2004 Football Preseason Outlook

A new era of UTEP football begins in 2004, as Mike Price takes over the helm of the program. Price knows a lot about winning. He was the National Coach of the Year in 1997 at Washington State. He was affiliated with five bowl teams during his 14-year stay in Pullman. His last two Cougar teams (2001, 2002) combined for a glossy 20-4 record.

Price arrived in El Paso shortly before Christmas and immediately assembled a top-notch staff. Seven of his assistants have coached in the Rose Bowl. Together they will try to change the fortunes of a team which has posted three consecutive two-win seasons.

Price is excited about the challenge. "The sky is the limit here," he said. "I really think UTEP has what it takes to be a winner, and I promise I will work my heart out to provide the student-athletes with an enjoyable college experience, follow the rules and win with integrity and character."

A veteran team returns this fall. The Miners have 58 letterwinners back, including 19 starters. The biggest losses were in the offensive line after center Chris Kerr, left tackle Trey Darilek and right guard Robert Clayton all exhausted their eligibility.

The only other significant losses were DL Dan Kerr and DB Tim Woodard, who made 39 and 35 starts in their respective careers.

Spring drills are slated for March 29-April 24. Price and his staff plan to simplify things as his team learns a new offensive and defensive scheme.

"We're going to continue to work on the little things that end up being big things," Price said. "We're going to be very fundamentally sound and very disciplined. We may scrimmage more than we have in the past, in order to give everybody an opportunity to showcase their talents."

UTEP's schedule is challenging, particularly at the outset. The Miners will face Arizona State, Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii and I-10 rival New Mexico State in the season's first seven weeks. UTEP will play 11 games, with four of the first six in the friendly confines of the Sun Bowl.

Price, who has aspirations of turning things around right away, is going to bring an exciting brand of football to the Sun City. "What we're going to do at UTEP is win and do it with defense first, special teams and then offense," he said. "You have to be able to run and rush the passer and stop the run. And we're going to spread it sideline-to-sideline on offense."

Running Backs
Senior tailback Howard Jackson returns after putting together a blockbuster 2003 season. The slight but speedy Jackson racked up 1,146 rushing yards, the sixth-best seasonal total in school history. He had six 100-yard games and set a school record with four straight contests over the century mark.

Jackson rated first in the Western Athletic Conference and fourth nationally in all-purpose yards, averaging 165.1 per game. He enters his final year in the orange and blue ranked fifth in rushing yardage (2,279) and 10th in rushing touchdowns (15). After totaling 67 yards receiving in his first two years with the Miners, Jackson snared 27 balls for 391 yards last season, showing the versatility of his game.

UTEP has good depth at running back. Senior Jimmy Smith and junior Matt Austin each saw extensive action a year ago, and sophomore Josh Chamois is full of promise.

Smith battled nagging injuries, but still rushed for 180 yards on 53 carries. Austin rated second on the team in rushing, compiling 456 yards on 92 attempts. He has had two career 100-yard games, most recently at Hawaii in 2003 (112 yards). Chamois got his feet wet last year, registering 19 yards on eight tries.

Senior Omar Duarte, junior Orlando Cruz and sophomore Jordan Palmer will battle for the starting signal-caller nod this spring. Each have started five or more games at the collegiate level.

Duarte was a five-game starter in 2002, when he completed 79 of 161 passes for a team-leading 1,000 yards. An El Paso native, Duarte threw for a career-high 347 yards versus SMU. He completed six of seven pass attempts a year ago. Duarte has not thrown an interception in his last 106 pass attempts.

Cruz, who has the best arm of the three, made seven starts last season. He led the Miners in pass attempts (203), completions (103) and yardage (1,360). Cruz had a pair of 200-yard games (285 versus Louisiana Tech, 237 against San Jose State) in 2003. He has thrown three passes for 80+ yards in his career.

Palmer started six games as a redshirt freshman. The younger brother of former Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, he completed 98 of 198 passes for 1,168 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. He threw for 287 yards and a pair of TDs versus Tulsa. At 6-5, 230 pounds, Palmer certainly has the size necessary to be a big-league quarterback.

Wide Receivers
Price plans to utilize three wideouts in his wide-open passing attack, and UTEP certainly has ample depth to make the scheme work. Five Miners registered at least 250 yards receiving in 2003, and eight had 100 yards or more.

Chris Marrow emerged as UTEP's go-to guy as a true freshman. The sure-handed El Paso native turned in 34 receptions for 467 yards and three scores, leading the team in all three categories. Marrow had a six-catch, 84-yard effort against Tulsa. He also found time to carry the ball 10 times, most among the Miner receivers (Marrow averaged 7.0 yards per carry).

Sophomore Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jr. supplied 27 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns. He snared five balls for 126 yards versus Louisiana Tech.

Junior Chris Francies contributed 24 catches for 343 yards last season, reaching the end zone twice. Francies reeled in four catches for 77 yards versus San Jose State, and had a 104-yard night against Rice in 2002.

Junior Aaron Givens posted 16 receptions for 233 yards a year ago. Senior Dirk Dillard has been a major contributor for three years, and owns 39 catches for 415 yards in his career.

Sophomore Joe West may be the most athletic of the bunch. Junior Jacob Gonzales has gained a reputation for being "Mr. Touchdown." Three of his six career catches have been good for six points.

Tight Ends
Injuries dealt a severe blow to UTEP's depth at the tight end position in 2003. But provided the wounds are all healed, this should be an area of strength in 2004.

Despite missing the last five games of the season with a separated shoulder, Jonas Crafts earned honorable mention All-WAC honors last year. That speaks volumes about what opposing coaches think of the 6-3, 250-pound senior from San Antonio. Already an outstanding blocker, Crafts was leading the Miners in receptions (24) and yardage (256) before suffering the injury. Crafts has had 53 career catches and will provide a big target for whoever wins the starting quarterback job.

