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Miners, Sun Devils Ready to Rumble

Special to the N.E.T. Sports Gazette

EL PASO, Texas - UTEP opens the 2004 season -- its 87th of football -- at Arizona State on Thursday, Sept. 2 in Tempe.  Kickoff is slated for 8:08 p.m. Mountain time (7:08 p.m. Pacific) at 73,379-seat Frank Kush Field/Sun Devil Stadium.

UTEP is opening a season on a day other than Saturday for the first time since 1947, when the Miners played at Drake on Sept. 19 -- a Friday contest.

The last time UTEP played a regular season game on a day other than Saturday was on Friday, Oct. 2, 1981 at Utah.

UTEP ON THURSDAYS: UTEP is 18-9-1 all-time in Thursday regular season games (4-4 on the road).  The last Thursday regular season game was on Nov. 19, 1970 at Trinity.  The Miners were originally slated to face Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, but the game was cancelled as a result of the attack on America on Sept. 11.

UTEP is 2-0-1 against Arizona State on Thursdays with meetings during the 1925, 1927 and 1937 seasons. The Miners are 0-1 in season openers on Thursdays, falling to Arizona on Oct. 6, 1927 by a 28-6 count.

ON THE AIR: The game will be televised in El Paso on Time Warner Cable Channel 7 in a simulcast with KROD 600 AM, UTEP's flagship station.  The announcers are Jon Teicher (play-by-play) and Bernie Ricono (color commentary).  Teicher returns for his 24th season as "Voice of the Miners."  Ricono was the Miners' defensive coordinator from 1977-79.  The Countdown to Kickoff Show precedes the radio broadcast at 7 p.m. Mountain time.

PRICE MAKES DEBUT: The Arizona State game marks the UTEP coaching debut of 1997 National Coach of the Year Mike Price.  He was named the Miners' 24th head coach on Dec. 21, 2003. 

Price has compiled a 129-122 record in 22 years as a head coach at Weber State (1981-88) and Washington State (1989-2002).  He directed the Cougars to three 10-win seasons (1997, 2001, 2002), and compiled a 20-5 mark in his last two years at Washington State.  During his 14 years in Pullman, Price coached five players who were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, including quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf.

SPEAKING OF DEBUTS: UTEP coaches have posted an all-time record of 8-15 in their debuts.  Tommy Dwyer (1914), George B. Powell (1924), Mack Saxon (1929), Ben Collins (1957), Warren Harper (1963), Bobby Dobbs (1965), Bill Yung (1982) and Bob Stull (1986) were each victorious in their first game on the sideline.  Powell, Saxon, Dobbs and Stull went on to post winning records during their stints with the Miners.

Only five UTEP coaches won their first road game -- Collins (1957), Dobbs (1965), Yung (1982), Stull (1986) and David Lee (1989).

UTEP IN OPENERS: The Miners are 36-45-5 in season opening games, including 7-29-2 on the road.  UTEP has dropped 10 of its last 12 season openers, registering victories in 1999 and 2002.  UTEP hasn't won an opener on the road since prevailing at I-10 rival New Mexico State, 20-17, on Sept. 4, 1982.  Since then the Miners have lost 11 consecutive season openers away from El Paso.

UTEP is opening a season on the road for the 10th time in 12 years.

UTEP VERSUS THE PAC-10: The Miners have registered a 24-73-5 record all-time versus schools currently in the Pacific 10 Conference, including an 11-43-1 mark on the road.  The Miners won at 14th-ranked Arizona State, 31-27, on Nov. 2, 1974.  To this day, it is UTEP's only road victory over a team ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.

Since upending the Sun Devils in 1974, the Miners have lost 14 consecutive road games to Pac-10 schools while being outscored 570-143.  Overall, UTEP has lost 18 in a row to Pac-10 squads.

A Pac-10 team lines UTEP's schedule for the fourth time in seven years (Oregon 1998 and 1999, Arizona 1999 and 2003, Arizona State 2004).

THE SERIES: Arizona State leads the UTEP series 32-13-3, including a 20-5 edge in games played between the schools in Tempe.  The Sun Devils have won seven in a row over the Miners, and 24 of the last 25.

The teams are meeting for the first time since 1995, and just the second time in 17 years.  UTEP and Arizona State met regularly from 1925-78, and were both members of the Western Athletic Conference from 1968-77.

