Junior-led UTEP expecting better than another two-win season

Updated: August 12, 2003, 6:39 PM ET

EL PASO, Texas -- It's been a bruising couple of years for Texas-El Paso coach Gary Nord and his Miners -- in every sense.

Injuries at key positions have contributed to consecutive two-win seasons and second-to-last finishes in the Western Athletic Conference.

"They got beat up mentally, they got physically hurt and injured," Nord said, noting that he had to start 44 players last year because so many starters were knocked out. "That's the most I've ever had."

The flip side is the Miners have a lot of experienced players back. So if the injury bug bites again, the team should have more depth. Then again, Nord is hopeful his players will stay healthier after seeing participation in the offseason conditioning program double.

Most of all, Nord is sticking with his strategy of redshirting nearly all his freshmen and sparingly using junior college transfers. It's all about building a program for the long term. For instance, this year's team is packed with juniors, which means they'll be a senior-led squad next season.

It could be a risky way to keep a job, but Nord insists he'll be around to see his plan out in 2004, even if he loses every game this season.

"Obviously, our goal is to win all of them. A realistic goal to set for our team would be to win more than we lose," he said.

In 2000, Nord's first year, the Miners won eight games and earned a share of the WAC title. It was UTEP's first winning season since 1988. The Miners plunged to 2-9 in 2001 and 2-10 last season.

Going into this season, there are still some major questions marks, such as who will be the starting quarterback.

Junior Jon Schaper is an all-around athlete with game experience who can run. Orlando Cruz, a sophomore, has the best arm. Omar Duarte, a junior who took over last year after Schaper and Cruz went out with injuries, is cool under pressure.

Then there's Jordan Palmer, a redshirt freshman and brother of Heisman Trophy winner quarterback Carson Palmer.

"He's a good athlete for his size," Nord said. "He has very good instincts, a lot of football sense, a lot of leadership qualities."

Nord likes his receiving corps, even though the most experienced player is Dirk Dillard, a junior with just 24 career catches.

"It will give us the ability to go to a four-wide package if we want to," Nord said. "It's a new personnel grouping we didn't use the past two years."

Junior tailback Howard Jackson is expected to move the Miners on the ground. He's averaged 74.5 yards rushing over his last 14 games.

The best news for the offense is that the line should be solid.

"Everybody's got a lot of experience going into this season," said tackle Trey Darilek, a three-year starter. "Everybody knows what's expected out of them."

Nord said the defensive line has depth and experience, and there's a solid kicking game.

Junior Bryce Benekos ranked second in the WAC in punting last season with a 40.8 average. Keith Robinson, another junior, had two 50-yard field goals last season, including a 59-yarder to beat Rice.

With seven home games, including one against Division I-AA Cal Poly, the schedule may give UTEP a boost as well.

But has the team lost confidence after winning only four of the last 23 games?

"That's the whole idea of recruiting character kids with the toughness and demeanor you're looking for," Nord said. "The hair on the back of their neck comes up and it (angers) them. That's what we're seeing."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index