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El Pasoans Davis Burns, Julian Lopez making impacts at midseason for UTEP

UTEP football coach Dana Dimel always felt one of the hidden strengths of this team is its depth.

That was a talking point in the preseason, but as often happens when the calendar moves to October, it's more than a talking point now and it's not hidden. With a rash of injuries, then a 1-5 start that may have played a role in a number of players on the two-deep opting to take redshirts, a big portion of the third team has become the second team, and in one case, moved into starting slot.

More: CUSA football standings

If the Miners are going to make something of this season, that depth is going to have to come through starting Wednesday at Florida International.

Here are three big movers this year.

Davis Burns, sophomore safety

The former Coronado star made the short trip to UTEP during the COVD season when his father Keith was a coach here, then didn't play his first two years as he made the transition to FBS football.

Last year he was an every-game special teams player and that's where he began this year, his fourth with UTEP, but the secondary has been in constant shuffle for a number of reasons. Now Burns has been shuffled into the second team at strong safety behind star Kobe Hylton and is part of the defensive rotation.

"It's been a long process," Burns said. "I've been staying patient, all the hard work will pay off eventually.

"I definitely think I'm a ball hawk. When the ball is in the air I definitely think I have a chance to go get it. I'm a physical player and I play fast."

As a coach's son he's moved around his entire life and his seven years in El Paso rate as the longest he's been anywhere. He didn't grow up with the Miners as a child like some of the other El Pasoans on the roster, but he was around the program well before he was part of it.

"It's cool, being around UTEP," he said. "I've been working hard, waiting for my opportunity."

Dimel said the best part about Burns is his consistency.

"He's very reliable, very steady, he knows his stuff," Dimel said. "When he comes into the game we don't miss a beat. All these guys coming up the depth chart, the thing I felt best about was our depth on this team. Obviously in the stretch we've had that depth has gotten tested."

RaQuan Thompson, junior defensive tackle

The wave of players who have played four games and are now taking redshirts include defensive linemen Tavita Tafuna, who was a starter through the first part of the season but battled some injuries, and Bryton Thompson.

That opened up an opportunity and Thompson jumped through the door. He wasn't listed on the two-deep last week against Louisiana Tech, though he has been playing extensively, and now he's set for his first career start.

He always had the talent, but he didn't arrive from Blinn College until late summer and needed time to learn the defense and make the adjustment to a higher level. He has now made that leap.

"Fully up to speed? I'd say a month and a half, two months to really get out there and play fast, not have to think about too much," Thompson said. "It's fun knowing I've been working since fall camp, that it's paid off.

"I feel like I bring a little bit of everything: Good pass rushing, run stopping, bringing my teammates together."

Dimel said Thompson is an example of a player who was ready when his opportunity arose.

"He's really grabbed it," Dimel said. "When we recruited him we thought he's going to be an outstanding player, his tape was as good as anybody we recruited. It took him time because he didn't get here until late summer. But he's gotten himself into good shape, he's dropped 15 to 20 pounds, he's playing at a high level and he has a great work ethic.

"I'm really excited about him. Since Tavita redshirted, we needed RaQuan to step up. He's worked his way up and now he's playing at a high level."

Julian Lopez, junior fullback

Lopez's five-year trip up the depth chart, from local walk-on (he's from Chapin) to special teamer to versatile skill player who is used at fullback and tight end culminated when he began the year listed as a starting fullback.

Over the course of this season his role has grown even more, as he set up a touchdown with an acrobatic goal-line catch against UNLV.

Dimel said he fully realized how far Lopez has come shortly before kickoff against Arizona last month.

"The ultimate compliment to him, pregame when I was talking to (head) coach (Jedd) Fisch at Arizona, he was very, very complimentary of what type of player Julian is," Dimel said. "I know what type of player he is but it's always great to get that feedback from opposing coaches on what type of player he's become.

"He's been a great story. He's kind of like a Rey Flores story, a walk-on who has come on and done some fantastic stuff."

Lopez knows how hard he's worked over five years to be in this position.

"It's been fun being able to be out there on the field having a big role," he said. "We haven't had the outcomes from the games we've wanted to, but we're looking to turn it around the second half of the season.

"It's fun being here. Growing up, watching the games, finally being able to be on the field, it's fun."

This is a time of year when UTEP needs to be having fun and the Chapin alum playing for his hometown team is working to embody that.

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

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: UTEP depth players stepping up as injuries mount