July 31, 2014

Midsummer Late Night Dreams

Monday's the first football practice. Aug. 22 is the first athletic event of the 2014-15 academic year, women's soccer hosting Arizona. Aug. 30, kickoff vs. Bethune-Cookman.

Who shrunk summer from back in the day, when it ran from Memorial Day to Jerry Lewis Telethon? Good golly, the week of no parking at Camp Mitch will be upon us soon.

Football coach Ron Turner said last week he was happy with recruiting for 2015 so far, especially coming off 1-11. He's certainly getting them out of Homestead, where he scored a committment from defensive back Ocie Rose. Rose transferred from Homestead to Booker T. Washington for his senior season, just as FIU commit Maurice Alexander did this year.

Ratings on Rose are all over the place. Rivals puts him at three stars. Scout.com puts him at two. ESPN.com and 247Sports.com don't have him rated themselves, but 247Sports has him at three stars on their composite rating. At 6-1, 185, Rose bloomed into a big safety who forced two fumbles last year in his 47 tackles.

Two-way interior lineman Richerd Desir-Jones, 6-4, 300, out of Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas gave his pledge to FIU. He's rated at three stars by Rivals and Scout.com, unrated by ESPN.com and 247Sports.com. 

Orange Park Fleming Island center Neal Mars, 6-4, 275, also wears an FIU pledge pin for 2015. He's unrated by the four recruiting sites.

For what it's worth...247Sports has FIU's 2015 class rated 94th nationally, ninth in Conference USA. Scout.com has FIU rated 90th nationally, seventh in C-USA. Rivals puts FIU 91st overall, sixth in conference. Lot of months, a lot of games, a lot of standardized tests and a lot of grades between now and Signing Day. Plenty of time to move in either direction.

BASEBALL

First baseman Gunnar McNeill was picked as the Valley Baseball League's Staunton Braves MVP after leading the league in hitting (.402) and RBI (50) with a team-high six home runs. In the playoffs, he went four for eight with a double and two RBI. For FIU, McNeill also pitches. He made three apperances for Staunton, once as a starter and had a 9.00 ERA in six innings pitched.

WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

We do like our academic achievement around here. So belated big ups to the women's basketball team for their 3.37 grade point average being Conference USA's best in women's hoop.

NFL TRAINING CAMPS

The AP's Mark Long on former FIU safety Johnathan Cyprien.

 

 

 

 

July 23, 2014

From the FIU/East Division part of Conference USA Media Day

The story on FIU is here. What follows supplements that.

When asked about the change that gives the "offensive coordinator" title to offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler, last year's "run game coordinator," head coach Ron Turner said: 

“There were times last year when I was in with the defense and those guys were kind of waiting to give direction. Steve Shankweiler can take it and give direction for meetings and all that. The structure of how we do it is not going to change at all. I’m still going to call the plays.

"Steve will still be involved in it, the run game aspects of it. He’ll be able to take some of the offrensive team meetings and do some motivational stuff that he was a little reluctant to do last year when I was doing something else. He’ll head up the offensive team meetings, staff meetings and give it a little direction when I’m focused on other areas.”

I asked Turner about sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith. 

“To me, it’s amazing what he did last year as a true freshman, all the things we asked him to do – dplaying tight end, playing fullback, splitting him out as a receiver, going in motion, all the things we asked him to do in the running game and the passing game. It’s amazing how he handled it, emotionally and mentally. He’s a great young man.”

“The good news is, hopefully, he’ll have a little more help around him. We won’t have to put so much on his shoulders.”

Turner said he was happy with the depth on the offensive line, wide receivers and secondary and most concerned about the lack of depth on the defensive line.

The running back position will be by committee. Last year's transfer from Bowling Green, Anthon Samuel, will be a walk-on. That hit to the knee sophomore Silas Spearman took in the spring game looked worse than just a "tweak." Indeed, Spearman's knee remains ouchy. “I think he’ll be OK,” Turner said. "Shane Coleman had a great spring. Hopefully, he can continue.”

“We’re not going to have one feature guy. It’ll be a lot of guys playing. Whoever’s hot, keeps going.”

 

 MARSHALL

Most players came in slacks and a polo shirt in school colors with logo. The preseason Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and defensive lineman James Rouse, wore suits.

