Coach: Mike Price (2nd season, 8–4) 2004 record: 8-4 (Lost to Colorado in Houston Bowl) WAC finish: 6-2 (2nd) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 72nd (142.3 ypg) Passing: 29th (251.3 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 66th (154.2 ypg) Passing: 51st (207.1 ypg)
at New Mexico State
Depth Chart: Offense
6 returning starters in red
Johnnie Lee Higgins
Depth Chart: Defense
5 returning starters in red
Johnnie Lee Higgins
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The storybook season didn't end in storybook fashion, but that was okay with long-suffering UTEP fans. It was still one of the more remarkable and thrilling rides in Miner history.
Surely, fans expected head coach Mike Price to field a better team than those of the ousted Gary Nord and his three consecutive two-win seasons. They were, however, realistic; this was UTEP, after all.
But Price produced an 8-4 season that saw the Miners finish in second place in the Western Athletic Conference and qualify for their first bowl game since 2000.
Now expectations have gone from squat to sky-high as UTEP enters Conference USA. The exposure of last year has improved the talent considerably, and the confidence is at an all-time high.
The Miners' receiving corps may be the deepest and most talented in the history of UTEP football. The starters in Price's four-receiver set are expected to be seniors Jayson Boyd and Chris Francies along with juniors Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chris Marrow. Boyd scored 10 times last year, and Price is expecting him to have another big year. Francies and Marrow are reliable, while Higgins possesses tremendous speed.
For the first time in years, the guy throwing them the ball won't be fearing for his job. Quarterback Jordan Palmer took advantage of Price's expert tutelage last season and performed magnificently, tossing 26 touchdowns and 14 picks over the final 11 games. He ranked 28th in the country in passing efficiency (136.48 rating) and 37th in total offense (233.4 yards per game).
There will be a battle for the starting running back role. UCLA transfer Tyler Ebell was brought in to carry the load this season, but he received serious competition from fellow senior Matt Austin (943 yards in his career) and sophomore Marcus Thomas over the spring. Both Ebell and Thomas were named Parade All-Americans out of high school.
The offensive line is a question mark, especially after struggling in the spring against the more experienced defensive line. Josh House and Jose Garcia are the sure starters, though Garcia missed the spring recovering from surgery.
The strength of the defense is up front, where senior Chris Mineo and junior Zach West will return after starting every game at left and right tackle, respectively. Mineo earned first-team All-WAC honors after totaling 50 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss and eight sacks.
The defense loses its emotional leader in linebacker Robert Rodriguez but welcomes back perhaps the best all-around athlete on the team in Thomas Howard. Junior Troy Collavo, similar to Rodriguez in size and attitude, will replace him at middle linebacker.
The secondary takes a hit with the loss of experienced, talented cornerbacks Adrian Ward and Jahmal Fenner. But senior James Delgardo is back and healthy again and will likely be joined at corner by either Andre Bailey or Nate Draughon. Quintin Demps, a Freshman All-American last year, returns at safety.
The Miners suffer a big loss at punter with the departure of Bryce Benekos, the second-ranked punter in school history. In his place is Ryan Hotchkiss, who averaged 40.9 yards per attempt last season at Palomar (Calif.) Junior College. Placekicker Reagan Schneider returns after scoring a team-high 97 points last season. He was 15-of-20 on field goals and 52-of-53 on extra points, though he slumped toward the end of the season.
The Miners are loaded at the skill positions, but what looms is the unknown -- a brand-new conference. Besides that, UTEP will not have the luxury of sneaking up on people in '05.
It probably won't matter. The schedule is favorable, though the Miners will be facing four 2004 bowl teams. But consider that UTEP lost four games in '04, two of which (Tulsa, Colorado) could have been victories. There was only one blowout loss, to Arizona State in the season opener.
Expect UTEP to be improved. A C-USA title is likely and a spot in the final Top 25 is possible.