SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Team Previews - from Athlon Sports

  UTEP Miners

 
The Lowdown
Coach: Gary Nord (4th year, 12-25)
2002 record: 2-10
WAC finish: T-9th
2002 offensive stats:
Rush: 154.1 ypg
(4th in WAC, 54th in nation)
Pass: 178.8 ypg (8th, 86th)
2002 defensive stats:
Rush: 194.3 ypg (9th, 99th)
Pass: 245.9 ypg (8th, 99th)
Projected Starters
Offense (6 returning starters in bold)
SE  80  Chris Francies  So. 
FL  35  Dirk Dillard  Jr. 
LT  79  Jose Garcia  So. 
LG  64  Ben Graniello  Jr. 
C   52   Chris Kerr   Sr.  
RG   53   Robert Clayton   Sr.  
RT   77   Trey Darilek   Sr.  
TE   83   Jonas Crafts   Jr.  
QB   8   Jon Schaper   Jr.  
TB   4   Howard Jackson   Jr.  
FB  Rovann Cleveland  Sr. 
Defense (4)
DE  92  Ibok Ibok  Jr. 
DT   57   Dan Kerr   Sr.  
DT  70  Chris Mineo  So. 
DE   55   Sam Clarke   Sr.  
MLB  45  Godwin Akinduro  Jr. 
WLB  40  Thomas Howard  So. 
ROV   11   Tim Woodard   Sr.  
CB  31  Cedric Click  So. 
CB   6   Jahmal Fenner   Jr.  
SS  14  Mark Dowdy  Jr. 
FS  18  Marshall Sanford  So. 
Special Teams
48  Bryce Benekos  Jr. 
48  Bryce Benekos  Jr. 
KR  Howard Jackson  Jr. 
PR  Jahmal Fenner  Jr. 
2003 Schedule
Aug. 30  at Arizona 
Sept. 6  Cal Poly 
Sept. 13  San Diego State 
Sept. 20  at Louisville 
Sept. 27  Sam Houston 
Oct. 4  at SMU 
Oct. 11  Louisiana Tech 
Oct. 25  at Hawaii 
Nov. 1  Tulsa 
Nov. 8  San Jose State 
Nov. 15  at Boise State 
Nov. 22  at Rice 
Nov. 29  Fresno State 

These days, patience is not a virtue seen among most Division I football programs. Luckily for Gary Nord, UTEP is one of the exceptions.

It's been a long two years since Nord coached the senior-dominated Miners to an 8-4 record and the 2000 WAC title. But rather than hit the junior colleges hard for what he calls a "quick-fix approach" that has resulted in losing seasons in the past, Nord decided to stick with a plan that paid big dividends for his old boss at Louisville, Howard Schnellenberger.

That means bringing in recruiting classes of high-school prospects, then redshirting them for a year to allow them to mature and learn the system. And that's caused more than its share of growing pains for the young and undermanned Miners the last two seasons as they've managed to win just four of 23 games, including embarrassing back-to-back losses at Kentucky (77-17) and Oklahoma (68-0) last year.

"Last year we were primarily playing freshmen and sophomores," Nord said. "It was like we were fielding a JV team."

The good news is that many members of Nord's initial recruiting class are redshirt juniors now and are backed up by a solid sophomore class.

"We still just have seven seniors," Nord says. "But now we have 25 juniors. We should show some improvement [this] season. We took this path at Louisville, and they were about ready to give up on the program.

"The first four years we weren't that good but by the fifth year we won seven games. And in the sixth year, we played in the Fiesta Bowl."

UTEP fans can only dream Nord's plan produces similar results down the road.

OFFENSIVE KEYS:

You can never have too many quality quarterbacks on your roster, as Nord found out the hard way in 2002.

Due to a rash of injuries, the Miners had to finish the season with a fourth-string walkon, Omar Duarte, calling the signals. The El Paso native earned a scholarship for his play, which included an upset of Rice, but he didn't necessarily earn a starting assignment.

Athletic junior Jon Schaper, who started six games in 2002, and highly touted redshirt freshman Jordan Palmer both have recovered from broken collarbones. Another potential starter, strong-armed sophomore Orlando Cruz, is expected to join the competition in the fall after rehabbing a torn ACL.

Despite a nagging ankle injury, speedy running back Howard Jackson gained 844 yards on just 173 carries (4.9 yards per carry).

The big question on offense is how quickly a young, but talented group of wide receivers can step up and contribute. Sophomore Chris Francies returns at split end, and junior Dirk Dillard and sophomore Aaron Givens both saw extensive action at flanker a year ago.

The offensive line is the only area on the team with any kind of senior leadership. Three senior starters return, including All-WAC candidate Trey Darilek, who has 30 career starts under his belt.

DEFENSIVE KEYS:

The Miners should be improved, but after yielding a dreadful 42.6 points per game in 2002, that's not saying much.

Two senior starters return to anchor what Nord believes is an improving and deep line. Sam Clarke, a three-year starter, has moved from tackle to end to better utilize his athleticism.

Junior Robert Rodriguez, who led the WAC in tackles as a freshman in 2001, and junior Godwin Akinduro are battling for the starting middle linebacker spot. Sophomores Thomas Howard and J.D. Hearn are competing for the weak-side linebacker job.

The secondary lost talented free safety D.J. Walker and cornerback Weldon Cooks. But Nord believes that sophomore Marshall Sanford has even more athletic ability than Walker. Two proven returning starters are junior corner Jahmal Fenner and senior rover Tim Woodard, who had 108 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Junior Keith Robinson became the first Miner in 11 years to kick two 50-yard field goals in a season. However, he missed spring practice and spent two months in a Houston hospital after having a tumor removed from his nasal passage and is questionable for the fall. Junior Bryce Benekos, who ranked second in the WAC with a 40.8 average, returns to punt and could handle some placekicking duties if Robinson is out.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

The Miners have their fair share of talented quarterbacks this season. Now they have to find a way to keep them healthy. A big key will be the play of the offensive line, which returns three veteran starters. At tailback, Jackson needs to avoid the nagging injuries that have slowed him, and a young group of promising wide receivers must make their share of big plays.

Defensively, the Miners should only get better. A more attacking eight-man front likely will produce more turnovers.

A big year in the return game from Jackson and Fenner could prove to be the difference in close games for the Miners.

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