Texas El Paso Miners (2000: 8-4)
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Coach and programGary Nord wasted little time establishing himself. In his first season as a college head coach, Nord produced UTEP's most wins in 12 years and a school-record seven-game winning streak. The Miners shared the WAC title with TCU and went to a bowl game for the first time in 12 years. It was UTEP's first-ever WAC title and first conference title since 1956.
Now comes the hard part. Gone are 14 seniors, 10 of whom were starters. There is no established quarterback or running back. Senior Lee Mays is the only returning receiver who caught a pass last year.
One of Nord's biggest successes a year ago, and one that is crucial to maintain, was attracting El Paso residents to the Sun Bowl and giving them a reason to come back. The Miners had three home crowds of more than 50,000 and set a school record with 53,304 against Rice. For the year, UTEP averaged 44,715, also a school record.
The fans came because they saw an exciting and successful brand of football. The Miners finished 22nd in the nation in scoring offense and 27th in passing offense, continuing a long line of offensive success under Nord.
The offensive coordinator from 1997-99, Nord took UTEP from 97th in the nation in total offense in 1997 to 51st in 1998, 43rd two years ago and 36th last season. UTEP set a school record for first downs and had the best passing output of any Miners team in 14 years.
Those numbers are going to be hard to improve on this year because of the quarterback situation. With three parts of the four running backs rotation returning and Mays, a do-everything receiver, the foundation is there. Nord has a reputation for developing quarterbacks, though. The departed Rocky Perez blossomed under Nord, throwing for more than 200 yards 10 times and a school-record 26 touchdown passes in 2000.
With no standout team in the conference, Nord and the Miners will have time to get their offense going. When it does, UTEP, with six games in the Sun Bowl -- where the Miners were undefeated last year for the first time since 1995 -- will be tough to beat again.
OffenseThe last two years, the Miners had little to worry about in their backfield. There were several options in the running game and all Perez had to do was be accurate with a bunch of receivers who could go get the ball.
The running game and one major receiving option are still there, but there is no Perez on this team. There is no player who has considerable experience or a young player who has been groomed to take over.
Senior Wesley Phillips (6-4, 220), son of former Buffalo Bills coach Wade Phillips, will get first shot, but Nord is far from committed. Phillips has been in the system a long time, but has thrown only 16 passes.
Senior Chris Porter (5-11, 235) and juniors Sherman Austin (5-8, 170) and Rovann Cleveland (6-1, 220) were all part of a Miners running game that averaged almost 160 yards per game and was ranked in the top 45 in the nation.
The best of the bunch is Porter, who could see even more time after rushing for 681 yards and five touchdowns while averaging a team-best 4.8 yards per carry.
Asked about Mays (6-3, 190), Nord shakes his head and starts to talk but can't. Finally, "He's really some kind of athlete isn't he?" is all he can muster.
Last season, Mays was 14th in the nation in receptions and eighth in yards at just under 100 per game. He set a school record with 15 touchdown catches, including at least one in UTEP's last 10 games.
No other UTEP receiver caught a pass last year, meaning the duty of taking pressure off Mays falls on senior tight end Joey Knapp (6-6, 250). Knapp is in the mold of departed All-American Brian Natkin, who led the country's tight ends in receptions a year ago.
Defense and special teamsThe tackle rotation of seniors Bobby King (6-4, 265) and Josh Randolph (6-3, 250) and sophomores Samuel Clarke (6-3, 265) and Daniel Kerr (6-4, 250) each started games in 2000. The four need to improve on their four sacks to take pressure off the linebackers and not force the defensive backs to get too aggressive.
Even with new defensive coordinator Bob Wagner, UTEP will stay with its two-linebacker set. It worked fine last year when Trey Merkens and junior Camar Jackson (6-4, 240) gave the Miners, basically, two more linemen. This season, Jackson needs to be the defensive leader that Merkens, who made a team-high 112 tackles, was a year ago.
Crance Clemons (5-10, 165) and Weldon Cooks (6-2, 185) form the best corner tandem in the league. Clemons was a first-team All-WAC choice last season after making 27 tackles. Cooks has good size and received several All-WAC accolades a year ago. His 12 pass breakups led the league.
In addition to replacing its kicker and punter, UTEP needs to find players who can help put its offense in better position. UTEP finished next to last in the league and 103rd in the nation in punt returns with a 6.1-yard average.
Bottom lineLast season, the Miners felt what it was like to win. The long-suffering program had its most successful season in 12 years and won its first conference title since 1956.
This team is good enough to win the balanced WAC despite an inexperienced quarterback and only one receiver back from last year who caught a pass. The defense is solid. And with three offensive line starters who have combined for 59 starts returning, the Miners have a good base to build from.