UTEP head coach Sean Kugler met with the media on Monday, Aug. 31 to share insights on his team and the upcoming season opener at No. 18 ranked Arkansas. Below is a transcription of the news conference.
“The season is on us right now and our team is very excited for many reasons — the entire season as a whole, but also our opening game against Arkansas, to have a chance to go into an SEC stadium against what we feel was one of the best teams in the country at the end of last year. If you really look at their body of work over the last four or five games, I don’t think there was a hotter team in the country, maybe with the exception of Ohio State. They dismantled LSU, Ole Miss and then in the bowl game they held Texas to 59 total yards of offense and got after them as well. They have most of their returning starters back. From a litmus standpoint, this will be the most physical team that we face because I feel they are the most physical team in the country — scheme-wise, who they have on both sides of the ball and how they utilize those guys. It will be an extreme challenge for us. We know that. We’re not hiding from that and our kids are excited about that opportunity.”
(On the Arkansas offense)
“As a team, they start fast, they average 10.5 and 10.6 points in the first and second quarter. From our standpoint, it means we can’t get behind the eight ball quickly because that’s their M.O. They are very minimally penalized, only 5.2 per game for 44.7 yards. That means they’re a disciplined team. They utilize much the same formula that we use — lack of penalties and time of possession. They were 34 minutes time of possession and the style of offense that they use is conducive to that. They try to run the football effectively and they do. They were +7 in the turnover category. Offensively they scored 32 points per game. Their quarterback is going to be a three-year starter. He threw for 2,200 yards last year and 20 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He has a great touchdown to interception ratio. He has a 56 percent completion percentage. The things they ask him to do are based off their run game. They have a lot of open opportunities with play action shots. They lost one of their top running backs. They had two running backs last year that rushed for 1,000 yards. The backup running back who is now the starter is #3, and I wouldn’t call him a backup. The guy rushed for 1,100 yards for them last year, had a 5.4 average and 12 touchdowns. That’s a career season for most guys. He is a very explosive ball carrier and he had a long of 84, which tells you a little something about his speed as well.
“They’ve got a big receiver, 6-2, 210 in Hatcher #4. He led them in receptions with 43, 13.0 average and six touchdowns with a long of 50. Again, because of the fact their run game is so effective, they have some open receivers down the field. They have a talented and big tight end, 6-5, 253 in #84. He is an All-SEC candidate. He had 37 receptions for them last year and also does a good job for them at the point of attack. He had a 13.9 average.
“The strength of their team is their offensive line. They return four of five starters. They have the biggest offensive line not only in college football, but you can include the National Football League in that too. They average 6-6, 328 pounds per man. This is an extremely veteran, extremely talented and extremely large offensive line. It’s really where they hang their hat and I don’t blame them. It’s a very talented group. It starts with their center. He’s got 21 career starts. He is 6-3, 322. He is the heart and soul of their offensive line. Their left guard is listed at 6-5, 325. He has lost 50 pounds since last year. The right guard was an All-SEC Freshman. He is 6-5, 312. Their left tackle is probably their most athletic lineman. This guy will be a future first rounder. He is 6-5, 340 pounds. The right tackle who also has 21 starts, this is not a typo he’s 6-10, 335 pounds. This is an extremely athletic, extremely physical and extremely well-coached offensive line that gets after it. It’s the strength of their team. I would say they know that as well, these guys are on the cover of their media guide. I like our offensive line too, but when I look at guys like Elmendorff and some of those other guys and how ugly they are, I’d have a tough time putting them on the cover of our media guide.
(On the Arkansas defense)
“Defensively, they are just as strong. They only gave up 19.2 points per game, 3.5 yards per rush and 323 total yards. That’s outstanding defense playing in the premier conference in the country. Their formula is the same as ours. They want to stop the run and they want to run the ball on offense. Their leading returning tackler is WILL linebacker #51. He had 72 tackles for them last year, two interceptions, five tackles for losses and three pass break-ups. He was extremely productive. He was their MIKE linebacker last year. They have moved him to the WILL linebacker position. They’ve got a very experienced secondary. Both their corners are returning. Their leading interception returner is #2. Their other corner, #29, had 13 pass break-ups. Their safety is a playmaker for them, he has 25 career starts. He leads the defense in starts. He had a 100-yard interception return, 59 tackles, five pass break-ups and one interception that he took all the way to the house. They have a very experienced, good-sized secondary. Much like their offensive line, the strength of their defense is up front. They are three deep all the way across the board, they are extremely physical and they have great size. In their last game last year in the bowl game, they held Texas to 59 total yards. Their interior tackle Johnson, 6-2, 290 is very explosive. He had five tackles for losses and four sacks last year for them. Their defensive end is very athletic, 6-4 272. He had three sacks in their spring game. He is touted as an All-SEC candidate. They have three explosive, strong interior players. Hodge, the nose guard #93, is 6-1, 340. Also they’ve got #78 6-2, 325, and #91 is 6-4 300. So much like on the offensive side of the ball, they’re built strong up the middle. They are extremely strong and extremely physical on both sides. They have seven returning starters on defense and eight returning starters on offense.
