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'So much experience': UTEP corner position changes with addition of Kansas State transfer

Bret Bloomquist
El Paso Times

With a perhaps unprecedented 20 starters returning for the 2021 season, UTEP football coach Dana Dimel fought the urge to stand pat.

Other than having to replace a linebacker, the Miners didn't have obvious holes to fill, but new talent can always find a way to the top, and so it was at the cornerback position.

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UTEP senior cornerback Josh Caldwell (left) competes in a drill against Kiante Liggins Wednesday at Glory Field

Last year's starters, Josh Caldwell and Dennis Barnes were both coming back, this wasn't a position of need, but UTEP went out and picked up difference-making graduate transfer Walter Neil, Jr., an 18-game starter at Kansas State, anyway. They also grabbed transfer Torey Richardson from the junior college ranks.

What's unfolded shows why.

What Neil means

Neil, a solidified starter at Kansas State in 2018-19 before entering the transfer portal shortly before the 2020 season, grabbed a starting spot at UTEP almost immediately in the spring.

That meant Dennis Barnes, who took a star turn last season as a first-year transfer, could slide over to nickel back, where UTEP has enough depth to allow him to take reps at wide receiver. Barnes played a big role there in the spring game.

What Neil's addition does is give UTEP all sorts of options.

Senior cornerback Walter Neil Jr. (left) competes in a drill against Joe Hagopian Wednesday at Glory Field

"Just having Walt, having his experience and his versatility is a big thing," Dimel said. "It allows us to move Barnes to nickel and gives us a lot more versatility with our secondary, getting our best five guys on the field. Walt has so much experience, he brings a lot of leadership to the defensive secondary."

Neil is familiar with Dimel from Kansas State, where Dimel was offensive coordinator when Neil was beginning his career as a redshirt in 2016.

"Coach Dimel, plain and simple," Neil said of his decision to come to El Paso. "I wanted to play with someone I was familiar with, somebody I knew I could trust, who would put me in the best position to showcase everything I can do. Even though I had schools in the Big 12, the Pac 12, offering me, I knew coach Dimel. He was the guy."

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As for what he brings, Neil touched on the same assets Dimel noted: "Experience, personality, leadership, things like that," Neil said. "I'm somebody younger guys can ask questions, somebody who is going to bring energy everyday."

Building depth

Barnes, of course, could slide back to corner if the situation dictated that, but Richardson, a summer pickup from Blinn Community College, has also impressed.

"It's going to be hard to keep him out of the starting lineup," Dimel said.

Caldwell is excited by everything around him.

"Starting off with Walter Neil, he's a veteran, coming from Kansas State, knows boundary, field, nickel, plays all around," Caldwell said. "Then we've got Dennis Barnes, athletic guy, plays both sides of the ball, can move around the field.

"And then our backups, Torey Richardson, he's a helluva guy, he can play all around, too. Everybody has contributed and are playing their role."

The new defense

Barnes was one of three defensive backs who briefly entered the transfer portal following the debacle of the cancelled game at Rice last season. Shortly thereafter UTEP changed defensive coordinators to Bradley Dale Peveto and Barnes and Dy'vonne Inyang came back to the Miners.

That was before Neil was onboard, but he's all in with Peveto and the defense he's brought to UTEP.

"I feel like coach P is more aggressive," Neil said. "I've been in schemes where we were just trying to eliminate big plays. Sometimes we'd be on our heels. With coach P, we're coming at you and the offense is going to have to beat us.

"I love this team. There is a bunch of personality, you've got JUCO guys, you've got young guys, a mixture of everything. It isn't like Kansas State, which was pretty traditional - people come out of high school, redshirt their first year, then get going."

Said Caldwell: "It's terrific, playing for coach P(eveto), he's a wonderful guy. We all want to risk everything when we go out there, play for him and play for us as well.

"On the back end, we all contribute to one another, we all want to play for each other, it suits us well. With this team we can't wait to see what we have in store last year. We want to build on what we had last year. Everybody is coming back so we know we have talent on hand. We're coming in strong."

That's not always a position UTEP has been in in August but it is now.

"What everybody struggles to find is corners and we feel like we've developed some depth there," Dimel said, pointing out one more reason this is an August of optimism.

Bret Bloomquist can be reached at 915-546-6359; bbloomquist@elpasotimes.com; @Bretbloomquist on Twitter.