UTEP Coach Mike Price has posted a 6-6 record versus the Sun Devils (3-3 in Tempe), all at Washington State.  Price is 4-0 against teams coached by Dirk Koetter.

UTEP/ASU TIES: Arizona State Head Coach Dirk Koetter was an assistant at UTEP from 1986-88.  Koetter was the Miners' quarterbacks coach in 1986 and offensive coordinator from 1987-88, working under head coach Bob Stull.  Stull, who is now UTEP's director of athletics, posted a 21-15 record as head coach over three seasons.

Six Miner players hail from the state of Arizona -- junior DB Andre Bailey (Phoenix), sophomore DL Jake Belshe (St. Johns), freshman DB Rocco Bene (Tucson), freshman TE Jamar Hunt (Mesa), senior TE Justin Hunt (Mesa) and freshman RB Marcus Thomas (Phoenix).

UTEP ON THE ROAD: The Miners have struggled away from home in recent years.  UTEP has won only one of its last 21 road contests dating back to the end of the 2000 season.  The Miners snapped a 17-game road losing skein with a 21-19 triumph at SMU last season.  The last time UTEP posted a winning road record in a season was 1988 (4-2), when the Miners parlayed a 10-3 record into an Independence Bowl appearance.

PAC-10 STAFF: Nine members of the UTEP coaching unit have previous experience coaching in the Pacific 10 Conference -- head coach Mike Price (Washington State), defensive coordinator Tim Hundley (Oregon State/UCLA/ Washington State), offensive coordinator Eric Price (Washington State), running backs/punters coach Jeff Banks (Washington State), cornerbacks coach Jim Clark (Washington State), offensive line coach Lawrence Livingston, Sr. (Arizona/Washington State), defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe (Washington), quarterbacks/kickers coach Aaron Price (Washington State) and safeties coach Jeff Woodruff (Arizona/Washington). 

Banks, Clark, Malloe and Aaron Price -- as well as defensive graduate assistant Trevor Highfield -- all earned their bachelor's degrees from Pac-10 institutions.

Seven of UTEP's coaches have Rose Bowl experience -- Mike Price, Tim Hundley, Jim Clark, Lawrence Livingston Sr., Ikaika Malloe, Aaron Price and Jeff Woodruff.

UTEP PICKED EIGHTH: The Miners have been picked to finish eighth in the Western Athletic Conference this season by league media.  Boise State is picked first (434 points), followed by Fresno State (427), Hawaii (384), Tulsa (312), Nevada (256), Rice (212), Louisiana Tech (199), UTEP (179), SMU (95) and San Jose State (87).

2003 FLASHBACK: UTEP was 2-11 last season, taking ninth place in the Western Athletic Conference with a 1-7 record.  The Miners opened the season with four consecutive defeats, then recorded back-to-back wins over Sam Houston State (59-14) and SMU (21-19) before closing the year on a seven-game losing skid.

Four Miners earned All-WAC honors.  Senior OL Trey Darilek and junior RB Howard Jackson were first team selections, while junior P Bryce Benekos and junior LB Robert Rodriguez were tabbed to the second team.

UTEP compiled 4,771 yards of offense -- the second-best figure in school annals -- and 248 first downs (third in school history) in 2003.

MEDIA TAKES NOTICE: The hiring of Mike Price has brought a great deal of national attention to the UTEP football program.  Over the last month alone, television crews from ESPN, Fox Sports Net Southwest and College Sports Television (CSTV) have made visits to Miner practices.  Also in attendance have been writers from the Associated Press Dallas bureau, Albuquerque Journal, Arizona Republic, Denver Post and ESPN The Magazine.  USA Today also ran a piece on Price via the Reno Gazette Journal in late July.

ALL IN THE FAMILY: When it comes to the UTEP football coaching staff, the Price is right -- times three.  Father Mike is the head coach, and sons Aaron and Eric are the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, respectively.  Although the Prices bring a combined 56 years of coaching experience to the gridiron, 2004 marks the first time that they have worked together on the same staff.  Eric played for his father at Weber State in 1988, and Aaron was Mike Price's kicker at Washington State from 1991-93.

