UTEP dropped to 0-2 after suffering losses to Oklahoma (24-7) and Ole Miss (28-10). It ended the short losing streak with a 41-28 win over New Mexico State, but the victory over the Aggies was followed by four consecutive losses to Wisconsin (37-26), East Carolina (28-18), SMU (17-0) and Tulsa (33-11). The Miners earned a C-USA win versus Tulane (24-20) and later another on the road at Southern Miss (34-33), but they came up short against Houston (45-35), UCF (31-24) and Rice (33-24).
Price announced in November that he would retire at the end of the season, which gave the school plenty of time to search for his replacement. Director of Athletics Bob Stull elected to go with Sean Kugler, who played offensive line for UTEP from 1984-88.
"I had an opportunity today to meet with some of the players, and just wanted to reiterate to them that this is going to be some hard work and I'm looking for guys with character, guys that work hard and guys that are smart and enjoy playing the great game of football the way it should be played," said Kugler at his inaugural press conference. "That's my No. 1 goal as a coach, to have a team go out there each week and represent the City of El Paso and go out there and represent each other as teammates and do the best job they can week in and week out."
Kugler has no prior head coaching experience, but comes to the Miners after serving as the offensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills (2007-09) and Pittsburgh Steelers (2010-12).
OFFENSE: Kugler has an interested piece to work with at quarterback right away. Junior Jameill Showers didn't want to spend his final two years of college backing up Johnny Manziel, so he graduated school early and transferred to UTEP, where he will be the starter right away. Showers saw very little field time while at Texas A&M (27-of-44 for 319 yards, two TDs and one interception in 2012), but there is a reason 25 different schools were interested after news broke that he was looking for a more promising situation.
Showers has a reliable target in junior wideout Jordan Leslie. The 6-foot-2 pass catcher finished fourth in the C-USA last season with 973 yards on 51 grabs. Leslie is the only proven wide receiver the Minors have, but Craig Wilson and Eric Tomlinson are both quality players at tight end.
UTEP finished 77th among FBS programs in rushing with 148.5 yards per game. Junior Nathan Jeffery was the sixth leading rusher in the conference with 81.6 yards per outing. His total output was weakened by some early season injuries, but he finished strong, scoring all seven of his touchdowns in the final four games. Junior running back LaQuintus Dowell had 33 carries last season and should receive more this year after averaging 5.1 yards per attempt.
The offensive line was one of the weakest in the FBS last season as it surrendered 2.6 sacks per contest. Brander Craighead (6-6, 280), Jerel Watkins (6-3, 280) and Kyle Brown (6-2, 280) all return as starters. Junior center Paulo Melendez (6-2, 315) and junior right tackle Mike Amdall (6-4, 310) will give the line some much needed bulk.
DEFENSE: The Miners were not an exceptional team defensively last year under coordinator Jeff Choate, finishing 91st among FBS programs in total defense with 440.2 yards allowed per game. Choate left to become the special teams coordinator at Florida, which opened up the door for former Sam Houston State defensive coordinator Scott Stoker to step in. Stoker was selected as the FCS Defensive Coordinator of the Year in 2011 after the Bearkats held top-five rankings in rushing defense (first, 72.9 ypg), scoring defense (second, 14.9 ppg), turnover margin (second, 1.87), total defense (third, 279.9 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (fourth, 99.20), while pacing the conference in all five categories.
Stoker has little to work with in his first season with the program as UTEP returns just four starters on the defensive side of the ball. Senior nose tackles Germard Reed (6-1, 275) and Marcus Bagley (6-1, 320) are two of the best interior linemen in the conference. Reed registered seven total tackles for loss and two sacks in 2012.
The senior tandem of Horace Miller (6-1, 240) and A.J. Ropati (6-0, 230) will anchor the linebacking unit. Ropati is the leader among returners in tackles (58). Senior cornerback Adrian James could have played his way into a starting spot last year, but his season ended after only four games due to a concussion. Junior Nick Gathrie is a strong candidate to start at the opposite corner in his first season with the team since transferring from Riverside Community College.
SPECIAL TEAMS: UTEP ended its Spring session without any kickers or punters on their roster. Four freshmen, Tanner Kneisly, Jay Mattox, Mike Ruggles and Mikael Sroka, are all being considered to be the new starter at both positions by Kugler.
Running back Autrey Golden is a solid special teams weapon. He finished second in the C-USA with 28.3 yards per kick return and took two back for touchdowns.
OUTLOOK: With a new blend of coaches and players, UTEP will need to get everyone on the same page more than most programs. Luckily for Kruger, the conference also has experienced plenty of change.
"We certainly want to be a physical team and we don't want to just talk about it," said Kruger. "We are going to approach it that way at practice and our off season conditioning are structured as such so we are hoping that physical play will improve and that will give us the best chance to win on Saturdays."
The Miners begin their campaign at home versus New Mexico and play their first road game the following week at New Mexico State. UTEP will then host Texas- San Antonio for its C-USA opener. After the in-state bout with the Roadrunners, it continues its non-conference slate at Colorado State. The Miners then play three league games in a row versus Louisiana Tech, Tulsa and at Rice. They will battle the defending Heisman Trophy Award winner at Texas A&M and finish off their year with four C-USA tilts against North Texas, FIU, Tulane and Middle Tennessee.
Showers could make UTEP a competitive squad in the conference if he is able to gain a grasp of offensive coordinator Patrick Higgins's system. He backed up Ryan Tannehill and Manziel in his two seasons at A&M. There aren't too many quarterbacks that would have edged either of those two in a position battle. Showers has some nice tools to work with in El Paso. The offense will need to be one of the best in the league as the defense and special teams both look like works in progress.