The players decided their attire on their own. Rouse said he saw players at other conference's Media Days in suits and thought it looked nice. But, also, he said, it symbolizes the "all business mentality" Marshall wants to adopt once official practices start.

The Thundering Herd, upset losers to Rice 41-24 in last year's conference title game, rank not just as the overwhelming conference favorite, but are considered a possible undefeated BCS buster. 

"We see ourselves as a good team," Rouse said. "We're working hard to prepare ourselves for each game. Right now, we're just worried about Miami of Ohio, the first game. We have to take care of business there before we (start thinking about the season)."

Cato said, "I think we have a good chance to have a great season. I love our team right now. I think we have a good shot to win it all."

FAU

If FIU's receivers didn't dribble more passes against FAU than former Owls point guard Ray Taylor dribbled basketballs for FIU last year, the Owls wouldn't have beaten FIU to become bowl eligible. And they didn't go to a bowl. Neither besmirches FAU's remarkable achievement in refusing to let its season get dragged into the Death Star trash compactor muck after head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis resigned amid illegal drug use allegations, Pelini always has denied he used illegal drugs. When Pelini tried to withdraw his resignation, he was fired. He later accused athletic director Pat Chun of dishonesty and desiring his own choice of football coach.

Whatever the truth of that mess, it could've been the final torpedo in a season that stood at 2-6 after Pelini's last game. Instead, helped by closing against Southern Mississippi, New Mexico State and FIU, the Owls won their last four games. Senior tight end Alex DeLeon said he never stopped during the season to think about the wackienss surrounding the coaching situation.

“I can’t control that," DeLeon said. "The only thing I can control is being a leader for our team.”

Oh, and, much like FIU, FAU doesn't like Western Kentucky. When I asked DeLeon and senior linebacker Andrae Kirk for a conference rival aside from their obvious geographic rival, both pointed to Western. The Hilltoppers beat FAU in FAU Stadium's first game. Also, Kirk said, Western's ground bound offense under previous coach Willie Taggart made for physical games against another team with more than a few Florida players.

Both players politely declined to mention that Western under Taggart could be cocky, yappy and a wee bit nasty, especially in victory. Maybe they forgot after a year separated from the Hilltoppers.

WESTERN KENTUCKY 

Besides, this is a very different Western than the one FIU and FAU left back in the Sun Belt for a season.

“Coach Taggart, he’s the one who helped get the program on its feet and transition to Division I-A," junior defensive end Gavin Rocker said. "Coach Petrino came in and led us to our best record since we’ve been there. Coach Brohm, there hasn’t been too much of a difference between he and Coach Petrino because he was the coordinator under Coach Petrino so it’s been a smooth transition. He’s a players’ coach. You can tell he cares about us."

When Taggart headed back to his native area to coach South Florida, Western jumped on Bobby Petrino and he brought a staff that included offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm. Yes, he's the brother of Brian Brohm, quarterback of Petrino's best teams at Louisville, and was his brother's quarterback coach at Louisville.

Now, with Petrino back in Louisville after serving his penance for his Arkansas indiscretions, Jeff Brohm takes over. Instead of winning games 14-7 old school Big Ten style, Western won them 34-31 or 35-26. Brohm's offense set 18 single-season school records and averaged 458.5 yards per game.  

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE

Conference USA's East Division could also be called C-USA Immigration & Naturalization. Four of the five teams that jumped from The Sun Belt to C-USA the last two academic years -- FIU, FAU, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky -- are in the East. They'll be joined by newbies Old Dominion and, next year, Charlotte.

“Conference USA is, top to bottom, more competitive," Middle coach Rick Stockstill said. "There’s a lot of great individual players in this conference. There’s a lot of great coaches in this conference. I think the facilities are at a higher level than the Sun Belt Conference schools. The professionalism and the organization of Conference USA is at a higher level than the Sun Belt.”

If everything's a step up, logic says program budgets must increase also. Or, should increase.

“I think we’ll see that this year," Stockstill said. "We had to pay an exit fee to leave the Sun Belt and we had to pay an entry fee for Conference USA, too. The money that we’ll receive from Conference USA I don’t think we’ll see the rewards of that until this year. With the bowl tie-ins, the TV packagres, the money you get is head and shoulders above the Sun Belt.”

