2005 UTEP Football Preview

Go C-USA! Junior QB Jordan Palmer
Go C-USA!
Junior QB Jordan Palmer
Go C-USA!

July 26, 2005

UTEP's 2004 season was nothing short of remarkable. What will the Miners do for an encore in 2005? Coming off three consecutive two-win seasons, UTEP was the nation's biggest surprise a year ago. The Miners finished 8-4, made appearances in both top-25 polls and the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings, and gave Big 12 North Division champion Colorado all it could handle in the EV1.net Houston Bowl. The 2005 Miners certainly have a tough act to follow.

High expectations greet UTEP in its second year under the direction of former national coach of the year Mike Price. Many preseason publications rate the Miners as the favorites to win the Western Division of Conference USA, and some go so far as to say this ballclub has top-25 potential.

Price was careful to keep his team grounded during spring drills.

"We have to remember what got us here," he said. "We can't forget about how hard we worked to achieve what we did."

The Miners went back to the basics during the spring, as Price and his staff re-emphasized what goes into winning.

Price pronounced spring ball a success after the Blue whipped the Orange, 65-6, under the lights on April 22 at the Sun Bowl. Jordan Palmer threw for three touchdowns and two Miners had 100 yards receiving (Marcus Thomas 111, Daniel Robinson 100) in the rout.

With several key players out with injuries during the spring, UTEP was able to build some much-needed depth in the offensive line and in the secondary -- two areas hit hard by graduation losses.

UTEP indeed has the makings of a strong team this fall. The Miners could be particularly explosive offensively if three starting positions can be filled in the line. UTEP finished 11th in the country in scoring offense last season, averaging 35.8 points per game.

Palmer returns, as well as the bulk of the receiving corps. UTEP loses Howard Jackson, the school's second all-time leading rusher, but adds Tyler Ebell, who ran for nearly 1,500 yards in two seasons at UCLA. Ebell ended spring drills battling returning senior Matt Austin for the starting tailback position.

The Miners lost six starters on defense, and it was a group of real quality. Three of the top five tacklers are gone. Two linebackers, both ends and both corners will need to be replaced.

After 37 seasons in the Western Athletic Conference, UTEP will now reside in the new-look Conference USA. The Miners' inaugural league schedule features home dates with Houston, Marshall, Tulsa and UAB, and trips to Memphis, Rice, SMU and Tulane. Fans are excited about the return of long-time rival New Mexico to the schedule. For the first time since 1999, UTEP will face both the Lobos and I-10 adversary New Mexico State in the same season.

The Miners received an unprecedented amount of national attention last year. Writers from the Arizona Republic, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, ESPN The Magazine, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News and USA Today -- among others -- descended on UTEP to spotlight Price and his team. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit and a GameDay crew headed by Tom Rinaldi also stopped by. UTEP's first six games in 2005 will be nationally televised, leaving little doubt that Price has put the Miner program on the national map.

A position-by-position look at the 2005 Miners follows.

RUNNING BACKS
Jackson concluded his career with 3,466 yards rushing, 25 touchdowns and fourteen 100-yard games. He is UTEP's all-time leader for all-purpose yards (6,153), and rates second in kickoff return yards (1,947). He signed a free agent contract with the NFL's Detroit Lions at season's end.

His loss cannot be underestimated, but UTEP has loads of talent and depth at the running back position. The group includes a pair of former Parade All-Americans -- Ebell and Marcus Thomas -- as well as Austin, who has rushed for 943 yards in 35 collegiate games.

"I don't know if you can find three better running backs anywhere," Price said.

Ebell plans to make the most of his only year of eligibility with the Miners. He was named a second team freshman All-America by The Sporting News in 2002 after rushing for 994 yards at UCLA. Ebell set national records for rushing yardage (4,495) and rushing touchdowns (64) as a senior at Ventura (Calif.) High School.

