Young Miners
looking for gold again

Hunter 'good to go'
Third of 13 parts

By Dave Reardon

Apologies to Tim Hardaway. But for the Texas-El Paso football team, the UTEP-Two Step has gone something like this in recent years:

Lose a lot, win a lot, lose a lot.

The Miners hope to keep the pattern going and turn the beat around yet again this fall. When UTEP and Hawaii dance at the Sun Bowl on Sept. 21, coach Gary Nord wants his team to be like the 2000 version that went 8-4 and whipped the Warriors 39-7 -- and not resemble the sorry group of last year that absorbed a 66-7 shellacking from UH on its way to a 2-9 finish.

"We're the only thing that dropped lower than the stock market," Nord quipped at the Western Athletic Conference preview last month.

The third-year head coach said he's pleased with the way his team worked in the offseason, in the classroom and the weightroom.

"We had an outstanding academic year, and we got bigger and stronger," Nord said. "We probably gained 1,800 pounds as a team, and it's good weight."

He's so happy with the overall productivity he's given the team an extra hour before reveille at training camp and emphasizing "fun" at two-a-days.

Still, if the Miners are to climb back at least to the surface, there's a lot of hard work to be done with a young team.

The WAC media picked UTEP to finish ninth in the conference. That's fine with safety and team captain D.J. Walker, one of the few Miner seniors.

"We had a fall-off year, but we're in a good situation being ranked low in the WAC. It's easier for underdogs to creep up," Walker said.

None of it will matter if UTEP's defense is as porous as it was in 2001. Nord watched his defense -- which was coordinated by former Hawaii head coach Bob Wagner -- crumble as games progressed last fall.

"We have to learn how to stop the run," Nord said. "Of our 11 games last year we were ahead at halftime in six of them. But we weren't man enough to stop them."

Linebacker Robert Rodriguez (6-foot-1, 240 pounds) did his best, though. He was a freshman All-American last year after leading the WAC with 137 tackles. The problem was he, preseason all-WAC cornerback Weldon Cooks (6-2, 180) and Walker (6-3, 215) didn't have enough help.

Walker, who is second in the country among returning players with 12 career interceptions, was in on 85 tackles and picked off four passes last year. Cooks needs to regain his form of 2000 when he broke up three passes against Hawaii and was one of the league's best cover men.

Up front, the Miners aren't all that big, but they're experienced. The health of left tackle Bobby King (6-5, 255) is critical to the front-four's depth; he missed all of last season with a back injury after being a big factor for three seasons.

Nord thinks going to a more conventional scheme than the flex that Wagner liked will make things easier for the Miners defense.

On offense, sophomore Jon Schaper (6-2, 210) is the starting quarterback going into camp. He completed 25 of 60 passes for 232 yards with five interceptions in a backup role last year.

"All he has to do is show he can do it under the lights," Nord said. "He's a big strong kid that runs fast and has a very strong and reliable arm. He needs to develop a little more pocket awareness. I think he can make some big plays with his natural ability."

His prime target will likely be senior Terrance Minor (6-1, 190), who caught 24 passes for 371 yards and three touchdowns last fall.

There isn't much experience behind senior tailback Sherman Austin (5-8, 175) and the oft-injured junior fullback Rovann Cleveland (6-0, 240). Sophomore Howard Jackson (5-10, 155) is listed behind Austin, but is expected to get a long look.

Four starters return on the offensive line that yielded 35 sacks last year; if they haven't improved, Nord won't hesitate to replace them as he considers the O-line one of the team's deepest units. Left tackle Ariel Famaligi (6-4, 320) is considered the best of the bunch.

"What I see is an opportunity for a bunch of young kids to get better," Nord said. "We're a very young team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. At any given time we could have seven or eight freshmen or sophomores playing."

Texas-El Paso

All-time record: 324-462-28

Against Hawaii: 12-16

Now you know: UTEP made 31 turnovers last year, including five in its 66-7 disaster at Hawaii. The Matt Wright, Kelvin Millhouse and Robert Grant all returned interceptions for touchdowns in that game.

UH Athletics

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