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 UTEP 2003 Preview:

by TenaciousD

Coach Gary Nord enters his 4th campaign as UTEP's coach with a very unsettled future. Long gone are the memories of a WAC Championship in 2000 and have been replaced by 2 dismal seasons of poor football. Nord's laid back nature with his players has resulted in undisciplined and lack of leadership. He promised a tough love approach for the off season, so the results of that are yet to be seen. Nord is definitely feeling the heat in El Paso from fans. This summer, Nord was not heard from at all, which is a 180 degree turnaround from the last 3 seasons when he gleefully boasted about how good his team would be.

Here's a quick position by position breakdown of the upcoming Miner squad:

QB

For the third straight year, many questions surround the Miner's field general. Last year's opening starter Jon Schaper has been erratic his entire career. Last season, he completed only 42% of his passes and had only 3 TD's to 8 INT's. He showed his lack of leadership this spring when he offered to switch positions if he was beat out of the starting job. Not exactly someone you want leading the troops. His apparent successor will be Jordan Palmer, a 6-5 230lb Redshirt Freshman. Palmer is the younger brother of Heisman Winner Carson Palmer, but that's where the similarities end. While Carson signed a $50 million NFL deal, Jordan is an untested, green, college QB. Jordan has the skills to excel but needs time to develop confidence and experience. The third backup (which at UTEP means you will play a lot) will be between Omar Duarte a former walk-on who worked at Applebee's during last season, and Orlando Cruz who underwent off-season surgery and is just being cleared to resume playing.

RB/FB

Howard Jackson returns with his 844 yards and 8 TD's from last season. The slight Jackson has break-away speed but is not known to break tackles. UTEP suffered mightily last season when they needed some tough yards on third and short. El Paso's Matt Austin has better size and good speed, and will come in on 2 back sets. Nord recruited a rare Juco player in Victor Jones to help the backfield. Also Nord moved RS Freshman Steve Douglas back there to bolster the depth. Douglas is a great athlete who also is a Decathlete on UTEP's track team and finished third at the WAC Championships.

Fullback will be the oft-injured Rovann Cleveland who gets his last chance to just stay healthy. Cleveland is one of the strongest players in the weight room, but his desire to play hurt has been questioned on many occasions. He only carried the ball 13 times total last year. The back-up is former LB Jimmy Smith, who gained 227 yards last year with a decent 4.4 yards/carry average.

WR/TE

TE will be Jr. Jonas Crafts, a kid with that one bad word attached to him, potential. This means he hasn't shown it yet. Crafts is an excellent blocker, which is why he stays on the field. He also shares a trait with former boxer Roberto Duran, "Hands of Stone". Crafts caught 19 balls for 231 yards, but dropped at least 15-20 passes last year. Many were drive killers which hurt the offensive numbers. Senior Justin Hunt who played on 2 TE sets was lost for the year with a serious knee injury. The backup spot will be filled by RS Freshman Casey Mauch, and Nord is expecting to play a true freshman this year as well, which is not a good sign.

WR' corps again has the "potential" to be very good this year. Since the departure of Pittsburgh Steeler Lee Mays, UTEP has struggled to find a go-to guy. Sophomore Chris Francies has the biggest upside and is looked to come into that role. He was second on the team with 27 grabs last year. On the other side, El Paso Franklin's Dirk Dillard had a very good spring and improved his consistency. A question in this area is the return of Will Smith who left summer school to promote Bad Boys II (No wait, he missed most of last season with a knee injury). Many reports from spring ball were the number of dropped balls, so this has to be corrected quickly. Also look for RS freshman Johnnie Lee Higgins to play a lot this year.

O-Line

The O-Line is anchored by NFL prospect Trey Darilek, a 6-6 305lb Senior from San Antonio. He was moved to the left tackle spot in the spring to protect the QB's blind spot. A healthy campaign will translate to a mid-round selection in next April's NFL Draft. At center, UTEP returns Chris Kerr (6-4 280) a smallish center but a true signal-caller for blitzes, stunts, etc. The other starters on the line include RT Joe Espinosa (6-4 300), RG Robert Clayton (6-4 300), and LG Ben Graniello (6-3 290). Overall, many publications have tabbed UTEP's O-line as one of the better units in the WAC.

