With Florida Atlantic postponing its game against Southern Miss last week, the unexpected bye week was an opportunity to regain players from its limited roster and add two coaches to its staff.
Interim coach Scotty Walden has added Rick Minter and Scott Highsmith to his staff as analysts.
Minter was the head coach of Cincinnati from 1995-2003, which included four bowl trips. He was also defensive coordinator at South Carolina, Notre Dame, Marshall and Kentucky.
“We have added two great quality control guys to come to help our staff,” Walden said. “Coach Rick Minter has a phenomenal defensive mind and background. (Minter has) just a wealth of knowledge. I was looking for a guy, a veteran type of coach that can impart wisdom on our staff and give us perspective.”
Highsmith was the wide receivers coach at Kentucky, offensive coordinator at Southeastern Louisiana, and took over as head coach at East Texas Baptist after Walden left the position.
“Coach Highsmith was with me at East Texas Baptist,” Walden said. “He was my right-hand guy and took over as head coach when I left. He has knowledge of not only the passing game, but he can evaluate what people can do, and he has a system of approaching things. He provides great wisdom.”
Walden also anticipates several players’ return after having just 53 scholarship players in the Golden Eagles’ 41-31 win over North Texas.
“It’s still early to tell,” Walden said. “I anticipate that I will have more than that (53), so I’m very optimistic. It’s not just the COVID stuff but with injuries too. I think we will get some guys back. I’m optimistic that the number will be higher.”
According to Walden, wide receiver Tim Jones is “day-to-day” and close to returning from his hamstring injury he suffered against Louisiana Tech. Running back Don Ragsdale is expected to return against UTEP (3-2, 0-1).
Although UTEP lost to Louisiana Tech last week, it is off to its best start since its 5-1 start in 2014; the Miners finished 6-7 that season. In the last three years, UTEP has combined for a 2-34 record.
“You can just tell they are playing with different energy and fire,” Walden said. “They are playing really stellar on defense right now. They are stopping the run and not allowing big plays. They are only allowing a 28% conversion rate on third down. That’s got to be top 10 in the country. They are doing a great job of getting off the field on third down.”
Walden tributes UTEP’s early success to its successful junior college recruiting.
“I think they did a great job of not only recruiting the Texas junior colleges but the California junior colleges,” Walden said. “I was real familiar with a lot of those players, especially in Texas. They have just done a good job of evaluating.”
On defense, UTEP has averaged 22.6 points per game, and without the Miners’ 59-3 loss to Texas that number drops to 13.5 points per game.
“It seems like they have started games with even fronts and 4-down stuff and just played some normal quarters lining up and playing nice if you will, for the beginning of a lot of these games,” offensive coordinator Matt Kubik said. “As the game has gone along, they’ll go to some odd fronts, and they are playing with what we call jungle, umbrella coverage in the back. They are basically taking their nickel and putting him in the middle of the field. It’s the old school Tampa 2 coverage, but the middle is already lined up back there.”
Kubik also explained that UTEP’s ability to change its defense mid-game had been part of its success.
“I think what has helped them, especially in the back end, it’s just mixing it up,” Kubik said. “You start feeling good about that, then all of sudden they have that jungle guy standing there in the middle of the field. There is not a lot of guys open when they put that extra guy back there. They are rushing three or four and taking up a lot of space. The other thing it does is it hampers the RPO (run-pass-option) game. It forces you to be patient and really sustain some drives and try to be happy with your three- and four-yard runs and flip a slant. It puts a premium on execution.”
On offense, UTEP has put up an average of 18.4 points per game. The peak of its offense success stems from its run game as Deion Hankins leads the team with 300 rushing yards and five touchdowns. At quarterback is Gavin Hardison, who has passed for 1,056 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Hardison’s top two targets are Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett, who have combined for 778 yards and one touchdown.
“They are a very talented offense,” defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “They run the ball extremely well. The offensive line is coached extremely well. They do a good job of double-teaming, run blocks and creating a new line of scrimmage. No 33 runs very hard. “He is a violent runner. We will have to make sure that we do a great job of tackling him. He is not really an outside runner, but he comes downhill extremely hard. The quarterback, I think, does a good job of managing the football game and a good job of getting the ball to his playmakers.”