NCAA Football Preview - FIU Panthers
08/19/2014 12:13 PM
08/19/2014 12:26 PM
It was coach Ron Turner's first season at the helm, after he took over an FIU squad coming off a 3-9 record following the 2012 campaign. The Panthers were a start-up program competing at the FCS level in 2002, and moved up to the FBS in their fourth year. The team's only two winning seasons came back in 2010 (7-6) and 2011 (8-5).
FIU's lack of offense was the biggest killer a year ago. Two quarterbacks - Jake Medlock and E.J. Hilliard - combined to throw for just eight touchdown passes the entire season, compared to 10 interceptions between the two of them. Running backs Silas Spearman and Lamarq Caldwell provided the offensive highlights statistically. Spearman ran for four touchdowns while Caldwell scampered for 504 yards on 144 carries.
Opponents were able to secure 444 first downs against the FIU defense in 2013, while the Panthers achieved just 117 first downs through 12 games. One of the few positive stats for FIU last season came off the foot of place kicker Austin Taylor, who booted a 52-yard field goal - his long of the year.
OFFENSE: FIU returns nine offensive starters from last season's dismal campaign. Caldwell - the team's leading rusher - and Spearman are both returning and should share the backfield once again.
The Panthers also return the entire offensive line, along with starting tight end Jonnu Smith, who led the team a year ago with 39 catches for 388 yards. He added two touchdown grabs to his stat line.
"I feel another year understanding coach Turner's schemes and everything, we feel more confident," center Donald Senat said. "Adding that plus a great offseason that we had conditioning - getting bigger, stronger, faster - we feel as though right now we could play without thinking. We could just go out and execute the plays that we're assigned to."
The most noted position battle during the summer months is at the most important position on the field - quarterback. Medlock is no longer on the squad, but Hilliard returns as the veteran of the bunch as a junior. But he's expected to get a push from true freshmen Alex McGough and Bud Martin. Hilliard is the returning statistical leader at the position, having thrown for 775 yards and three touchdowns to four interceptions last year. Needless to say, the outlook for the FIU quarterback position in 2014 is muddy, but brings new hope in the form of the freshmen.
The receiving position has been an uphill battle for consistency following the departure of T.Y. Hilton to the NFL ranks. Hilton, who is FIU's all-time leading receiver with 3,531 yards, was a staple on the 2011 squad, and has found success with the Indianapolis Colts at the next level. But since his days in Miami, the Panthers haven't been able to reel in anything special.
Smith was the only FIU player to catch a pass in all 12 games last season. But the core receivers return in Clinton Taylor and T.J. Lowder. Lowder pulled in 24 catches for 307 yards and a team-high three touchdowns in 2013, while Taylor was held scoreless but still managed 19 receptions for 238 yards. Ya'Keem Griner, who hauled in two scoring grabs a year ago, is also back for the 2014 season.
DEFENSE: The Panthers lose their top two tacklers from last season, but retain plenty of depth on the defensive side after returning seven starters for 2014.
The strong point on the defensive side of the ball should be the secondary, as both safeties and a cornerback return for FIU. Justin Halley, who notched 53 tackles in 2013, leads the way for the Panthers. Halley, who is the team's leading returning tackler, notched a team-high eight pass breakups and three interceptions from his safety spot a year ago. The 6-foot-3 senior is joined by safety Demarkus Perkins and cornerback Randy Harvey for secondary returnees. Both Harvey and Perkins recorded four pass breakups each in 2013. Sophomore Jordan Davis (47 tackles) is the favorite to win the strong safety job.
Luis Rosado and Davison Colimon each return to their spots in the linebacking corps. Rosado registered 44 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in 2013, while Colimon added 22 tackles to the FIU cause. The defensive line will return standout Denzell Perine. Perine and DE Michael Wakefield recorded a combined 3.5 sacks in 2013 and 4.5 tackles for loss. Giovani Francois will be a factor on the line as well, and is expected to compete for a starting job at defensive end.
The Panthers struggled to hold opponents down last season, and surrendered 429.7 yards per game to opponents. With a number of starters returning including a strong defensive backfield, FIU should see some improvement in keeping opponents' numbers down. But the improvement will likely only be minimal.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both the place kicker Austin Taylor and punter Chris Ayers are returning to the program for the 2014 season as sophomores. Taylor went 8- of-12 in field goal attempts in 2013 with the long kick of 52 yards. Ayers punted 50 times with an average of 35.4 yards per punt, which included a long of 56 yards. He downed seven inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
OUTLOOK: Much of the success for Turner's squad will fall on which quarterback wins the starting job, and whether he can keep the spot. There's no doubt the Panthers lacked any offensive threat last season, which was highlighted by their 219 total offensive yards per game average.
If Hilliard wins the starting job, he'll need to be more consistent passing the ball, and much more efficient. The 117 total first downs last season won't be nearly enough to compete with the opposition, especially since the Panthers have back-to-back games against national powers Pittsburgh and Louisville in weeks three and four.
"I like the attitude, like the effort, and love the aggressiveness," Turner said after a day of practice. "(The players) are handling it well, still making some mistakes in certain situations. Just got to get the kinks out."
The only team FIU was able to beat last season (Southern Miss, 24-23) isn't on the schedule for 2014. But the Panthers do face two FCS teams to kick off the year in Daytona Beach-based Bethune-Cookman and the Northeast Conference's Wagner. Following the Louisville contest on Sept. 20, the Panthers will kick off Conference-USA play.
The road back to a winning season won't be easy or, in all likelihood, too quick for FIU, but after a dismal season in 2013, almost anything is an improvement.
Join the Discussion
News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.