Around here, everyone figures this is the Year of the Miner.
"Our program's goals are a winning season and a bowl bid," said UTEP football coach David Lee.Fairly lofty goals, for a team that hasn't had a winning season in the three years Lee has been head coach.
The main reason for the optimism is that the Miners came so close last year. They lost five WAC games by a total of 22 points and tied Wyoming. Lee estimates that four of those losses were decided by a single play in the fourth quarter.
"We could have won eight games last year," Lee said of his team's 4-7-1 season.
Still, it's a big jump from winning four games to winning the eight it probably would take to earn a bowl bid, especially when a team appears to still be weak in areas it was weak in last year.
Lee acknowledges that most of UTEP's losses were a result of special teams breakdowns or the inability of the offense to move, particularly deep in opponents' territory. As evidence, the Miners attempted 25 field goals last year - most in the WAC. BYU, by comparison, attempted 10.
It's hard to evaluate special teams until games are played, but the Miner offense doesn't show much promise of being vastly improved. Four linemen are gone from last year's squad, as well as the three top receivers, who accounted for 62.5 percent of the team's receptions. And that team ranked last in the WAC in total offense.
At quarterback, junior Mike Perez is out with tendonitis in his throwing elbow, which gives the starting job to sophomore Shawn Gray. Last year, Gray threw 33 passes and completed just 13. He was 0 for 5 in a relief role against BYU. He's more noted for his running, and did average 4.3 yards per carry in '91, but if you want to win in the WAC, you better have a quarterback that can throw. Especially if you're running a run-and-shoot offense.
The area that should continue to be the Miners' strength is defense. They return seven starters from a unit that forced 27 turnovers, made 43 sacks and yielded 377.4 yards and 21 points per game. There's a new defensive coordinator, which might be cause for concern except that it's Mike Tolleson, who comes from a successful program at Stanford.
"I think if everybody stays healthy, we'll be a pretty salty outfit," Tolleson said. "The thing I was most pleased with after spring practice was that we threw a brand new defense at our players and they adjusted real well."
But despite the same-offense, same-defense evaluation, Lee is optimistic about this season because of a change in attitude.
"The biggest difference now is confidence," he said. "Our players expect to win now, and I couldn't have said that three years ago."
"We proved to a lot of people we could contend with the WAC last year," said outside linebacker Pat Cannon. "Our motto since spring has been `We're going to finish games.' "
Not exactly catchy, but it's a start.