into this year, but not enough to push them over the top last season.
This is the season that the Miners need their offense to step up in a significant way. Their defense should be credited with a lot of the team's success last year. Now, they need to be able to rely more on their offense to put them in winning positions.
Offensive MVP: Gavin Hardison
In order for UTEP's offense to be successful, a lot hinges on the success of quarterback Gavin Hardison. He's entering his third season as the starting quarterback, which is rare to see continuity at the position with this program.
Hardison was the first gunslinger to throw for 3,000-plus yards since Miner great Trevor Vittatoe did it in 2009. He finished 2021 with 3,217 passing yards, fifth-most in a single season at UTEP. He totaled 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, with a 55% completion percentage and 9.0 yards per attempt. This year, he's sure to break 5,000 career yards (currently at 4,972).
"He's had a really good offseason," said head coach Dana Dimel. "Really prepared to play at a higher level and continue to improve. He can do more at the line of scrimmage. He'll be able to recognize things at a higher level. That's the next step."
The Hobbs, N.M. native is stepping into a different role this year compared to previous seasons. He will be called to be one of the team's top leaders. As the team lost both Cowing and Garrett from last year, Hardison will have to develop chemistry with some of the newcomer wideouts. The coaching staff thinks he can also be a better decision maker in pre-snap situations. If the Miners are thriving this year, Hardison will be a huge part of the success.
UTEP needs to run the ball effectively and it's not on the RBs
Returning both Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins is huge for the running back group. The two combined for over 1,300 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns. The numbers feel significant knowing Hankins dealt with a shoulder injury for the majority of the season, along with Awatt having his own share of small injuries in 2021.
The running back group lost Willie Eldrige (transfer portal) and Quardraiz Wadley (graduation) from last year's squad. They supplemented the losses with Cisco College transfer Cartraven Walker and Tyler JC transfer Torrance Burgess Jr. Coaches are bullish on both Walker and Burgess. There's also a possibility of Rey Flores taking the majority of snaps as the third string running back, as the local product can play wideout, slot and running back.
The biggest key for the running backs this year is the offensive line. Last year, the offensive front did a nice job of protecting the quarterback, but as the season went along, they struggled to establish the run. The coaching staff wants the offensive line to be more physical this year. The offensive line returns four starters from last year—left tackle Zuri Henry, center Andrew Meyer, right guard Elijah Klein and right tackle Jeremiah Byers. Redshirt sophomore Justin Mayers will fill the left guard role, previously held by All Conference standout Bobby DeHaro. Beyond the four returning starters, there are some early fall camp questions regarding the depth of the offensive line. The Miners will need to build the depth this fall camp to give each position an insurance policy on the offensive line.
Depth will be the key for the wide receivers
As life without Cowing (transfer) and Garrett (graduate) becomes a reality, Dimel chose to build the wide receiver corps with numbers. As of now, the roster reflects 15 receivers and eight tight ends. Of the 23 players, there might only be five to seven that get into the receiving rotation for the passing game.
A newcomer to watch is JUCO redshirt sophomore Kelly Akharaiyi, who led Tyler with 52 catches for 681 last season. Slot receiver Tyrin Smith shined in his first year with the team in 2021, catching 33 passes for 570 yards. One other newcomer that fans are excited about is redshirt freshman Jeremiah Ballard, who appeared in a couple of games last year. A few other names to look out for include Tyler JC transfer Jostein Clarke, Sierra transfer Josh Farr, Western Kentucky transfer Kyle McNamara and senior Walter Dawn Jr.
Though the tight ends might not be as involved lin the passing game, this might be the best 1-2 option the Miners have had at tight end since Dimel's been here. Senior Trent Thompson will lead the way at the tight end spot, but not too far behind is NMMI transfer Zach Fryar, who has progressed nicely over the spring.
- Gavin Hardison will make an All C-USA team instead of All-Conference Honorable Mention (2021) and throw for over 3,000 yards for a second straight season. Hardison also improves his completion percentage to 60% or better
- Calvin Brownholtz will throw more than 10 passes this year as a change-of-pace quarterback. I wish UTEP could figure out a way to get him more involved in the offense, i.e a wide receiver/tight end role. I want Dimel to make Brownholtz like a Taysom Hill option for this offense without disrupting the flow.
- Deion Hankins will lead the team in touchdowns and Ronald Awatt will lead the team in rushing yards
- Kelly Akharaiyi will have a breakout season among the wide receivers
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