Middle returns four running backs and one backup quarterback who had 100-yard rushing games in 2013 and eight starters on a defense that allowed 26.2 points per game. What they don't return quareterback Logan Kilgore. Sophomore Austin Grammer will get his shot at replacing Kilgore.

ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM

UAB beat one FBS team last year -- FIU. FIU beat only one FBS team -- Southern Mississippi. Southern Miss beat only one FBS team last year -- UAB. Change that. Southern Miss STOMPED UAB 62-27 in the season closer.

That finished the Garrick McGee era at UAB. Coming into a program that's gone 8-28 the last three seasons, new Blazers coach Bill Clark saw a scene reminiscent of what the incoming coaches saw at FIU in 2007.

"We started with the infrastructure," Clark said. "Do you have enough people training your guys in the strength program? Are they good at what they do? What's your nutrition look like? We needed a new locker room, so we built us a locker room. A video system...just some basics.

"Then, we went about the process of coming together. Were we working hard? Were we training correctly? Trying to make them into a family. Then, we had to go out and find some older guys to mix in with our guys because we were so young. Offensive line, we were down to eight players in spring (sound familiar FIU-philes?). Stuff that makes you say, "No wonder.""

Of Clark's signees, 15 were from junior colleges.

 

 

First Snatches from C-USA Media Day, Part I

Conference USA -- or Sun Belt 2010 Plus now that Western Kentucky joins this year -- put Commissioner Britt Banowsky and the West Division at the interview tables first at Wednesday football Media Day. The East Division, which includes your FIU Gilded Panthers, got sent to the live streaming interview room and take their seat at the tables later.

Barnowsky, who joked that Conference USA could be part of the group of mid-major conferences called The Second Five, said he thought conference realignment now would settle down: "There are better legal structures to hold conferences together. The idea that conference membership is like a country club membership, when you can leave when you want, is over."

Rivalries can develop. Athletes can know who's actually in their conference. None of the players I asked could name the Conference USA schools. North Texas' Derek Akunne came the closest, missing only Charlotte. After a handshake that left my right hand feeling like Fred Sanford's hand looked when he claimed his "ar-thur-itis" was acting up, Louisiana Tech's Tony Johnson got four schools then began looking around at the signs on the interview tables for hints.

None were ashamed -- nor should they be -- by that inability. They were amused, knowing it's more a commentary on the bed switching that's dominated college sports the last few years. The Rice players lamented they no longer play former Conference USA school Houston, 10 to 15 minutes down the road, and couldn't believe FIU didn't play the University of Miami ("You have to play that game.").

Barnowsky also said a new football helmet designed to redistribute a collision's impact so the brain doesn't take the full stress of the violence is in development at Alabama-Birmingham. He estimates a year at least before development's finished.

Instead of dropping a helmet from a height until it cracks, which Barnowsky described as the way current helmets were developed, are reaching for greater realism.

"(Dropping a helmet) doesn't in any way simulate what's happening on the field," Barnowsky said. "What the folks at UAB are doing is recreating what happens on the field through high technical video. Then, they're programming the dummies and sleds to reenact exact hits, such as the big hit in The Iron Bowl, Alabama-Auburn, where the kid got knocked out. Then, they measure the impact through sensors inside the dummies. We're excited to partner with them on that project. The person who's doing it, Dean Sicking, developed the crash wall for NASCAR after the (Dale) Earnhardt (fatal) crash."

Pick your bigger Conference USA 2013 surprise: Rice winning the conference or Texas-San Antonio, in its third season of football, going 7-5 overall and 6-2 in the conference. I asked head coach Larry Coker what factors put the zoom in the Roadrunners program development.

"I think we have an excellent staff," Coker said. "Texas high school football, recruiting. No Division I football in San Antonio. The Alamodome is a great place to recruit to. Honestly, myself having won a national championship -- not that that gets anybody -- but I think it gets their attention. They say, 'Maybe if this guy believes in it, we can believe in it, too.'"

Coker also said this was the first time he was at a school with good facilities.

 

July 21, 2014

What Do You Want to Know?

One of the Dallas Airport Marriott's -- which are about as far away from the DFW Airport as South Beach is from MIA -- will host a flurry of preseason football activity Wednesday when Conference USA hosts its Media Day.

Each school's head coach along with two players from each team get to spread the summer gospel of optimism. Two fifth-year seniors, center Donald Senat and safety Demarkus Perkins, will represent FIU along with Ron Turner.