THEY'RE BACK: When he was hired as UTEP's head coach in December 2003, Mike Price opted to retain three members of the previous coaching staff.  Returning in 2004 are linebackers coach Tim Duffie, offensive graduate assistant/tight ends coach Brian Natkin and Director of Football Operations Nate Poss.  Poss is the elder member of the Miner staff.  He is beginning his eighth tour of duty in the Sun City.

BREAKING DOWN THE 2004 MINERS: The 2004 UTEP roster features 98 players -- 21 seniors, 31 juniors, 23 sophomores and 23 freshmen.  The Miners have a large senior class for the first time since 1998, when they had 25 seniors (UTEP had 13 seniors in 2000 and 2001, 16 in 2002 and seven in 2003).

UTEP returns 54 letterwinners (24 offense/27 defense/three specialists).    The Miners have 34 players who have started at least one collegiate game (17 on both sides of the ball).  Senior TE Jonas Crafts has made the most career starts on offense (21), while senior DB Jahmal Fenner and senior LB Robert Rodriguez are tied for the most starts on defense (25 apiece).

For only the second time since 1988, UTEP does not have a true freshman in the depth chart for the season opener (this also happened in 2002).

The depth chart for the Arizona State game is composed of five redshirt freshmen, 13 sophomores, 22 juniors and 17 seniors -- including 10 seniors in starting assignments.

C-USA IN ‘05: UTEP will join the realigned Conference USA in July, 2005.  The Miners will be grouped in the league's Western Division with Houston, Rice, SMU, Tulane and Tulsa.  UTEP has been a member of the Western Athletic Conference since September 1967, and has won 20 team national titles as WAC members.  The most famous was the 1966 men's basketball national championship, in which legendary coach Don Haskins made history by starting five black players.  To this day, UTEP is the only school in the state of Texas to capture a national title in men's basketball.

TOUGH START: UTEP's first six games are against Arizona State, Weber State, Boise State, New Mexico State, Fresno State and Hawaii -- teams that posted a combined record of 47-31 (.603) in 2003.  Three of those teams -- Boise State, Fresno State and Hawaii -- are coming off bowl seasons, while Arizona State was a Holiday Bowl participant just two years ago.

If the Miners can weather the early-season storm, the last five contests are versus Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, Rice, SMU and Tulsa -- teams with a composite mark of 21-39 (.350) a year ago.  And that includes Tulsa's 8-5 record, which catapulted the Golden Hurricane into the Humanitarian Bowl.

OH BROTHER: UTEP has four brother combinations on its 2004 roster: the Espinosas (OL Luis and OL Robert), the Givens (WR Aaron and RB Johan), the Hunts (TE Jamar and TE Justin) and the Jones (LB Jeremy and DB Victor).

3.0 CLUB: Thirteen Miners had grade point averages of 3.0 or better at the conclusion of the spring 2004 semester.  They are sophomore DL Jake Belshe, senior P Bryce Benekos, freshman QB Joe Castro, senior DB Matt Elwood, junior DL Tevita Fifita, senior DL Brian Givens, senior OL Ben Graniello, freshman TE Jamar Hunt, senior DB Victor Jones, senior OL Bo Morris, senior DB Mike Perez, freshman DL James Riley and sophomore PK Reagan Schneider.

Four Miners are playing the 2004 season as graduate students -- Givens, Graniello, senior TE Justin Hunt and Morris.

JACKSON READY FOR MORE ACTION: Senior RB Howard Jackson, a Doak Walker Award candidate, will resume his assault on the Miner recordbooks on Thursday at Arizona State.  The slight (5-9, 160) but speedy (4.26 time in the 40) Jackson ranks fifth in career rushing yardage (2,279), seventh in yards per carry (5.32) and rushing attempts (428), and 10th in rushing touchdowns (15).  The Freeport, Texas native has had nine career 100-yard rushing games, tied for the fourth-top total in school annals, including six last season.

With one season left in the orange, white and blue, Jackson stands to obliterate UTEP's career all-purpose yardage record.  He has 4,361 all-purpose yards -- tops in school history -- and has averaged 132.2 all-purpose yards per contest (second in the UTEP books behind Chuck Hughes' 133.0 average).  Last season Jackson racked up 2,146 all-purpose yards, shattering Hughes' single-season mark which had stood for nearly 40 years.

