The past three seasons have been a microcosm of the UTEP football program's sorry past.
Despite promises of improvement, coach Gary Nord could only produce six wins in three years after winning a Western Athletic Conference co-championship in 2000. As hope dwindled -- among UTEP's '03 defeats was a home loss to I-AA Cal Poly -- so did fan interest. And Nord, after finishing 2-11 and winning only once in conference play in '03, took his place among the numerous ousted Miner coaches who tried, and failed, to bring the program back from the dead.
But hope was renewed in '04 with the hiring of Mike Price, the most decorated coach to take the job in UTEP history. The '97 National Coach of the Year, Price -- known for resurrecting dead programs at Weber State and Washington State -- already had his own troubles to recover from. He was fired at Alabama for an alleged strip club incident in the spring of '03 before ever coaching a game with the Tide. Price spent most of '03 pondering an uncertain future. Now that he's back in the saddle, Price is fired up.
Though a veteran team returns, including 58 letterwinners and 14 starters, the Miners have huge questions in key areas -- and a mammoth confidence issue to overcome. The biggest potential problem area is the offensive line, which lost three starters. And the returning line, Price admits, is short and small.
The other major concern is the secondary, which gave up 257.5 yards per game through the air in '03. But Price thinks some discipline will provide confidence and take this program to places it's never seen before.
"I'm raising the bar for players, coaches, support personnel and everyone around football," Price said.
OffenseThe success of the UTEP offense will depend largely on the play of an offensive line that returns just two starters from last year -- right tackle Robert Espinosa and left guard Jose Garcia. Price must find three new starters from a corps of smallish holdovers or a promising class of recruits.
Tailback Howard Jackson is one of the top playmakers in the WAC. He racked up 1,146 yards last year, and will be relied on as a ballcarrier and pass-catcher in '04. Jackson underwent surgery to remove cartilage in April and missed the final three weeks of spring practice.
Price will pick between three veteran quarterbacks -- junior Orlando Cruz, sophomore Jordan Palmer and senior Omar Duarte. Cruz has the strong arm, Palmer has the big body and the genes (he's 6-foot-5 and the brother of former Heisman winner Carson Palmer), and Cruz has the efficiency -- he hasn't thrown an interception in his last 106 pass attempts. A starter will be named during fall camp.
The quarterbacks will be throwing to a talented group of receivers, led by sophomore Chris Marrow, who showed good hands and speed in hauling in 34 passes for 467 yards and three scores last year.
DefenseThe Miners welcome back five defensive linemen who have starting experience. Tackle Chris Mineo, who started all 13 games in '03, emerged as a leader, though he missed spring drills because of a weightlifting injury.
Robert Rodriguez, an El Paso native, leads a linebacker corps that is the deepest unit on the team. Rodriguez led the WAC with 135 tackles from his spot in the middle. He is determined to make his final year a good one.
The biggest concern is the secondary, which was a debacle a year ago. The Miners ranked 102nd in the nation in passing yards allowed and surrendered 547 yards in a 69-41 home loss to San Jose State. UTEP was primarily a man-to-man coverage team last year, but Price is expected to play more zone this fall.
Two junior college cornerbacks, Andre Bailey and James Delgardo, will get a long look in the fall, though Price seems to be pleased with projected starters Adrian Ward and Jahmal Fenner.
SpecialistsThis is one the more solid areas of the team, and the primary reason is punter Bryce Benekos, who is back after ranking second in the WAC and 13th nationally with a 44.1-yard average. Senior Keith Robinson is 81-of-83 lifetime on extra points and has made nine field goals of 40-plus yards.
Final AnalysisUTEP gave Price a chance to get back into coaching, and Price is anxious to pay the school back by turning around the Miner program. And he wants to win immediately. It's possible, especially if he finds a way to cure his offensive line and secondary woes.
The quarterbacks all have talent and figure to benefit from Price's tutelage. The underrated Jackson is perhaps the top the tailback in the WAC. The downside is that this team is small, and, because of that, will never dominate the line of scrimmage in conference play.
It's too early to compete for a league title, but look for a much-improved Miner club to flirt with the .500 mark -- and provide plenty of hope for the future.