Sophomore Casey Mauch earned more playing time after Crafts went down with the injury. He closed out the year with four receptions for 49 yards against Fresno State.

Freshman Jake Sears has good size (6-3, 235) and is expected to contribute as a rookie. He starred at Fredericksburg (Texas) High School.

Offensive Line
Senior right tackle Robert Espinosa and junior left guard Jose Garcia are the only returning starters from last year's unit. The Miners ended the season with 248 first downs (third in school history) and 4,771 yards of offense (second). The O-line yielded just six sacks in the final three games.

Espinosa has made 18 career starts, and Garcia 10.

Senior Ben Graniello started four games last season and is penciled in at right guard heading into the spring.

Junior Josh House and sophomore Andy Smith are listed as starters at left tackle and center, respectively, in the pre-spring depth chart. Smith was an All-State offensive lineman in 2001 at Giddings (Texas) High School.

Adding depth in the line this spring will be junior Alex DiMatteo, junior Luis Espinosa, sophomore Justin Gissendanner, senior Bo Morris and junior Mark Parrish.

For the second time in three years, MIKE linebacker Robert Rodriguez led the WAC in tackles in 2003. The native El Pasoan recorded 135 stops, averaging 10.4 per game. He was first on the team (and 10th in the league) in tackles for losses with 13. Rodriguez posted double-digit tackles in nine of the last 10 games. He has had 322 career stops, and needs just 13 more to tie Dale Kirry (1995-98) for 10th place on the all-time school list.

Junior WILL linebacker Thomas Howard joined Rodriguez as a 100-tackle linebacker last season. He was third in the WAC with 118 stops, while chipping in with 11 tackles for losses. Howard totaled double-digit tackles in six games, including a career-high 15 versus Louisiana Tech.

Senior Godwin Akinduro is pegged as the starting SAM linebacker entering spring workouts. He started four games a year ago, finishing the year with 45 tackles and three tackles for losses. Akinduro had 11 takedowns in a starting assignment against San Diego State.

Projected backups this spring include sophomore Troy Collavo (at MIKE linebacker), junior J.D. Hearn (at WILL linebacker) and sophomore Cory Vavala (at SAM linebacker). Collavo is coming off a 19-tackle campaign. Hearn made two starts and ended the year with 60 stops. Vavala had two tackles in special teams duty last season.

Defensive Line
Experience is plentiful at the defensive line position. Five players who are charted in the pre-spring depth (Tevita Fifita, Ibok Ibok, Brandon Johnson, Reggie Miles Jr., Joe Ward) have starting assignments under their belts.

Junior Chris Mineo, who started every game in 2003, will miss spring drills due to injury but is expected back in the fall. He was fourth on the team with 70 tackles last year. He also led the Miners with nine quarterback pressures and four fumble recoveries.

Sophomore Justin Hanel, senior Aaron Osborn and Fifita, a junior, will battle to nail down Kerr's old left tackle spot in the spring. Hanel registered 32 stops last season, while Fifita and Osborn had 20 and 15 respectively.

Mineo is expected to start at right tackle, but sophomore Zach West, senior Ibok and freshman Oniel Cousins will keep the spot warm in the spring.

Ibok is the most seasoned of the three. He started all 13 games in 2003, picking up 36 tackles. He has been moved from end to tackle. West had 14 stops in a reserve role last season. Cousins is a physical specimen (6-4, 290) who was a first team All-CIF choice at Eastside Christian (Calif.) High School.

Miles and Ward are the top contenders at left end, while Johnson and sophomore Alex Obomese are penciled in at right end. Johnson was third on the team with 10 tackles for losses and seven quarterback pressures last season. Obomese was a productive backup (25 stops), while Ward and Miles contributed 15 and 10 tackles, respectively.

Defensive Backs
Major improvement is expected from a secondary which yielded 257.5 yards per game through the air in 2003.

Senior Adrian Ward started the last 10 games at left corner and was highly successful, tallying 39 stops (36 solos), six pass break-ups and a team-leading three interceptions.

Jahmal Fenner is listed atop the depth chart at right cornerback. He has started 25 games and will be looking to end his collegiate career with a bang.

Junior Cedric Click (eight tackles in '03), sophomore Nate Draughon (six stops) and senior Victor Jones (six tackles) are the reserve corners.

Sophomore Joe Fleskoski is the favorite to start at free safety following a strong rookie campaign. He was third on the team with 88 tackles. At strong safety, senior Mike Perez and junior Marshall Sanford have combined to make 13 career starts. Perez had 64 tackles a season ago, while Sanford added 54.

Senior Matt Elwood and sophomore Jeremy Jones will also be in the mix at the safety slots.

Special Teams
UTEP's special teams have a chance to be pretty solid this fall.

All three kickers return including punter Bryce Benekos, who ranked second in the WAC and 13th nationally last season with a sparkling 44.1 average. Benekos enters his senior year ranked third in school history in both punts (192) and punting yards (7,736).

Senior Keith Robinson and sophomore Reagan Schneider each handled field goals and kickoffs at different points of last year. Robinson is 81 for 83 lifetime on PATs and has made nine field goals of 40+ yards. He has scored 144 career points, connecting on 21 field goals. Schneider was perfect on PATs (10 for 10) as a freshman.

Howard Jackson and Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jr. will be utilized on kickoff returns this spring, while Jahmal Fenner and Chris Marrow will handle punt returns. Jackson rates third in school annals in kickoff returns (69) and kickoff return yardage (1,619). Fenner stands second in punt returns (65), fourth in punt return yardage (593), seventh in kickoff returns (48) and sixth in kickoff return yardage (1,147).



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