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Sunday, August 24, 2003



UTEP working
to rebuild


Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of 13 features on Hawaii's opponents this season.


Legend has it Texas-El Paso won a share of the Western Athletic Conference football championship a mere three years ago.

It's true. If you need proof, take a look at the jewelry on Miner senior Trey Darilek's finger. But you'll never believe it if you see UTEP's 4-19 record of the past two seasons.

"There are still a few of us around," Darilek, the 6-foot-6, 305-pound starting left tackle, said. "We want to restore the pride of our program."

In order for the Miners to even think about getting back into the upper echelon of the WAC, they need to win on the road. UTEP has lost 15 consecutive away games.

The Miners might still be a year away from the maturity level needed to achieve consistency ... at the Sun Bowl or venues away from home. Coach Gary Nord is in the process of rebuilding a program that used to be based on junior college transfers.

"We're still very thin on seniors (there are eight on the roster), but I'm proud of them the way the team has been hanging together," Nord said.

A lot of that togetherness has been in the weight room, Nord said.

"Numbers are a big thing with coaches, and the numbers I'm happy about are our strength numbers, like bench presses, 40 times. Those numbers increase your wins."

While the Miners have made good use of the new Vandenburg Family Strength and Conditioning Center, UTEP needs more skill at the skill positions.

A four-man quarterback derby is still shaking itself out, but junior Jon Schaper played some tight end in practice last week. The others are sophomore Orlando Cruz (6-0, 210), junior Omar Duarte (6-2, 195) and second-year freshman Jordan Palmer (6-5, 230). Palmer is the brother of Carson Palmer, and was rated among the top 150 prep players in California his senior year.

Junior tailback Howard Jackson (5-10, 160) is one of the league's better backs, and he hopes to be more durable after 1,406 all-purpose yards despite a bad ankle in 2002. Senior Rovann Cleveland (6-0, 240) and junior Jimmy Smith (5-11, 230) are the fullback contenders.

Three returning starters plus Darilek, who missed five games with a torn MCL, anchor the offensive line. Senior right guard Robert Clayton (6-4, 300), junior right tackle Robert Espinosa (6-4, 295) and senior center Chris Kerr (6-4, 280) combined for 28 starts last fall.

Sophomore Chris Francies (6-2, 190) has won the split end job and junior Dirk Dillard (6-1, 195) is the flanker. Junior Jonas Crafts (6-4, 250) is a rising star at tight end.

On defense, the Miners are for the most part small and young, but they have 14 players who have started at least one game.

Senior tackle Dan Kerr (6-4, 275) anchors the front four along with senior end Sam Clarke (6-2, 265).

Junior Godwin Akinduro (6-4, 220) has won the middle linebacker position in camp, as has sophomore Marshall Sanford (6-1, 195) at free safety.

Junior Jahmal Fenner (5-8, 180) is an experienced corner, and will get the tough assignments because of the youth on the other side. One of two freshmen, Aaron Francis (5-8, 175) and Nate Draughton (5-9, 170), will start.

Junior strong safety Mark Dowdy (5-11, 190), sophomore outside linebacker Thomas Howard (6-3, 225) and senior rover Tim Woodard (5-11, 190) also came into camp as the leaders at their positions.

The kicking game is a strong point, with junior Keith Robinson owning a streak of 44 points-after-touchdown. Junior Bryce Benekos is a reliable punter.

UTEP hurt itself by throwing 21 interceptions and losing 16 fumbles last year. The Miners got only 10 picks and eight recoveries of opponents' fumbles in 2002.

"There's no question about us going in the right direction," Nord said. But you don't have a chance to win games when you play good teams and lead the nation in turnovers."


Texas-El Paso Miners

2003 schedule
Aug. 30 at Arizona
Sept. 6 Cal Poly
Sept. 13 San Diego State
Sept. 20 at Louisville
Sept. 27 Sam Houston State
Oct. 4 at Southern Methodist
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

2002 results
2-10 overall, 1-7 WAC
Aug. 31 Sacramento State W, 42-12
Sept. 7 at Kentucky L, 77-17
Sept. 14 at Oklahoma L, 0-68
Sept. 21 Hawaii L, 6-31
Sept. 28 at San Jose State L, 24-58
Oct. 5 at New Mexico State L, 14-49
Oct. 19 Rice W, 38-35
Oct. 26 at Tulsa L, 0-20
Nov. 2 Boise State L, 58-3
Nov. 9 at Nevada L, 17-23
Nov. 16 Southern Methodist L, 35-42
Nov. 22 at Louisiana Tech L, 24-38


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