Winning just two football games in three years, UTEP’s victory in its first 2020 regular season game was something to celebrate. It was especially so with impressive plays by two area players
The Miners came back from a 14-3 second quarter deficit against Sam Houston State to score 21 unanswered points and take the game 24-14 at the Sun Bowl Stadium on Sept. 5.
The Lumberjacks are an FCS team who play in the Southland Conference, but they won just three games last season.
Two young players who should be key to the team’s offense for the next three years are Gavin Hardison and Deion Hankins.
Hardison is a redshirt sophomore quarterback from Hobbs, New Mexico, while Hankins is a redshirt freshman running back from El Paso and Parkland High School.
Although Hardison’s final stat line was not overwhelming (17-28, 212 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception), his throws were accurate and they helped move the offense when the running game had been struggling to gain yards.
Hardison’s only mistake was an ill-advised throw as he was eluding a sack, but his strong arm was on full display.
UTEP head coach Dana Dimel has repeatedly praised him, and said that the sophomore has the strongest arm he has seen in his 30-plus years in college coaching. As a result, the Miners play calling on offense was more pass oriented than the previous two seasons, and Hardison started gaining confidence as the game wore on.
UTEP also has a pair of reliable receivers that made catch after catch against the Lumberjacks.
Senior Justin Garrett and sophomore Jacob Cowing combined for 12 receptions, 168 yards, and a touchdown grab.
Both Garrett and Cowing will be the main targets for Hardison this season, but redshirt seniors Walter Dawn Jr. and Devaughn Cooper should also get plenty of opportunities for passes in 2020.
If Dimel is able to get his tight end involved in the passing game, then junior Trent Thompson will have the first opportunity to benefit.
Hankins is someone that fans have predicted stardom since he passed up on Power 5 offers from Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Utah and Arkansas to stay home and sign with the Miners.
While at Parkland, he broke Aaron Jones’ city rushing record and finished his high school career with 7,491 rushing yards.
He played in two games last season but suffered a concussion against UAB.
This offseason, Hankins committed himself to the weight room and he gained 15 pounds of muscle, while working out with Jones. Against SFA, the former Parkland star ran the ball 17 times for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Unlike Jones, the Green Bay Packers star, Hankins has a bulldozer style of running the football where he will overpower defenders and move the chains with his legs and yards after contact.
The Miners were to face their toughest test of the season against the Texas Longhorns in Austin on Saturday, Sept. 12.
They are already listed as 42-point underdogs and nobody expects them to play a close football game at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
However, looking at the big picture, UTEP has a pair of bright offensive future stars at two of their key positions.
For the first time in a long time, fans have a glimmer of hope that the next few seasons could be far more promising than anyone expects.
Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays on 600 ESPN El Paso. His column runs periodically in El Paso Inc.’s B-Section. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.