What do you want asked of the FIU contingent or anyone else in Conference USA?

 

July 20, 2014

Latest 2015 football commit: Milord Juste

Palm Beach Gardens defensive end Milord Juste announced his commitment to FIU the usual way, via Twitter. Juste, 6-2, 240, had 21.5 sacks and two forced fumbles for Palm Beach Gardens last season and was on the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's First Team All-Palm Beach team. On the hudl video, check out the play about 2:30 in, showing excellent hustle and pretty good speed.

Juste claimed offers from Army, Navy and Colgate. He's not rated yet by 247sports.com, ESPN.com, Rivals.com or Scout.com.

 

July 18, 2014

First game in 34 days: Arizona at FIU

Friday means there's exactly one month until Miami-Dade County Public Schools -- and private schools that work off the MDCPS calendar -- fire up again. At the end of that week, we get the first playing-for-real FIU athletic event of the 2014-15 academic year, women's soccer hosting Arizona at 7 p.m.

Among the fall sports, FIU's best chance to win the school's first Conference USA title resides with the soccer women. FIU gets back fifth-year senior forward Chelsea Leiva and redshirt junior defender Nikki Rios -- best offensive and defensive players, both injury redshirts last year -- and have eight returning starters from last year's 7-12 injury-hampered team. So, this should look more like the team that won the Sun Belt in 2011 and got upset in the 2012 Sun Belt championship by North Texas.

Among the starters lost, two had eligibility left. Defender Jazmin Jones would've been heading into her junior season at FIU after starting 11 of 19 games last season. Alas, the Gig Harbor (Wash.) High graduate transferred a continental United States closer to home, to Washington State.

Goalie Paula Zuluaga started 13 games and had a 2.18 goals against average in 2013 as a redshirt junior with a year of eligibility left on the field. In the classroom, however, she was all senior, graduating magna cum laude with a Sports Management degree and a minor in Business. She's now an assistant coach at Johnson & Wales. 

Everglades OL verbally commits to FIU

Miramar Everglades center Richard Williams, 6-3, 275, Tweets that he's coming to FIU in 2015. Williams was an Honorable Mention on the Associated Press Class 8A All-State team.

Williams isn't rated yet by any of the usual recruiting sites I usually cite here. The Sun-Sentinel ranks him as the 45th best player in Broward's Class of 2015.

July 17, 2014

Who is Terry Bennett?

Jacksonville Atlantic Coast running back Terry Bennett, class of 2015, pledged his body and mind to FIU Thursday.

Bennett's a load, 6-0, 205, and seems to run like it. According to MaxPreps, Bennett ran for 639 yards and 5.1 yards per carry as a junior. He's got three yards and a cloud of dust written all over him at the college level, which means he's perfect for Ron Turner's offense. He's a good enough baseball player to be on Perfect Game's Honorable Mention list for preseason 2014 high school All-Americas.

None of the main sites -- Rivals, 247Sports, Scout.com, ESPN -- have rated Bennett yet.

CFPA loves Richard Leonard

Like Blue Horseshoe loved Anacott Steel.

The College Football Performance Awards put Leonard, a redshirt junior cornerback and possibly the fastest FIU player, on its kickoff returners watch list. Leonard averaged 29.5 yards per kickoff return in 2012 and had a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown that proved the most crucial score in defeating FAU. He spent last year academically ineligible.

 

More FIU football on TV! Not for South Florida, but...

Good news for FIU football fans who want to enjoy games in the privacy of someone else's living room or your hotel room! Conference USA and Sinclair Broadcast Group have an agreement that'll put 30 C-USA games, including six FIU games, on Sinclair stations around the country.

Sinclair owns no stations in Miami-Dade or Broward. The closest one is WPEC-CBS12 in West Palm Beach.

But if you happen to be high up in Colorado Springs or toddling in Toledo during these FIU games, you'll be back in business on Bluestar:

Aug. 30, vs. Bethune-Cookman, 7 p.m. at La Cage

Sept. 27, at Alabama-Birmingham, 3:30 p.m.

Nov. 1, vs. Rice, noon at La Cage

Nov. 8, at Old Dominion, 3:30 p.m.

Nov. 15, vs. Middle Tennessee State, 3:30 p.m., at La Cage

Nov. 22, at North Texas, 3:30 p.m.