Jackson also rates third on the Miner charts in kickoff returns (69) and kickoff return yardage (1,619).  UTEP coaches have hinted that he could be utilized on punt returns as well this fall.  Jackson hasn't returned punts since his freshman year (2001), when he had one return for five yards at Rice.

MORE ON JACKSON: Howard Jackson was chosen first team All-WAC by three preseason publications (Athlon, Lindy's, Street & Smith's), as well as an honorable mention All-American by Street & Smith's.  He was rated a "Special Teams Demon" in the WAC by Lindy's, as well as a "Top 10 NFL Talent" in the league by that publication.

He was first in the WAC and fourth in the country in all-purpose yards (165.1 avg.) last season.  The three players who were ahead of Jackson at the national level -- Memphis RB DeAngelo Williams,Kansas State RB Darren Sproles and Central Michigan RB Jerry Seymour -- all return for the 2004 campaign.

BIG NUMBERS FOR RODRIGUEZ: Senior LB Robert Rodriguez has amassed a whopping 322 tackles in his career despite having a down year (50 stops) in 2002.  He has led the WAC in tackles two of the last three years, registering 137 stops in 2001 and 135 in 2003.

An El Paso native and converted running back, Rodriguez had a personal best 22 stops against SMU and Rice in 2001.  He has posted double-digit tackles in 18 career games, including nine of the last 10 contests in 2003.

Rodriguez's 322 career tackles rate sixth among all active players heading into the 2004 campaign.

MORE ON RODRIGUEZ: Robert Rodriguez's preseason honors include first team All-WAC by Athlon, The Sporting News, Street & Smith's and Lindy's; honorable mention All-American by Street & Smith's; and second team All-Texas by Dave Campbell's Texas Football.  He is rated the 14th-best inside linebacker in the country by The Sporting News.

Rodriguez needs just 13 tackles to move into a tie for 10th place on the UTEP career chart.  He is trying to become only the fourth Miner to lead the team in tackles in three seasons this fall.  This was previously achieved by Raymond Morris (1980-81-82-83), Barron Wortham (1990-91-92-93) and Micheal Comer (1994-95-96).  Morris, Wortham and Comer all went on to enjoy NFL stints.  Morris was with Chicago, Comer was with Arizona and Wortham was with Houston, Tennessee and Dallas.

Rodriguez is on the watch lists for the Butkus Award and Rotary Lombardi Award, presented to the nation's best linebacker and finest lineman respectively.

BENEKOS MOVING UP CHARTS: Senior P Bryce Benekos rates third in school history in punts (192) and punting yards (7,736).  His punting average has risen steadily in three years with the Miners, from 34.5 as a freshman to 40.8 and 44.1 last season.  His 44.1 average in 2003 stands as the fourth-best seasonal figure in UTEP history.  He was also second in the WAC and 13th nationally in punting a year ago.  Benekos finished the season strong, averaging 46.3 yards per punt over the last nine games.  He booted his career-long punt for 76 yards against Cal Poly.

A three-time Academic All-WAC pick who got married during the offseason, Benekos is on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, presented to the nation's best punter.  His 44.1 average in 2003 ranks 11th among returning players this season.

PALMER WINS QB JOB: Sophomore Jordan Palmer was the victor in UTEP's three-man quarterback derby, which carried over into two-a-day drills.  The 6-5, 230-pound Palmer edged senior Omar Duarte and junior Orlando Cruz for the job.  All three signal-callers have started five or more games at the collegiate level. 

Palmer started six games as a redshirt freshman in 2003, including five of the last six contests.  He ended the year 98 for 198 passing, with 1,168 yards.  Palmer also had seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions.  He completed 52 percent (77-148) of his passes as a starter, and 42 percent (21-50) as a reserve.  However, Palmer averaged an interception every 13 pass attempts as a starter, compared to one for every 25 attempts off the bench.

Palmer is the younger brother of Carson Palmer, winner of the 2002 Heisman Trophy at USC and the first pick by Cincinnati in the 2003 NFL Draft.

O-LINE IS YOUNGEST UNIT: UTEP's biggest graduation losses from 2003 are in the offensive line.  Three starters have departed -- RG Robert Clayton, LT Trey Darilek and C Chris Kerr.  Darilek was chosen by Philadelphia in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft.

