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UTEP freshman turning heads on veteran team

Bret Bloomquist
El Paso Times

On a UTEP football team with 11 returning offensive starters, there isn't a lot of room for freshmen unless they have the ability to kick the door down.

True freshman receiver Jeremiah Ballard and redshirt freshman Willie Eldridge have that kind of resumé and are having that kind of fall.

UTEP freshman receiver Jeremiah Ballard runs a route against the defense of Deshaun Trotter Wednesday at Glory Field

The Houston-area skill players are three-star recruits on a team where that's rare, they were the most-highly touted high school athletes of their respective recruiting classes, and with the start of UTEP's season a week away, they are fulfilling all expectations.

They are, in fact, kicking the door down.

Ballard breaks out

At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Ballard doesn't look like a typical UTEP freshman receiver, but he fits the physical profile of what any team wants at that position.

A star on a 9-1 team at Pasadena Dobie, he's having the type of first-year camp previous UTEP breakout receivers had. Ballard's practice production, for example, tracks similar lines to what Jacob Cowing did in 2019 before leading the Miners in receiving that year.

He's already getting extensive time with the second team and making plays there as he participated in his 20th college practice Saturday.

Learning the playbook "is very difficult, but with the hard work, that's what you have to do," Ballard said. "Put in extra hours, extra study hours, that's what it takes. This offense is kind of tough (compared to) my high school, but with (receivers coach Scotty) O'Hara, he's letting me adjust, making it easy for me."

Coach Dana Dimel has been impressed.

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"We really like the talent that Jeremiah is providing," Dimel said. "Now it's just learning the system, that's the only thing slowing him down. He has the ability to make plays, and he's a really sharp learner, too. Obviously his size and speed, the combination of the two, is a nice asset we're looking forward to using.

"It was fortunate we got that kind of player out of Houston into our program. He's a super-talented guy, he definitely has power-five talent written all over him."

Ballard was offered by Arkansas but is glad he ended up in El Paso.

"UTEP came at the last minute and made me feel like they wanted me," Ballard said. "It felt like a family right away so I committed. It's nice here. It's not like the city back in Houston, but the desert, the mountain-type view, it's nice. It's been a good adjustment."

For all the heads he's turned, Ballard hasn't surprised himself.

"I hold myself to high standards and expectations," he said. "I know the work ethic this will take so yeah, I kind of expected it."

UTEP freshman tailback (left) talks with safety Justin Prince at a Glory Field practice Wednesday

Eldridge part of deep tailback mix

After coming in to a great deal of hype in 2020, Eldridge's true freshman season ended up like the true freshman year of the great tailback hope one season ahead of him, Deion Hankins.

That is, Eldridge didn't end up playing a big role and missed the last half of the season to injury. Meanwhile, in his second year, Hankins was UTEP's breakout player.

Hankins now leads a four-person stable of tailbacks that ranks as the Miners' deepest spot so carries will be hard to come by, but Eldridge has forced his way into the picture with a standout fall. With Hankins out this week with a minor injury (he's expected to be the opening-day starter), Eldridge was rotating in with the first team.

There aren't any evident holes in Eldridge's game, including his hard-nosed attitude, as his four-year clock starts.

"He's physical, fast, a lot of toughness to him, he plays with an edge," Dimel said. "I love that about him. He's a physical type of football player and he's got good speed as well."

Eldridge is from Cy Creek in the Houston area and feels that background prepared him for the transition to UTEP.

"I'm loving the offense, it's really nothing new from my high school," he said. "It's pretty simple, I just have to know what I'm doing, execute plays.

"It been fun here. The guys, they welcomed me in, making sure I'm on top of all my assignments, making sure I know everything, so when it's my chance I can go out there and produce at a high level."

As for what brought him here, "Everything," Eldridge said. "Coach Dimel, (running backs coach Barrick) Nealy, the o-line, seeing what we had, what I could bring. I love this team. This is where I wanted to go from the start.

"Whatever the team needs me to do, I'll do it. Power, everything, what the team needs me to do."

That is going to be more than most freshmen do as Eldridge, and Ballard, makes their marks on an offense with 11 returning starters.

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