An El Paso native, Austin has been UTEP's second-leading rusher each of the last two seasons. He contributed 456 yards on the ground in 2003, and 197 a year ago. Despite filling a backup role for his entire collegiate career, Austin has already put together a pair of 100-yard games.

Thomas played in 10 games as a true freshman last season, compiling 37 carries for 145 yards. Like Ebell, he posted eye-catching numbers as a prep senior, rushing for 3,573 yards and 47 scores at Tolleson (Ariz.) High School.

Adding depth -- as well as a look at the future -- will be redshirt freshman Brandon Jackson. He was a Texas Top-100 player by Rivals.com at Booker T. Washington High School in Houston.

QUARTERBACKS
Price has coached a lot of outstanding signal-callers -- notably Drew Bledsoe, Jason Gesser and Ryan Leaf. It's hard to imagine any of them improved as much in one season as Palmer did in 2004.

After throwing four interceptions in the season opener at Arizona State, Palmer settled down and had 26 touchdowns and 14 picks over the final 11 games. He ranked 28th in the country in passing efficiency (136.48 rating) and 37th in total offense (233.4 yards per game), throwing for 2,818 yards on the year -- the third-best seasonal figure in school history. Palmer ended the year with three-consecutive 300-yard games, throwing for a UTEP bowl-record 328 yards in the EV1.net Houston Bowl. He passed for five TDs twice (versus Hawaii and SMU).

Last year's backup, Omar Duarte, has exhausted his eligibility. Senior Orlando Cruz and junior Chris Hurd are the most experienced returnees. Cruz has made eight career starts, throwing for a personal best 1,360 yards in 2003. A Washington State transfer, Hurd played in four games for the Cougars as a freshman in 2002. He was injured as a sophomore in 2003. Hurd passed for nearly 5,000 yards during a distinguished prep career at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, Calif.

Hurd and Cruz were given equal reps during the spring, with both showing flashes of brilliance.

WIDE RECEIVERS
UTEP had just one senior wideout on last year's roster -- Dirk Dillard, who had one catch for six yards.

Returnees Jayson Boyd, Chris Francies, Aaron Givens, Jacob Gonzales, Johnnie Lee Higgins Jr., Chris Marrow and Daniel Robinson combined to make 160 receptions for 2,358 yards and 22 touchdowns a season ago. Four of those players -- Boyd, Francies, Higgins and Marrow -- have had 100-yard games during their collegiate careers.

Boyd (140 yards) and Higgins (122) each turned in 100-yard performances in the EV1.net Houston Bowl. It marked the first time in 39 years that UTEP had two 100-yard receivers in a game. Francies and Higgins are 1,000-yard receivers with 1,248 and 1,062 in their respective careers. Marrow is closing in on 1,000 yards with 812 in two seasons.

Price believes Boyd is primed for a monster senior year after totaling 42 catches for 560 yards a year ago. Boyd hit his stride over the last three games of the season, producing 17 receptions for 353 yards.

Higgins scored a touchdown in nine of the last 10 games. He finished with 34 catches for 700 yards and 10 scores.

Francies has been a reliable target over the last three seasons, recording a catch in 33 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation. He ended the 2004 campaign with 33 catches for 558 yards and four TDs.

Despite missing a couple of games with a sprained knee, Marrow put up 32 receptions for 345 yards.

Givens owns 46 career catches. Robinson showed his explosiveness when he reeled in a 28-yard touchdown pass at Louisiana Tech. Gonzales has reached the end zone on three of his eight career receptions.

Sophomore Joe West emerged during the spring and will also factor into the equation. He caught six passes as a true freshman in 2003 before spending the 2004 season focusing on academics.

A loaded receiving corps has gotten even stronger with the addition of junior college import David Sutton. The transfer from Compton (Calif.) Community College is big (6-5, 220) and fast (4.35 time in the 40).

"The wide receivers are going to be a strength of this team," Price said.

