By Mark S. McDonald, overfed UTEP correspondent
RUIDOSO, N.M. – UTEP football hopefuls peering through parted fingers at the forthcoming 2019 season have one key question: Will the Miners move the ball better this season?
No-brainer prediction: Yes.
Wiseguy sitting at the next barstool: “How could they be worse?”
Slow afoot and beset by injuries — notably to linemen up front and quarterbacks — the whirlpool test lab of a UTEP offense ranked a heavy-legged 126th nationally among 130 D-1 teams.
As the late Miners legendary basketball coach Don Haskins would say, “We looked like a sack of cats.”
But wait. From workouts in the cool, cool pines of Camp Ruidoso this week, reasons for orange optimism emerge.
They include a rehabbed O-line and a handful of grad transfers who will play as soon as the Aug. 29 opener vs. Houston Baptist. Then there are athletes wearing red don’t-hit-this-guy practice jerseys. Quarterbacks.
Brandon Jones is taking most of the snaps with the first string. The 6-2 senior from Bakersfield College came in when starters Ryan Metz then Kai Locksley both were sideline with injuries. Jones is not a flashy guy, but has begun to assert himself as a team leader, his linemen say.
That, we know. Everything else is still in the hat.
No. 2 will get playing time, coaches say, but this first back-up slot appears to be unsettled. A peek at those candidates:
- Mark Torrez – A junior from El Paso Eastwood, this is purely a longshot.
- Isiah Bravo – JuCo transfer from Cerritos College in California has shown flashes, but must upgrade his passing accuracy.
- Calvin Brownholtz – The QB meetings are so crowded, I’d like to see this redshirt freshman agree to move to defense, where he could be really productive. At 6-2, he is fast enough to play safety and already covers kicks.
- Kai Locksley – This gifted senior with the high profile (for the wrong reasons) has been reinstated to the squad since his summer arrest for charges ranging from possession of weed and a pistol, to public intoxication and threatening violence. So far, this former starter has done nothing special in practices. This is Locksley’s fourth collegiate stop. I wonder if coaches hope he will get a degree and go away quietly.
- TJ Goodwin – This 6-5 freshman from Cypress Falls in the Houston area shows the physical attributes to be The Man some day. If you’re handicapping the QB race, by mid-season this could be a real dark-horse bet.
- Gavin Hardison – No Olympic sprinter, this 6-3 transfer from Hobbs, N.M., via New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, has impressed coaches with his poise and maturity, plus a Major League arm. “When I first saw him throw this summer,” marveled center Derron Gatewood, “I said, ‘Dang, who is that guy?’” Hardison will rarely get his shirt wet this season, but he still has four years of eligibility left. Be watchful for No. 12.
Tip of the day: UTEP has a hole in its QB recruiting, with no sophomores in the progression of age classes. After the departure of Jones and Locksley, and perhaps the move Brownholtz to defense, this situation is ripe for a JuCo transfer. Spring drills in early 2020 will be proving time for the hold-overs. Show us.
Advisory: QB Coach Tony Canales is not asking his charges to set passing records, nor to run like presidential candidates. When at Kansas State, UTEP Coach Dana Dimel called plays for Bill Snyder’s bland run-pass option offense that caused Wildcat fans to fidget and threaten to turn the channel.
Searching for stability, UTEP coaches are likely to rely on multiple QBs to control the game clock, move the down markers, avoid turnovers and protect a defense rebuilding in the secondary. Predictable? Drab?
Let’s throw a few UTEP post-game victory celebrations, and toast this “boring” offense. First beer is always on me.
Next: UTEP grad transfers fill roster needs
McDonald is a UTEP journalism grad and two-year football letterman who has written nine Pulitzer Prize-losing books. For his most recent release on chaotic American history and reality after sports, “Beyond The Big Shootout – 50 Years of Football’s Life Lessons,” visit <BeyondTheShootout.com>.