“They are very good on third downs, 47 percent on offense and they only give up 40 percent. They are good in the red zone, 79 percent and they only give up 70. And they’re good at not allowing sacks. They only had 14 sacks in 13 games, that’s outstanding, and they got 24 sacks on defense. What you’re looking at is the formula of a great team. Special teams wise, they will have a new punter. Their punter had one punt last year. Their punt returner is their cornerback #2. He had an 11.0 average, which is outstanding. He had a long of 63. Their kickoff coverage unit averaged 23.8 against them. They’ll have a new kicker this year. They had a competition, much like we did, at the kicker position and who will be out there kind of remains to be seen. On kickoff return, Hatcher the wide receiver and also the running back Collins were the two returners. They averaged 25.7 on their kickoff returns overall as a unit. They are strong on offense, defense and special teams. I would imagine they’re building off the momentum and strength at the end of the season that they were playing with.”
(On facing a much more physical football team)
“When teams are more physical than you are, you’re playing a little bit of catch-up. We’re trying to catch up to the teams in our conference. We’re trying to catch up to Rice and Louisiana Tech. Those are the top two teams in the western division [of Conference USA]. They play with the physicality that has put them where they’re at. Those are the teams we’re trying to catch up with. I’m not going to BS you. We’re not as physical as Arkansas and we’re not near as talented as Arkansas. Man for man, there are going to be a lot of mismatches. I understand that. What I want our team to do is go in there and compete from the opening whistle to the end whistle. If they go in there and fight and compete, I think they will walk off that field knowing where they stand and what we need to do to get better. I’m viewing this entire beginning of the season, our four non-conference games, to help us prepare for our conference games which in my mind are the most important things. That’s our goal, to be competitive in our conference and have the opportunity to go to a bowl game.”
(On the starting quarterback)
“Mack Leftwichwill be the starting quarterback. He won that quarterback competition fair and square. This was monitored all the way since the end of last season, from the offseason conditioning workouts through spring football, through the summer conditioning workouts and through the fall camp. I will say this, I have never been a part of a quarterback competition that statistically was as close. As far as the completion percentage, Mack was only one percentage better than Garrett [Simpson]. Their touchdowns were equal. Their dropped passes were equal. The thing that stood out to me were interceptions, which tilted heavily in favor of Mack. In this style of offense, handling the football and not turning the ball over to other teams is very critical. Garrett right now is suffering from a high ankle sprain. His availability for this game is still kind of up in the air, but it had no bearing on this decision. That was an unbelievable battle. What it tells me is that we have two solid quarterbacks going into the season, and when you throw in the athleticism ofRyan Metzand Kavika Johnson, this is the best I have felt about our quarterback group as a whole since I have been here.”
(On opening up the playbook against Arkansas)
“We want to be more diverse. We’ve spent a lot of effort in trying to make that happen. Camp is kind of a collection of your entire package. When you get into game planning mode, you do tend to tone it down a little. Our goal is to be more diverse throughout the season, and that will start with Arkansas.”
(On the offensive keys versus Arkansas)
“We are going to have to run it effectively and we’re going to have to throw it effectively. We do want to be more balanced than what we’ve been in the past. I think we have, overall, more weapons at our disposal when you start talking about the speed ofAutrey Goldenoutside, instead of being a backup, the speed of Batson, the speed of Walker, and then you look at our slot receivers. I think bothJaquan WhiteandWarren Redixare guys that can make plays with the ball in their hands. The guy that I don’t discount at all, who probably had the best camp of any of them, wasCole Freytag. He has been catching the ball well, he has been running precise routes, and he fits well into our structure of offense. I know our receiver group is untested and unproven, and you can throw the tight ends in that mix as well, but I like the talent level and I like our work ethic.”
(Will you use three or four linebackers against Arkansas to help out the defensive line?)
“It depends on what personnel groupings they use. They do a lot of 22 personnel, which is two tight ends and two backs, or 23 personnel, they’ll get heavy on you. They’ll throw extra linemen in there, which we have done quite a bit in camp as well. You have seen our defense when we do that. They match up personnel wise. They may bring in an extra defensive lineman. They may bring in an extra linebacker or safety. It’s all dependent on what that personnel grouping is. We have to match up with those guys when they do that. Because of our depth at defensive line and linebacker, I think we’re better apt to do that this year than we have been the past few years. Again, we have to match up there when they do that.”