Two of this year's projected starters -- junior LG Jose Garcia and senior RT Robert Espinosa -- have started 10 and 18 career games, respectively.  Senior RG Ben Graniello has started on four occasions.  Senior Bo Morris and junior Josh House -- who are penciled in at center and left tackle respectively -- have yet to start for the Miners and have played in four games between them.

MINEO ANCHORS LINE: Junior DL Chris Mineo missed all of spring drills with a broken arm resulting from a weight-lifting accident.  He is healthy now and expected to lead a veteran Miner defensive line which boasts five players (Tevita Fifita, Ibok Ibok, Reggie Miles Jr., Mineo, Joe Ward) who have started games at the collegiate level.

An Odessa product, Mineo led all Miner defensive linemen -- and ranked fourth on the team -- with 70 stops a year ago.  He also posted a team-leading nine quarterback pressures and four fumble recoveries.  Mineo was appointed to The Sporting News' All-WAC Freshman Team following a breakout season in 2002.

DEPTH AT TIGHT END: After injuries decimated UTEP's tight ends corps in 2003, the Miners appear to have strength in numbers this fall.  Senior Jonas Crafts was leading UTEP in catches (24) and yards (256) before missing the last five games with a separated shoulder.  He is a Mackey Award candidate.  In Crafts' absence sophomore Casey Mauch stepped up and tallied 11 catches for 108 yards (9.8 avg.).  A promising newcomer is redshirt freshman Jake Sears, who was a standout linebacker at Fredericksburg (Texas) High School before moving to the other side of the ball in El Paso.

FROM THE WEIGHT ROOM: Some noteworthy numbers from the Miner strength and conditioning program ... senior RB Howard Jackson has been timed at 4.26 in the 40, while sophomore WR Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jr. has been timed at 4.28 and freshman DB Quintin Demps at 4.31.  UTEP's team average in the 40 is 4.79 seconds, down from 4.95 in 2003.  Junior LB Thomas Howard, at 230 pounds, has posted a 4.38 time in the 40.

Nine Miners have registered vertical jumps of 40 inches or better, compared to two in 2003.  Twenty-six players have vertical jumps of over 35 inches.

Senior DLs Ibok Ibok and Aaron Osborn can both bench press 429 pounds.  Twenty-five players bench pressed 350+ pounds over the summer, compared to 17 in the summer of 2003.

Junior WR Jayson Boyd has achieved a standing long jump of 10 feet seven inches.  Junior DB Cedric Click has the top vertical jump on the team at 42.5 inches.

MINER NUGGETS: For the first time since 1996, UTEP has two players returning who are coming off 100-tackle seasons.  They are senior LB Robert Rodriguez (135 stops in 2003) and junior LB Thomas Howard (118).  Eight years ago, the Miners also welcomed back a pair of 100-tackle performers in Micheal Comer and David Terrell...head coach Mike Price's first UTEP recruiting class features a pair of former Parade All-Americans in running backs Tyler Ebell and Marcus Thomas.  Ebell, a transfer from UCLA, has to sit out this season and will have one year of eligibility in 2005.  Price says he didn't recruit one Parade All-American to Washington State, where he enjoyed great success from 1989-2002...nine former Miners are on NFL rosters -- DB Crance Clemons (Colts), OT Trey Darilek (Eagles), C Jon Dorenbos (Bills), K Ola Kimrin (Redskins), DE Demetrious Maxie (49ers), WR Lee Mays (Steelers), RB Paul Smith (Lions), CB David Terrell (Raiders) and DT Brian Young (Saints).  UTEP has had six players drafted in the last five years...two Miner standouts from the 1950's -- Don Maynard and Jesse Whittenton-- will be inducted into the UTEP Athletic Hall of Fame on Sept. 17.  Maynard is already in the NFL Hall of Fame...senior DB Jahmal Fenner is second in school history in punt returns (65), fourth in punt return yardage (593), sixth in kickoff return yardage (1,147) and seventh in kickoff returns (48)...two receivers -- junior Chris Francies and sophomore Johnnie Lee Higgins, Jr. -- have had 100-yard games at UTEP.  Junior RB Matt Austin has gone over the century mark in rushing twice.

Sunday August 29, 2004

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Copyright 2002-2004 The North East Texas Sports Gazette

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