Can 2023 Be the Breakout Season for UTEP RB Deion Hankins?
He's done all the preseason interviews, including CUSA media day. He's featured on plenty of preseason award watch lists. Some might argue he's the fan-favorite of the UTEP football team. He's getting local NIL deals, featuring self-branded t-shirts and even glasses that he's promoting on his popular social media channels. Thanks to the COVID-shortened 2020 season, he's only listed as a redshirt junior despite entering his fifth college football season.
He's El Paso-bred and was the city's all-time leading rusher in high school at Parkland High.
He's Deion Hankins and he's a prime candidate for a breakout season.
This year is different for Hankins. He's coming in as the veteran running back with the most experience of the bunch. A new season also means new habits for Hankins. He's altered his eating habits, put on more weight and prioritized daily rituals like stretching and praying.
"I feel like I've been locked in all year and time's gone by fast," Hankins said. "Not only doing things on the field right but also doing stuff off the field right like my diet and daily routine. I'm really trying to maximize the potential I have this year and stop holding back."
"As I'm sitting here and thinking 'how is [Deion] going to fit in?' He's a much bigger piece to the puzzle in what he brings to us this year," head coach Dana Dimel said. "He worked on his physicality and worked to get stronger and faster."
How El Paso's leading rusher got here
Back in 2018, Hankins needed 138 yards to break El Paso's all-time city record for rushing yards as his Matadors faced the Chapin Huskies in a September matchup. The highly anticipated game was no tall task for Parkland as they cruised to a 53-14 win and Hankins amassed 146 on the ground to break a 14-year record once held by Montwood's Edward Britton (2002-04).
At the time, he had already committed to UTEP with plenty of other colleges previously in the mix for his recruitment—Arkansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, SMU, San Diego State and Utah.
Hankins credits his hometown tailback predecessor Joshua Fields, who graduated from Americas and played at UTEP from 2017-2020, helped in his transition to Division I. Coincidently, running back Aaron Dumas—a fellow Americas graduate—also contended for the city's all-time rushing record (6,083) and is now on the Miners wearing Fields' old jersey number, 21.
Hankins' high school career was highlighted by his 7,491 rushing yards and 83 total touchdowns in 37 games for Parkland. The next step was translating it to the college level.
"I was never the one to count my yards in high school. Although it was a great accomplishment, I moved on quickly from it," Hankins said. "Sometimes I'm too hard on myself and [I] find myself seeking the next accolade but I have to look back and realize I've come a long way. I need to appreciate all the little things because they're all great memories to me."
He's right. He's really come a long way.
The making of 'Tankins'
Those around the UTEP program during the 2019 and 2020 seasons might remember those early carries by Hankins and how physically imposing he appeared running the ball. He only carried the ball nine times in 2019 before a concussion in the UAB game sidelined him for the rest of the season. The coaching staff's plan all along was to redshirt him that first year.
Amid the uncertainty that came with the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Hankins emerged onto the scene for the Miners.
He stormed through with 17 carries for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns in an impressive first game en route to a 24-14 win against Stephen F. Austin. A few weeks later, he recorded another 100-yard performance when he took 22 carries for 118 yards and scored three touchdowns in a road win at Louisiana Monroe, 31-6.
He totaled 592 rushing yards on 121 carries as a freshman, including nine rushing touchdowns and an average of 4.9 yards per carry. He was named to the All-CUSA freshman list during his first season and quickly emerged as a fan favorite.
"I think Deion has a lot of support from the city and he deserves all the support because of the person he is," said quarterback Gavin Hardison. "He's a really good guy and has really good morals."
Setbacks and adversity for Hankins leading into 2023
It's hard to imagine someone like Hankins facing adversity and struggling on the field. Though the Miners were experiencing a promising winning season in 2021, Hankins encountered injuries and saw his productivity slip.
He hurt his shoulder during fall camp before the 2021 season and reaggravated the shoulder in the first week against NM State. He missed two games after the Battle of I-10 and watched as his rushing attempts declined for the rest of the season.
Despite the injury, Hankins still rushed for 458 yards and scored six touchdowns. He had offseason surgery to address the lingering shoulder issue he was facing.
So while his teammates were celebrating the PUBG New Mexico Bowl appearance—UTEP's first bowl berth in seven seasons—Hankins wasn't the same running back by his standards.
Through his recovery, Hankins was determined to regain his strength and momentum going into the highly anticipated 2022 season for UTEP. The positive for the team going into his fourth-year redshirt sophomore year was the fact that Hankins could either serve as the team's No. 1 running back or as a complement to then-senior tailback Ronald Awatt. The coaching staff felt confident in giving the hot hand at running back the bulk of the carries each game.
To start the season, fans didn't see the production from Hankins as they saw in the 2020 season. In the first four games, Hankins only received 25 carries and rushed for 79 yards total with one touchdown and a fumble. He still wasn't 100 percent healthy at this point.
But something had to change and UTEP's season at 1-3 overall was starting to slide.
The Miners went with a run-heavy approach in the Boise State game and things appeared to flip positively for Hankins. He took 21 rushing attempts for 86 yards in the team's 27-10 win over the Broncos. Then, he followed it up the following week with a 112-yard rushing performance at Charlotte in the team's first-ever east coast time zone victory, 41-35.
Hankins embraced the big-back, short-yardage role to close the season. Awatt led the team in rushing (734) but Hankins (701) was right behind him. Hankins also averaged a whopping 5.0 yards per carry, a significant jump from his 3.8 average in 2021. He said he felt more comfortable as the season went along in 2022, trusting his body and his physical rushing approach more and more each week.
Leading the charge in a deep running back group
Now in 2023, Hankins is the older man in the running back group. The fifth-year redshirt junior now weighs upwards of 235 pounds yet still "runs faster," according to Dimel.
He's mentoring newcomer backs like Mike Franklin, who is a JUCO transfer from Contra Costa College and expects to be the complementary back to Hankins. Scat-back Torrance Burgess Jr. is expected to see the field this season and will contribute to the offense. Even if Dumas is unable to get an NCAA waiver to become immediately eligible, the coaching staff likes other running backs like redshirt junior Cartraven Walker and true freshman Ezell Jolly.
The offensive line is veteran-led, bringing back four returning starters to the offensive front. They expect to pave the way nicely for Hankins this year.
"He's taken a big step from when I first got here and from the spring until now," said offensive lineman Steven Hubbard. "I think he runs more forcefully with the ball knowing that he's the biggest and strongest guy on the field. No one can tackle him."
One day Hankins hopes to play football professionally. He's largely credited players like Aaron Jones for motivating him as a local inspiration to make it into the NFL. He has started to watch Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco and draw inspiration from his hard-nosed running style.
"It's always been my dream to play at the next level," Hankins said. "I feel like adversity has held me back up to this point. Let the future handle itself and trust in the present."
And if he continues to be productive in his final two seasons left at UTEP, he might find himself playing on Sundays. Hankins also has a chance to find himself in the Miners' record books for career rushing leaders. He's currently at 1,792 total rushing yards, which is only 375 yards away from cracking UTEP's top-10 all-time career rushing list.
For now, the city will wait to see if he and the Miners can find prosperity as the 2023 season begins this week. Kickoff for the season opener at Jacksonville State is set for 3:30 p.m. MST on 600 ESPN El Paso, with MinerTalk following the broadcast!