D-Line

Similarly, UTEP's D-line is a very good unit with a much needed dosing of depth this year. Starting at one end is Sam Clarke (6-2 270), who had injuries last year that kept him out of several games. The other end is Sophomore Brandon Johnson, a budding superstar, who as a freshman last year had 8 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. The interior linemen will be Danny Kerr (C Chris Kerr's twin brother) (6-4 280), who was second on the squad with 11 QB hurries. The final spot goes to Chris Mineo (6-2 280), another sophomore just waiting to blow up. Mineo played extensively last year, had 46 tackles and 8 QB hurries.

LB's

The biggest signing of the off-season was LB coach, Mike Roach from the Canadian Football League. Roach is expected to be the sideline defensive coordinator, while DC Troy Reffett moves to the booth. Roach has a very good unit to deal with. When you consider that a Freshman All-American Robert Rodriguez is now a back-up, it tells you something about the unit. Mike LB is Goodwin Akinduro, a kid with great speed; GA had 31 tackles last season. The Will LB starter is Soph Thomas Howard (6-3 230), Howard also had 31 tackles on the year.

DB's

UTEP loses its defensive QB in D.J. Walker, who started 34 games during his career, and had 16 career INT's. Heading into fall camp, a redshirt freshman looks to be the starter at Arizona, either Nate Draughon or Aaron Francis. Draughon was kicked off the team for a few days during spring ball for threatening Nord during a practice tussle.

Opposite side CB will be Jahmal Fenner who as a Junior already has 16 career starts under his belt. The "Rover" safety position has Tim Woodard returning, his 108 tackles is the most returning this fall. Unfortunately, it's never a good sign when your leading tackler plays so far off the ball. The other safety will be Marshall Sanford or Mark Dowdy, a 2001 starter, who sat out last season with a shoulder injury.

Nord recruited 2 Juco's to help in this area, and at this time, neither is academically eligible to compete. Adrian Ward was All-Conference at Chabot College in California looks about 85% that he will pass his required classes to get eligible. Having given up 30 TD passes last season, improvement should be expected, but having an experienced JC to come in would be a much needed shot in the arm.

Special Teams

Returning kicker Keith Robinson is one of the better kickers in the league. The junior had a game winning 59 yarder against Rice. During the off-season he had a benign tumor removed from his nasal cavity, which forced him to miss workouts and also caused him to lose weight. He will be cleared for fall camp, so he has time to regain his groove. Handling kickoffs might be true freshman Reagan Schneider, who was a Top 300 player in Texas as a Senior. Schneider will be given the opportunity to unseat Robinson in the fall.

Punter Bryce Benekos already has 2 years starting experience, and finished second in the WAC in net punting last season.

Handling KO returns is the tandem of RB Howard Jackson and CB Jahmal Fenner

Players to Watch For:

Trey Darilek - A mammoth kid with a great football IQ who can give the QB an extra couple of seconds to get throws off instead of running scared.

Joe Fleskoski - Safety - Teammate of Jordan Palmer, hard hitter who was wooed by Cal even after committing to the Miners 2 years ago.

Steve Douglas - As a backup, might end up with a few TD's as a short yardage specialist.

Adrian Ward - If he plays, could solidify an inexperienced secondary.

Key Questions that Must be Answered:

1. Can these guys who have endured 2 miserable seasons put it together?

2. Will a QB emerge from fall camp?

3. Has the game "Slowed-down" and the experience level really there for most of the fourth year juniors?

Expected W/L Record 5-8

Expected Wins: Cal Poly, Sam Houston State, SDSU, Tulsa, SJSU

Losses: Arizona, Louisville, SMU, Rice, Fresno State, Hawaii, La Tech, Boise State

WAC Expected Order of Finish:

1. Hawaii

2. Fresno State

3. Boise State

4. SMU

5. Nevada

6. San Jose State

7. Rice

8. UTEP

9. Louisiana Tech

10. Tulsa