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.