Here is how the UTEP Miners are expecting to build depth at the receiver position in 2021
With 11 returning starters from a much improved offense in 2020, the UTEP football team is predictably settled all across the top line of the depth chart.
The urgent questions in these situations go to depth, and for UTEP’s offense, that centers around the wideouts.
As electric as Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett were in 2020, there isn’t much behind them returning, at least in terms of proven statistical production. Those two accounted for 79 of the 104 receptions returning at the position.
Between new additions and steps forward from what does return, there is optimism the Miners can address that.
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Can Nick Ast make the transition?
The Kansas State transfer is one of the more intriguing pickups from this past offseason.
He’s stepping into a “new” offense very much like the one he was recruited to play in by current UTEP coach Dana Dimel at Kansas State in 2017 (Dimel was offensive coordinator at K-State), but throughout that Wildcat career he was a backup quarterback.
At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he is moving to a hybrid tight end/slot receiver position and obviously Ast has much to learn. He certainly has a willingness to do that.
“I feel like there was an opportunity to play here,” Ast said. “When I talked to coach Dimel on the phone he said, 'I think we have a position for you.' I was all for it, I told him whatever you need me to do I'll do. That's been as a receiver and a tight end right now. It's going well and I'm thankful for it.”
Lining up anywhere other than behind center represents a big change, but Ast brings a familiarity with the entire offense that a quarterback immersed in a similar system will have.
“Learning the offense has gone smoothly,” he said. “Switching from quarterback to receiver, there's a bit of a learning curve, learning how to run routes, because as a quarterback you don't really think about those things.
“You sort of know where the receivers are going to be. Now you're in the receiver shoes, having to think about, 'Where's the quarterback going to want me, where am I supposed to be?' That's been a little bit of an adjustment but definitely from the spring I've seen improvement.”
Dimel sees the advantages.
“He's familiar with what the receivers are doing because he knows the system and he was a quarterback in the system.,” Dimel said. “There's no better way to understand what the receivers are doing, have great knowledge of it.”
On the whole Ast agrees.
“From a quarterback standpoint, you know how the routes work, how the timing is supposed to go,” he said. “That's something receivers, especially younger ones, don't understand.
“But as a quarterback I know how an offense is supposed to work, how to play the game of football. Developing my IQ first then switching to receiver has helped me a ton.”
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Which returners can step up?
Walter Dawn had the best numbers last year (20 catches, 202 yards) and is the logical person to take over as the No. 3 wideout.
Another name to watch is Josh Farr.
The transfer from Sierra College (Calif.) essentially redshirted last year, playing in one game of the free year, but has made a step forward, beginning in the spring.
“It was great to be able to learn,” Farr said of 2020. “I've never had a year where I was able to sit back and take it all in, learn, develop. That was a blessing in disguise. I was able to work on my craft, get into the playbook.
“That's the biggest thing, the transition here at UTEP. It's the most complicated playbook I've ever been around, but once you understand the ins and outs of it, it's simple.”
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UTEP has a large cast of potential that at the moment includes 10 receivers vying for spots.
The new faces with college experience will be junior college transfer Tyrin Smith and starting nickel back Dennis Barnes, who had a big spring game at receiver and will get some time there.
Ray Flores is moving from tailback, where he proved to be a solid pass catcher, to receiver. Miles Banks caught three passes last season.
The list of potential breakouts is long.
“That's the thing we've been trying to build for a while and I feel really good about depth at receiver and where does it come from,” Dimel said. “There's a slew of guys who are talented enough to win games for us so I'm really excited about that position.”
Said Farr: “We're bringing guys along. Our freshman guys are learning faster than I did last year, that's something. For the older guys, we really have these guys under our wing, trying to teach them.
“Not only do we have six receivers like last year, but we're going 10, 11, 12. We're fighting for the sixth, seventh, eighth spots.”
That's a fight that will continue through the season.