TIGHT ENDS
Sophomore Jake Sears and junior Casey Mauch saw extensive action last season, particularly late in the year due to an injury to starter Jonas Crafts.

Sears started three games, including the EV1.net Houston Bowl. Five of his six receptions came over the last four contests. He reached the end zone for the first time off a 31-yard pass from Jordan Palmer versus Rice.

Mauch scored two touchdowns in the last four games. His three-yard reception in the first overtime drew the Miners even with Rice, 28-28. UTEP eventually pulled out a thrilling 35-28, double overtime victory over the Owls.

Redshirt freshman Jamar Hunt is the latest in a long line of Hunt brothers to suit up for the Miners. Brent Hunt was an offensive lineman from 1997-99, and Justin Hunt was a tight end from 2000-04. At 6-6, 255 pounds, Jamar has the size to be the best of the bunch.

Junior Josh Chamois has apparently made a full-time move from running back to tight end. He was UTEP's short-yardage guy last season, compiling 14 carries for 15 yards and six touchdowns.

"Tight end is going to be a highly contested position," Price said. "We have some really good kids."

OFFENSIVE LINE
Gone are Robert Espinosa, Ben Graniello and Bo Morris, who started every game at right tackle, right guard and center respectively. Morris was UTEP's feel-good story last year. After participating in just three games during his first three years as a Miner, he blossomed into an honorable mention All-WAC player.

Seniors Josh House and Jose Garcia are entrenched at left tackle and left guard. Garcia is the veteran of the unit with 22 starts under his belt. House will be backed up by massive 6-6, 330-pound senior Mark Parrish, and Garcia will be flanked by senior Alex DiMatteo.

Junior Andy Smith and redshirt freshman Robby Felix are the leading contenders to take over for Morris as the starting center. Smith appeared in six games as a reserve in 2004. Felix was an All-League and All-County player at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif. Senior Jordan Tubig will lend support.

Another redshirt freshman, Tyler Ribitzki, is projected as the starting right tackle. He was chosen a top-75 Metroplex player by The Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a senior at Burleson High School. Senior Luis Espinosa and sophomore Oniel Cousins are listed behind Ribitzki in the post-spring two-deep.

Sophomore James Riley, who played in 11 games last fall, is the starter at right guard. Tubig and redshirt freshman Austin Chestnut will also vie for playing time.

"We have some question marks, but I feel good about the line," Price said.

LINEBACKERS
UTEP's linebacking corps was among the nation's finest last season. Robert Rodriguez, Godwin Akinduro and Thomas Howard ranked 1-2-3 on the squad in tackles. Together they combined for 280 stops, 35 tackles for losses and 11.5 sacks.

Rodriguez and Akinduro have exhausted their eligibility, but Thomas returns as a bonafide All-America candidate in 2005.

The 6-3, 240-pound Lubbock native tied for the team lead with eight sacks, and rated second with 14 tackles for losses a year ago. He was credited with 62 takedowns. A superior athlete, Howard runs the 40 in 4.38 seconds. He has been named the preseason state defensive player of the year by Dave Campbell's Texas Football magazine -- the first Miner to earn such an honor on either side of the ball in the 46-year history of the prestigious publication.

Howard will be backed up by junior college import Jason McQuay and senior Anthony Barnes. McQuay posted major numbers last season at Victor Valley Junior College, racking up 115 stops and 27 tackles for losses. Barnes, who saw limited action a year ago, is penciled in as a reserve at three linebacker positions.

Juniors Troy Collavo and Jeremy Jones are projected starters at MIKE and WILL linebacker, respectively. Collavo contributed 25 stops and three tackles for losses in backup duty last year. Jones chipped in with 39 tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage.

Another junior college transfer, Alfonso Auelua, is the top backup to Collavo. Auelua was the leading tackler in the spring game with nine stops. He posted a team-high 120 takedowns at Cerritos Junior College in 2004.

