Friday, August 27, 2004

UTEP needs the game
to go with its names

This is the fifth in a series of 12 articles on Hawaii's opponents for the 2004 season. Tomorrow, San Jose State.

For a team coming off three straight two-win seasons, there's a lot of name-recognition -- even if some of it is by a degree of separation -- around the Texas-El Paso football program.

You've got coach Mike Price, famous for Rose Bowls at Washington State, infamous for having some bawdy fun that cost him his job at Alabama before game one. You've got quarterback Jordan Palmer, brother of 2002 Heisman Trophy winner Carson. You've even got Nike, supplier of snazzy new unis.

For your Hawaii tie, there's defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe, a former Kamehameha and Washington standout.

If the game was "Oh yeah, I've heard of him," and not football, the Miners might stand a better chance.

UTEP does have a few really good players who don't get much acclaim, though running back Howard Jackson, linebacker Robert Rodriguez, tight end Jonas Crafts and punter Bryce Benekos aren't much known past the first rest areas down I-10 in either direction. They are, however, among the Western Athletic Conference's best at their positions.

The question is if Price can build around them enough to achieve his goal that will be impossible to accomplish at UTEP after this season: a WAC championship. The Miners leave for Conference USA next year.

"If we're going to win the WAC, we'd better do it pretty fast. That might sound crazy, but so did our basketball team going to the Dance, and they did it," said Price, who photocopied stories about the Miners' basketball team's success of last spring and left them in his players' lockers.

"Raising the bar is easy," Price said. "The thing that's difficult is self-image. What's really going on in their heads? I hope they're tired of being 2-9 and 2-10. We have a plan; we're going to stick with that plan. It's worked for me with other teams. We're going to be winners."

Price was able to lead Weber State to a 10-win season in 1987, and took Washington State, which was not exactly a Pac-10 power when he took over, to two Rose Bowls.

He said defense is the first key for a club that gave up 30 or more points in nine of its 13 games last fall.

Enter Rodriguez, the heart of the squad. The El Paso resident led the WAC in tackles two of the past three years. He had 135 last season.

"He has a nose for the ball, a tremendous player," Price said of the affable senior. "He can't be this nice off the field, because he isn't on the field."

It is hoped that end Ibok Ibok and tackle Chris Mineo will help make Rodriguez's job easier, but their isn't much bulk or experience in the D-line unit.

Sophomore strong safety Joe Felskoski held his own and more as a freshman with 88 stops, and senior cornerback Jahmal Fenner displays the leadership of one who has seemingly been in the league forever.

On offense, Palmer won a three-way fall-camp battle for the quarterback job. He was intercepted 13 times compared to seven touchdown passes while sharing playing time last year as a freshman with Orlando Cruz and Omar Duarte, both of whom are waiting in the wings.

Senior tailback Jackson should take a lot of the heat off Palmer. The league's most underrated player rushed for 1,146 yards last season with six touchdowns.

It's too bad he has only two starting returning offensive linemen to run behind -- senior right tackle Robert Espinosa and junior left guard Jose Garcia. Even if Price's JC recruits -- Anthony Casey and Michael Eddy -- pan out, unit cohesiveness could be too much to ask for in one season.

Crafts might be the best in the league at his craft this year; already a good blocker, he was leading the Miners with 24 catches for 256 yards before a shoulder separation ended his 2003 season with five games left.

Price plans to play three wideouts, and eight Miners receivers generated at least 100 yards by air last year. The best of the bunch is probably sophomore Chris Marrow. He snared 34 passes for 467 yards and three TDs.

The coach hopes Benekos has fewer opportunities to display his powerful leg this season. He averaged 44.1 yards on 70 punts; not to take away from his ability, but your average should be pretty high when you're always booting it from your own 30.

Senior kicker Keith Robinson left the team early in camp for personal reasons. Sophomore Reagan Schneider -- 1-for-4 on field goals last year -- is next on the depth chart.

UTEP Miners

Basic Offense: One-Back

Basic Defense: 4-3

2003: 2-11 (1-7 WAC)

Lettermen Returning/ Lost: 58/10

Starters Ret./Lost: 19/5

Head coach: Mike Price (129-121)

2004 Schedule

Date Opponent
Sept. 2 at Arizona State
Sept. 11 Weber State
Sept. 18 Boise State
Oct. 2 New Mexico State
Oct. 9 at Fresno State
Oct. 16 Hawaii
Oct. 23 at Louisiana Tech
Oct. 30 at San Jose State
Nov. 6 at Troy State
Nov. 13 Rice
Nov. 20 Southern Methodist
Nov. 27 at Tulsa



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