'Main emphasis was defense': UTEP football team strikes gold with junior college additions
Between the COVID year and the evolution of the transfer portal, the landscape of college athletics was transformed.
What's become apparent as UTEP begins the 2021 football season is the Miners took full advantage.
They didn't do it in an obvious way, by loading up on transfer portal players, but through an old-fashioned method that suddenly became a hidden gold mine: the junior college market.
When Dana Dimel made his appearance at Conference USA's media day, he started by dropping a bombshell. In the late spring and early summer, UTEP added six junior college transfers, four on defense, headlined by a pair of NJCAA All-Americans in safety Trejon Hugue and linebacker James Neal.
The other late junior college additions are receiver Jostein Clarke, offensive lineman Otis Pitts, cornerback Torey Richardson and defensive tackle Tevita Tefuna, and all arrive at UTEP as sophomores with three years of eligibility.
UTEP made a leap forward in 2020 spearheaded by defensive junior college transfers and now the Miners are looking to do it again.
"The junior college market was fantastic because of the transfer portal," Dimel said. "The transfer portal was taking a lot of guys and all a sudden the junior college players level of talent is so much higher for us to go grab because so many guys are getting absorbed in the transfer portal.
"We took a guy or two from the transfer portal but we did a lot of good work in the JC market during the summer and late spring."
In addition to the trickle-down effects of the transfer portal, where most schools concentrated their transfer recruiting, a consequence of COVID was pushing the junior college season into the spring, which kicked off after signing day.
That pushed back some of that recruiting to a window where UTEP took advantage.
"Recruitment in JUCO got kind of slowed down with the COVID year," said Hugue, who initially transferred from Texas State to Cisco College in 2020. "UTEP had interest in me in the fall, but I decided to go to JUCO.
"They stayed interested in me and I liked the love they were giving me. I decided to come here and I love it."
Neal's story is similar.
"Recruiting got held back in JUCO, this past summer, I waited around to see what my options were," he said. "I got a couple of offers at the beginning of the summer. I got a call from UTEP, they liked my film, they were intrigued with me and I liked that.
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"They were interested in me, that's when I came out here second summer, July 5, it's been going ever since."
As for what Neal feels he brings to the only unit to lose starters from 2020, the linebacking corps, he said, "My background, where I come from, I feel like I'm a really hard worker," he said.
"I've been working since my freshman year in high school so I feel like I bring hard work and energy, running everywhere and all around the field. That's what I feel like I bring to UTEP and I see a bunch of other guys like that. I like to surround myself with guys who have high energy and a high motor, just like me."
Dimel was ecstatic to land Hugue and Neal.
"There are only 11 defensive all-Americans and we got two of them," Dimel said. "We loved what they did on film, they were super productive. Between the two of them they average 20 tackles per game. Both have great leadership, one's a 3.3 student (Hugue), the other's a 4.0 (Neal), so they are smart, and they are intelligent with what they do on the football field as well."
UTEP also seems to be intelligent with what it did with its roster.
"We didn't stay pat with our roster, we wanted to make sure we added more parts to it," Dimel said. "The main emphasis was defense, we added some good parts on defense, but we feel we did the same on offense.
"We brought in seven, eight guys since the beginning of summer who've helped our roster."