Veteran Marshall Sanford has been moved from defensive back to linebacker and plugged into the WILL slot. The senior has been credited with 87 tackles in 31 career games.

"We're good at linebacker, but we don't have a lot of depth," Price said.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Despite the loss of starting ends Brian Givens and Ibok Ibok, UTEP has a lot of experience in this area.

Chris Mineo and Zach West started every game at left and right tackle, respectively. Mineo earned first team All-WAC honors after totaling 50 tackles, 13 tackles for losses and eight sacks. West added 40 stops -- including 12 for losses -- and was an honorable mention All-Conference selection.

Behind Mineo is junior Justin Hanel, who has played in 25 games over the last two years, and junior Jake Belshe.

Two junior college imports -- Ricky Van and Humberto Padilla -- will spell West. Van was All-Conference and team MVP in 2004 at San Bernardino Valley College. The 6-4, 300-pound Padilla was a part of the nation's top-ranked defense as a sophomore at San Francisco City College.

Senior Tevita Fifita and juniors Reggie Miles Jr., Alex Obomese and Joe Ward are all in the mix at end and have Division I game experience. Obomese and Ward are atop the depth chart at left and right end, respectively. Obomese was one of the Miners' most-improved players a year ago, raising his tackle total by 11 from 2003 in two fewer games. He finished with 36 stops, including seven for losses and 4.5 sacks. Ward is coming off a 12-tackle campaign.

Miles had 10 tackles in 2003, but sat out last season to concentrate on academics. Fifita, who recorded 10 stops a year ago, has played in 29 games for the Miners.

A promising newcomer is junior Justin Watson, who started his college career at New Mexico Highlands University.

"This is going to be an area of strength before all is said and done," Price said.

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Both corners will need to be replaced -- Jahmal Fenner and Adrian Ward, who turned in sensational senior seasons. Senior James Delgardo, who was impressive in five games before suffering a season-ending injury, is back and listed as the starting left corner. Junior college transfers Josh Ferguson and Bryant Tisdale are his backups.

Junior Nate Draughon is the favorite to start at right corner. He had 19 tackles (15 solos) in 2004 and was one of the Miners' most-improved players in the spring. Junior Tim McCullouch will add depth. He was a first team All-Conference pick at Cerritos Junior College a year ago.

The safety positions return intact save for Mark Dowdy who played in 36 contests, including two bowl games, while at UTEP. Junior Joe Fleskoski and sophomore Quintin Demps are returning starters at strong safety and free safety, respectively.

Fleskoski ranked third among defensive backs with 49 tackles despite missing three games with a knee injury. Demps had a banner freshman year, tallying 58 stops. He scored two touchdowns, one off a 51-yard fumble recovery and another on a 43-yard interception. He was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.

Senior Cedric Click will back up Fleskoski. Junior Phillip Moss and sophomore Emeri Spence stand behind Demps.

"Our secondary has enough good guys," Price said. "It's a matter of figuring out who is going to play."

SPECIAL TEAMS
Ryan Hotchkiss, a transfer from Palomar Junior College, takes over for four-year punter Bryce Benekos, who ended his career ranked second in the UTEP record books with 254 punts for 10,468 yards. Hotchkiss averaged 40.9 yards per attempt last season.

Junior kicker Reagan Schneider returns after scoring a team-leading 97 points last season. He was 15 for 20 on field goals and 52 for 53 on extra points. Schneider made eight of 11 field goal attempts from 40+ yards in 2004. He has successfully converted his last 52 PAT tries.

Kickoff return possibilities are junior Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jr. and sophomore Marcus Thomas. Seniors James Delgardo, Tyler Ebell and Aaron Givens will be utilized on punt returns. Higgins had a 22.1-yard kickoff return average a year ago, and Delgardo averaged 9.8 yards on punt returns. Ebell piled up 295 yards on punt returns and 269 on kickoff returns while at UCLA.

 

 

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