The Miners rushed for 280 yards last week against New Mexico, their top total in a season opener since Aug. 31, 2002 versus Sacramento State (300). It marked UTEP’s best rushing total in an opener against a Division I-A opponent since Aug. 31, 1991 versus UNM (349). UTEP also scored four rushing touchdowns to exceed its total from any game last year. The Miners’ last four rushing touchdown performance came against Tulsa on Nov. 19, 2011.
Heck of a Debut for Jones
True freshman RB and El Paso native Aaron Jones was as great as advertised in the opener, running 11 times for 127 yards (11.5 avg.) and scoring two touchdowns. He compiled the first 100-yard rushing game by a UTEP freshman since another El Pasoan, Matt Austin, ran for 112 yards at Kentucky on Sept. 7, 2002. The last UTEP freshman who had a better rushing night was Elzie Johnson, who rambled for 203 yards against Tulsa on Nov. 16, 1996. Jones had a 65-yard scoring run in the third quarter, the longest by a UTEP frosh since quarterback Jon Schaper had a 74-yard touchdown dash at Alabama on Oct. 6, 2001.
Keeping Up With Jones
Aaron Jones became only the sixth UTEP player in the last 22 years to rush for 100 yards in a season opener, joining Toraino Singleton (107 yards at Wyoming, 1994), Paul Smith (138 yards versus New Mexico, 1999), Howard Jackson (157 yards versus Sacramento State, 2002), Donald Buckram (108 yards versus Buffalo, 2009) and Nathan Jeffery (177 yards versus Oklahoma, 2012). His 127 yards were the most-ever by a UTEP freshman in an opener and the fifth-most in an opener overall since 1950.
Smash Mouth Football
Sean Kugler’s overall philosophy of bringing toughness and physicality to the game was certainly evidenced from an offensive standpoint in week one. The Miners racked up 14 rushing first downs, more than they had in any game last season. The last time UTEP compiled 14 rushing first downs or more in a game was on Sept. 29, 2011 versus Houston (16). What’s more, the fullback returned to the Miner offense against New Mexico as freshman Darrin Laufasa gained 12 yards on three carries.
Showers was Solid in Week One
Texas A&M transfer Jameill Showers did not disappoint in his initial appearance as UTEP’s signal-caller, establishing career-highs for pass attempts (20), completions (15) and yardage (119) versus New Mexico. He tied his personal best with one passing touchdown. Showers also rushed for 44 yards, another career high. He directed the Miners on four consecutive touchdown drives during the first, second and third quarters, averaging 64 yards and 6.5 plays. All four TD drives were under four and a half minutes in length. Showers also demonstrated that he could orchestrate a more methodical march to the end zone, as the Miners moved 70 yards on 14 plays in 6:21 for their final score of the night late in the fourth period. Showers was 3-for-3 passing for 21 yards on the drive while rushing twice for eight yards.
The End Zone is His Home
With a couple more touchdowns in the season opener -- one of the rushing and one of the receiving variety -- Nathan Jeffery has now reached the end zone nine times in his last five games dating back to the 2012 season. During that span he has accounted for eight rushing touchdowns. Jeffery picked up the first touchdown reception since his freshman year (2011), and the third of his career, in the second quarter on a screen pass from Jameill Showers. He now has rushed for 1,122 yards and nine TDs in a UTEP uniform.
Tight Ends’ Impact Already Being Felt
Sean Kugler promised that the tight end would play a pivotal role in the UTEP offense during his tenure as head coach, and sure enough, the Miners lined up with four tight ends (Katrae Ford, Kevin Perry, Eric Tomlinson, Craig Wenrick) on their first play of the game against New Mexico last Saturday. Ford was making his first career start. UTEP’s tight ends combined for three catches totaling 40 yards versus the Lobos. The tight ends had no more than four catches in a game last season, and that number will almost certainly be surpassed at some point in 2013.
With the ordinarily stellar Jordan Leslie limited to five catches for 12 yards in the opener, Ian Hamiltonpicked an opportune time to enjoy his finest day in a UTEP uniform. The second-year player (transfer from Pasadena City College) led the Miners with a career-high four catches for 42 yards. Three of his four receptions were good for first downs, including a career-long 21-yard grab in the second period.
One Mistake Costly in Kicking Game
Despite freshmen taking over the punting and field goal chores this season, the kicking game was solid for the most part against New Mexico. Jay Mattoxwas 5-for-5 on extra points and boomed all six of his kickoffs inside the Lobo three-yard line with three touchbacks. Mike Ruggles fell victim to a bad snap late in the third quarter, leading to an eight-yard punt that set up New Mexico’s eventual game-tying drive at the UTEP 39-yard line. Ruggles’ other three punts traveled 55, 36 and 40 yards, accounting for a more than respectable 43.7-yard average.
Autrey Golden ranked 11th nationally in kickoff returns last season (28.3 avg.), and was back to his old tricks in the opener against UNM. He collected four returns for 104 yards (26.0 avg.). Including three versus the Lobos, Golden now has had 17 kickoff returns of 25+ yards since his UTEP clock started in 2012. He has 926 kickoff return yards in a Miner uniform and is just 86 away from tying Ricki Lopez (1989-90) for 10th place on the UTEP career list.
Growing Pains for Youthful Miner Defense
While UTEP yielded 483 yards to New Mexico -- including 395 on the ground -- consider the fact that the Miners had seven first-time defensive starters in week one. They were WS Devin Cockrell, DT Silas Firstley, CBIshmael Harrison, SS Leon Hayes, CB Adrian James, Mike LB Anthony Puente and FS Traun Roberson. Cockrell, Firstley and Hayes are all freshmen, and Harrison is a sophomore who played wide receiver last season.
More on UTEP’s Defensive Youth Movement
Five Miners registered their first career tackles against New Mexico -- DB Devin Cockrell (10), DB Leon Hayes (6), DB Nick Gathrite (4), DL Silas Firstley (4) and DL Nick Usher (1). Of the 18 defensive players who recorded tackles versus the Lobos, seven were either freshmen or sophomores. Traun Roberson led the Miners with 13 stops; he never had more than one in a game for UTEP entering the 2013 campaign.
The biggest feel-good story on the team this season is the return of free safety Traun Roberson, who has undergone three knee surgeries since coming to UTEP. He injured his wrist two weeks prior to the season opener but played with a brace against New Mexico and absolutely flourished. He was credited with a game-high 13 tackles and forced the Lobo fumble that led to UTEP’s first touchdown late in the first quarter. He also led the team out of the Mine Shaft in pregame while carrying the “Miner Pick,” a weekly ritual under coach Sean Kuglerthat recognizes UTEP’s most physical player in practices. Roberson was limited to three games total (two in 2010, one in 2012) in his first three years in El Paso.