EL PASO, Texas — When Sean Kugler hit the UTEP football program like a tornado a year and a half ago, the Miners quickly divided into two categories.
There were the players who embraced the culture of discipline and thrived under a regime change.
There was, though, a third, much smaller group, one that faced the exit door, turned back around, found a mirror and took a deep stare into it.
Last October that was safety Jameel Erving, who spent a week exiled to the practice squad in the basement of Kugler’s doghouse, just the nadir of a rough transition from Riverside (Calif.) Community College. A year later, the senior heads into Saturday’s showdown with No. 25 Kansas State as the leading tackler for the 2-1 Miners, proof that sometimes taking the path of most resistance can be the most rewarding journey.
“Sometimes, it goes dark,” Erving said, looking back on 2013. “But it’s a process, it’s a marathon. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. I knew if I could change my attitude, things would get better. It starts with just waking up in the morning, another day to get better. …
“My father taught me you can’t run away from your problems. The challenge was to turn things around.”
There was not a single epiphany, though the week when he and fellow Riverside transfer, fellow defensive back and close friend Nick Gathrite were suspended for a violation of team rules was close. That got to the bigger point, that Erving needed to change, so he set about that.
“That was all on him,” safety Wesley Miller said. “He decided what was important, he decided he wanted to be here. He plays with a lot of passion, it’s fun to play next to him. He communicates phenominally, he knows what he’s doing and that helps everyone around him play faster.”
“He’s become a motivational leader on and off the field,” Gathrite said. “It was a hard transition for us at first, it was a learning experience, it took us some time to get everything together. We had to focus on details.”
Since his arrival, Kugler has talked about accountability, about sticking to a process that won’t change. But while the process doesn’t change, a player’s ability to adapt to it can evolve, and so can Kugler’s opinion of that player.
Midway through 2013, Erving didn’t seem a good bet to make it.
“A year ago, I was thinking the same thing,” Kugler said. “He decided on his own to turn stuff around. We was not in shape, he was not 100 percent on board with what we were doing. But he made a commitment to change himself for the better. He’s one of our leaders now, a leader by example.
“I’m all for guys getting a second chance. He made the best of a second opportunity and he’s probably the best example of that on our team.”
“He loves physical contact, he loves competing, he loves hitting,” Kugler said.
The turnaround came late last year when Erving played his way back off the practice squad and eventually into the starting lineup for the last three games. This season he has a team-leading 19 tackles with a fumble recovery and would have had an interception if it hadn’t been erased because a linebacker was offsides.
“I had to embrace everything, conditioning, film, practice, all of it,” Erving said. “At the end of last year, the last three games, I started playing more and I knew I could contribute to the team. Then in the offseason I trained hard and got in good shape. …
“It’s going well now, but it could be better. We just have to keep playing hard, keep getting better. It all starts with practice.”
That’s a change Erving has taken to heart, in turn changing his position from the doghouse to the top of the tackle charts.
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