“Anybody who was at camp and sawAaron Jones, I think he’s a step faster. He is certainly stronger. He has been in that 15-20 carry range his first couple of years. He was 165 as a freshman and 185 as a sophomore. He’s 205 now. He’s quicker and more explosive. He has worked his tail off in the weight room. He has built himself up to the position where he could carry it 20 to 25 times per game and not feel bad about that workload. We are going to rideAaron Jones. He is going to catch the ball out of the backfield. He may line up in the slot. There’s no question that he’s our top playmaker. He’ll be the focus of every defense that we play. So I wouldn’t be surprised at the end of the day if his numbers aren’t as flashy as they have been, because everybody is going to key onAaron Jones. But what that does is allow us to open up things for some other people, and I really feel we’ve got some weapons at those other positions to assist him. We can’t discount the fact we’ve got four or five returning offensive linemen. I feel really good about our offensive line heading into the season, as opposed to last year where we had four unproven players who had never touched the field.”
(On what he likes aboutMack Leftwich)
“I think he’s got a great quarterback demeanor. Handling formations, handling the clock … in the style of offense that we run those are very important things. Jameill did a great job with those things last year. Not turning the ball over … those are all great qualities that Jameill did outstanding for us last year. [Mack] has those. He has a good understanding of our offense. He has a good rapport with the players. They see his competitiveness. He’s not afraid to tuck it down and go take a lick. They have seen his toughness. He has taken shots. He gets right back up. I guess a lot of people term that the `it factor’ for a quarterback. They’ve just got that little something special. He has that. And I’m not saying the other quarterbacks don’t. I can’t complimentGarrett Simpsonenough. I have never seen a guy from one point to another point grow as much as he has. So I feel confident about our entire quarterback group.Ryan Metzis an outstanding athlete. We would package certain things if he was in there. He might be the #2 quarterback this week based on Garrett’s injury. Kavika Johnson is going to have a role in our offense. He’s going to play. At some point throughout the year, you’ll see all four of those quarterbacks out on the field representing UTEP.”
(OnJeremiah Laufasataking the #2 running back spot coming off an injury)
“It’s a big tribute to him. It tells you about his heart. He tore his ACL early in the season. That’s a devastating injury. He worked his tail off and he’s back to full strength. He pushed himself early. Sometimes he pushed himself too hard. He has learned to [dial] that down. He will be ready to go. He’s such a hard working, physical kid. He brings us a physical presence that will help at the running back spot in some short yardage type things, but also on special teams.”
“I’d say [he and Jeremiah] are 2A and 2B. They are both going to get carries. Jones is going to get his carries. The remaining carries will be divvied up between Hughes, Laufasa and other guys that we need to get touches to the ball, guys likeAutrey Golden, Redix, White, those type guys. We do have a certain number of targets in the passing game and pitch count in the running game that we want guys to touch the ball.”
(On attempting to match up with Arkansas on special teams)
“I’m not going to lie, matching up with them across the board in every phase, I’d be BS’ing if I said we do. But we do have more tight end, linebacker, fullback types which allows you to have a little bit more size on your special teams. I feel better about our special teams depth than I did last year. At every position, it’s about recruiting, developing and trying to fix your sore spots. We do lose a little in the secondary. Two of our best players are out for an extended period of time, one for the season. That impacts you because you’re probably playing with younger guys that would probably be backups and would be full-time special teams players, where now they’re out there in a role and you’ve got their backups playing special teams. Just like offense and defense, injuries can hurt your depth on special teams. But I feel good about the overall depth of that.”
(On possibly rolling out Leftwich because of his height)
“We’ll move the pocket some. No matter who is the quarterback, I don’t agree with ever having one launch point for the quarterback. You get one launch point for the quarterback and you can expect blitz after blitz that are going to hit home. You have to move the quarterback, you have to do some zone read, you have to have some waggle protection, some nakeds, and change the launch points or you won’t have one quarterback in there for very long. And that’s at any level.”
(On avoiding getting banged up against Arkansas)
“You look at Ishmael Harrison’s injury. He was running down the field and tore his quad. Injuries can happen. You can walk to your mailbox and get injured. We don’t fear it going into it, but when you play a team as physical as Arkansas, you want to come out of it healthy, just put it that way. I don’t fear injuries, but that type of team, they can physically beat you up. We understand that.”
Source: UTEP Athletics