Changes afoot after stretch of stability to UTEP
UTEP has a new coach, a new quarterback and a conference that might as well be new.
All this after the most stability the program had seen in more than 70 years ended with Mike Price's retirement after last season.
Former UTEP player and assistant coach Sean Kugler replaced Price, who stepped aside after losing records in the last seven of his nine seasons. The only longer tenure for a UTEP coach was Mack Saxon's 13-season run that ended in 1941.
Kugler's El Paso ties are important as he tries to get the Miners back where Price had them eight years ago - the talk of the town after consecutive 8-4 seasons with the first back-to-back bowl trips in 40 years.
But it's probably more important that Kugler persuaded former Texas A&M quarterback Jameill Showers to pick UTEP when he decided to transfer after losing the offseason battle for the starting job to Johnny Manziel in 2012. Four months later, Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
One thing hasn't changed for the Miners - their conference. But Conference USA itself is undergoing a dramatic makeover with six new schools, four that have already left and three more that are leaving after this season.
Five things to watch this season:
1. CHANCE FOR SHOWERS: Kugler announced recently that Showers was his starter, but that's been a foregone conclusion since February, when Showers chose UTEP two months after Kugler was hired. Showers gets a chance to be in charge of an offense after playing sparingly as the backup to Ryan Tannehill in 2011 and Manziel last year. Showers told the El Paso Times he is looking forward to UTEP's non-conference visit to College Station on Nov. 2. ''There will be a lot of friendly trash talk. It will be weird, but it will be fun,'' said Showers, who has two years of eligibility and is getting to play immediately because he graduated from Texas A&M.
2. KUGLER ERA BEGINS: Kugler was a four-year letterman as an offensive lineman at UTEP from 1985-88, and played three of those seasons under his new boss - UTEP athletic director Bob Stull. In 1988, he was on the only 10-win team in school history (UTEP played in the Independence Bowl), and his position coach was Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid. Kugler returned as an assistant in 1993 and stayed until 2000, when the Miners made their first bowl trip since his final season as a player. The first-time head coach spent 11 of the past 12 seasons as an NFL assistant and returned to UTEP after three years as offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. ''El Paso's kind of a second home to me. I played here. I coached here for eight years. The challenge to run a program, especially when it's your alma mater, is one that was too hard to pass up,'' Kugler told the El Paso newspaper.
3. CONFERENCE SHUFFLE: The Miners lost two Texas foes with Houston and SMU joining Memphis and UCF in the new American Athletic Conference, a move that was originally to the Big East before the basketball-only schools broke away and took that name with them. But two new Texas teams are joining C-USA's West Division in North Texas and UTSA. Louisiana Tech is another newcomer in the West. In all, there are six new teams to replace the four departing teams. Three more schools - defending C-USA champion and preseason favorite Tulsa along with Tulane and East Carolina - are leaving next year, to be replaced by Old Dominion and Western Kentucky. Charlotte, a charter C-USA member in 1995, is returning in 2015.
4. NO MORE MATADOR: Porous defenses became a hallmark under Price, and one of the reasons he had seven straight losing seasons. The Miners have allowed at least 440 total yards in five of the past six seasons, starting with a school-record 505 per game in 2007. Kugler is trying something a little different in an effort to turn things around this time, hiring defensive coordinator Scott Stoker from Sam Houston State after he was part of two straight trips to the title game in the Championship Subdivision. The question is what kind of personnel Stoker will have for an attacking style that brings pressure and relies on man-to-man coverage. Safety Richard Spencer is probably UTEP's best defensive player, but is struggling to get back from a knee injury that sidelined him most of last year. Linebacker A.J. Ropati is the only returner among the top seven tacklers from last season.
5. TOP RUSHER AND RECEIVER: Showers should have some help on offense because the Miners are returning their most productive running back and receiver from last year. Nathan Jeffery had 897 yards, including 177 against Oklahoma, and seven touchdowns. Jordan Leslie led UTEP in catches (51), receiving yards (973) and yards per catch (19.1). Both are juniors. Freshman tailback Aaron Jones, who went to high school in El Paso, also drew some attention during a 12-day preseason camp.
Predicted finish: Fourth place in the West Division.