(Courtesy: UTEP Athletics)
EL PASO, Texas - One of the most important position groups in football happens to be UTEP’s most experienced unit, with the Miners returning five players with ample starting experience (120 combined starts) on the offensive line.
Steven Hubbard (left tackle), Justin Mayers (left guard), Andrew Meyer (center), Elijah Klein (right guard) and Zuri Henry (right tackle) will set the tone at the line of scrimmage for the Orange and Blue.
Mayers is a junior while the other four are all seniors, giving UTEP a battle-tested unit for 2023.
That is a major plus for offensive line coach Mike Simmonds
“We have five guys that have returning starts under their belt,” Simmonds said. “Everybody has to win a job coming out of camp, but those guys have a lot of experience and that makes a big difference.”
Hubbard knows that the veteran offensive and defensive lines need to help lead the team.
“If you look at any championship team across America, the offensive line and the defensive line are the heart and soul of the team,” Hubbard said. “Without those two position groups (performing well), teams can easily lose. I personally lead just by my play, but if I have to vocally lead I will.”
The Miners certainly have proven talent at the position, but it doesn’t mean that the work stops.
“What you have to do is keep adding to that, keep sharpening your skills and your techniques,” Simmonds said. “That’s what allows you to get better. Even though you have a bunch of returning starters, you have to continue to get better. These guys are working hard to do that.”
A big motivator for Hubbard in going hard in camp daily is to have a special final season.
“It feels different at camp this year because it’s my last one,” Hubbard said. “But we are trying to get to 10 wins, and I’m trying to go out with a bang. I’m trying to help get all of my brothers to a bowl game.”
Hubbard covers the quarterback’s blindside as the left tackle, but he doesn’t feel any extra burden in holding down that spot.
“I welcome pressure,” Hubbard said. “Pressure normally busts a lot of people’s pipes, but not mine. It’s just about coming to practice, locking in and being focused. I have to keep the quarterback upright, keep him clean. Gavin (Hardison) is a great quarterback, so I take the position with a lot of pride. I love it.”
One way the unit stays sharp is in its daily battles with what could be a very talented Miners’ defensive line.
“An old adage when I was playing was that when the practices are hard, the games are easy,” Simmonds said. “The better that your offense and defense are, that is when iron sharpens iron. We feel like we have a really good defensive line, so we have to come to work every day.”
Hubbard loves the daily competition with the defensive line.
“I love going against Praise (Amaewhule), Maurice (Westmoreland), Kanious Vaughn and all of those guys,” Hubbard said. “They get me better every day. They keep me on my toes every single day. I can’t come to practice lacking or not locked in because that’s going to be a bad day for me.”
UTEP is reaping the fruits of coaching up and developing players at the offensive line, which is something that doesn’t happen overnight. Simmonds also is quick to credit the players for their role in it.
“It takes a lot of time to develop an offensive line,” Simmonds said. “I take my hat off to our players because now we’re living in the world of the transfer portal. All of these guys could have went to other places, but they want to be together. They have loyalty to UTEP, to Coach Dimel and the program that he has developed. They have a chance to do great things together their senior year.”
Offensive linemen can be overlooked at times, with quarterbacks, receivers and running backs drawing the lion’s share of the headlines.
Simmonds knows that while the spotlight may not be on them from the fan’s perspective, their play is critical.
“It all starts up front in any offense in America in the game of football,” Simmonds said. “You have to have an offensive line that can run the schemes that you’re asking for to be successful. You have to go out and execute it on gameday.”
Hubbard also isn’t bothered by a lack of attention at his position.
“I try to really ignore it,” Hubbard said. “It really doesn’t mean too much to me. People don’t notice me (when I’m doing good), and I really don’t care.”
There’s a lot going on when the offense hits the field, but one thing stands out.
“Setting the tone of the play is number one,” Hubbard said. “As soon as you come out and break the huddle, it doesn’t matter if it’s a run or a pass, you’ve got to set the tone. You’ve got to be physical. I get a chance to make a play every snap.”
There are five members on the offensive line with unique responsibilities for each play, but they all must function as one.
“It’s got to look like synchronized swimming,” Simmonds said. “I think great offensive lines, when you watch them, everybody is kind of looking the same. They have to be on point in their assignments because the teams that we’re going to play will be multi front. What you see on film, you won’t necessarily see on gameday.”
On the other side of the ball, defensive linemen are swapped in and out regularly to keep players fresh, a luxury most offensive linemen don’t have due to the importance of being connected with each other.
“Offensive line play is all about chemistry,” Simmonds said. “You get used to playing next to somebody. We have universal line calls in all of our schemes, but when you play next to somebody you can sometimes just look at them and you know what to do.”
Having players ready to jump in at any notice due to an injury or an equipment snafu is a necessity, especially at a critical spot like the offensive line, and Simmonds is happy with how the second unit is developing.
“I’m really proud of some of the guys on our second group who have been playing behind five guys that have lots of starts,” Simmonds said. “They’ve been working really hard. We understand that we are judged by how our two group does. They’re going to play this year, and they are our future. We have Aluma Nkele at right tackle, Otis Pitts at right guard and Ivan Escobar at center. Joseph Immediato and Sedrick Luke are working at that left guard spot and Azizi Henry and Nick Scalise are over at left tackle. Those guys are trying to form the continuity at their group.”
Their time will come, but for now Hubbard is hoping for big things given UTEP’s experience across the board.
“We are one of the oldest teams in Conference USA right now,” Hubbard said. “It’s a chance to show what we’ve been doing and how long we’ve been working and having it pay off.”