What I found interesting in FIU's Thanksgiving Eve 80-72 win over Long Island University-Brooklyn, in which the Panthers came home eased up almost into second place, wasn't the 24 points that represented FIU's halftime lead or Donte McGill's game-high scoring; or the 14 second half points scored by former FIU forward Jerome Frink; or even FIU men's hoop coach Anthony Evans succinct summation of duality in the Thanksgiving Eve win.
"Defend," Evans said. "We held them to 29 percent from the field (in the first half). They hit four free throws. In the second half, they scored 50 points. Tale of two halves."
But what I found interesting was this from Evans:
"We spent the whole preseason working on offense. I thought that was something we needed to improve going into this year. We're always going to be a good defensive team because I'm a defensive-minded coach. We worked on shooting. We worked on skill development. We worked on timing of our offense, things of that nature, in the preseason also in the summer so we can be better once the season started."
Also interesting was that 6-10 Adrian Diaz played all of five minutes in the first half as FIU built that massive halftime lead. Cameron Smith handled the inside defense well, blocking two shots and altering a couple of others. McGill threw in 16 points, including six of seven from the line, previously a Panthers problem. Eric Nottage went three for three from three, yelling and making joyful noises all along the way.
Q: Which players stepped forward this year that maybe you didn't expect?
A: I think T.O., not that I didn't expect it, but probably quicker than we thought. (Redshirt junior center) Mike Montero played really well. He started every game and graded out really well. He graded out a winning grade in almost every game, I'm not sure every one, but he palyed really well. I'm very pleased with how he stepped up. (Sophomore running back) Alex Gardner, we expected it, but I didn't expect him to play sixtysomething plays a game and hold up as well as he did. We were playing him too many plays, but we really didn't have a choice.
When Napoleon Maxwell went down -- that's one we didn't mention -- that hurt because he's our biggest and fastest back. He would've really spelled (Gardner). (Fifth-year senior) Anthon (Samuel) and (freshman) Anthony (Jones)...Anthony wasn't quite ready to play early. When he got ready, we were really trying to get him in the game. He hurt his hamstring and missed two and a half weeks. When he came back, he still wasn't 100 percent. I thought A1 really stepped up with his durability.
Defensively, the defensive line guys were guys we anticipated playing well. Jephete stepped in and did all he could do.
Q: Where did you grow as a coach this year?
A: Learning to deal with frustration and staying focused. (Turner said this with a laugh.) Probably that and handling the adversity, having to make the adjustments with everything you worked on in the preseason not being able to do. Mentally, the emotional part was keeping everyone positive, keeping everyone focused. For the most part, we did. The guys worked hard and prepared hard. There was a game or two, it wasn't where it should be. For the most part, they came in and competed every day in practice hard and maintained a tremendous attitude.
Q: You mention "a game or two where it shouldn't be." In retrospect, how disappointing is the loss to FAU? I know you want to win every game and think you should win every game. But as far as games that look like...
A: ...on paper.
A: The UMass game (24-14 loss) was worse. I think FAU is a very good team. They're not a 2-9 team. I have no idea how they're 2-9. I know they lost to Tulsa (47-44) and they lost some of those games where they had a lead and somehow didn't win them. But you look at them up front on both sides of the ball. They're a physical team, got a good quarterback and good running backs. Defensively, they're physical up front. They're much, much better than 2-9.
Of course that one hurt because it's FAU. We just didn't play as well as we're capable of playing. The UMass one was the one that you look at and say, "That one we let get away." For whatever reason, we didn't play well. We had (10) penalties, (five) of them 15-yard variety. And several personal fouls, late hits, stuff like that. And we had 10 dropped passes. That's the one I look at and say the focus wasn't where it needed to be and we did not play nearly as well as we're capable.
Q: Where do you think you failed or needed to be better as a coach this year?
A: A lot of areas, I guess. (Laughs) I don't know, tough question. Not adjusting as well to the injuries and probably trying to do too much. Not hide my frustration, but not get as frustrated and not try to do too much. I didn't do it a lot, but I did it at times. Like I said earlier, tried to do things we weren't capable of doing. Same thing talked about Alex and some of the players did. Not so much game planning, but calling he game sometimes. I knew we probably couldn't protect this, but I'd call it anyway. Or, I knew we didn't have the receivers or whatever, call it anyway. That's probably the biggest thing. On the offensive side of it. You've can't let the frustration get to you. Stay in the moment -- this is what we can do.
Q: What did you think of Alex McGough's development this year?
A: I thought Alex played really well, especially through the first 10 games. His development -- his decision-making, his accuracy, his ball placement, especially down the field, his touch. When he came in here, he was a fastball thrower every play. And he wasn't very accurate down the field. He really improved his downfield accuracy, he improved his touch. He improved his eyes. His eye discipline for the most part through the first 10 games was good. The last two games, it was not. It goes back to trying to do too much. I think he made huge progress from last year to this year in just being a quarterback. That's probably the best way to put it -- being an overall quarterback, not just a thrower.
Q: You used Anthony Jones at running back a lot this season. Obviously, that's a place where you can get him the ball easily. Is he a guy you'd rather place more on the edges?
A: His main position is going to be running back. But he's a guy we can put in there with A1 or with Napoleon and now get him out in the slot. Those are the things we wanted to do with him, but it was hard. First, we had him playing receiver, then running back, then trying to do both. We weren't getting him in as much as we wanted to because of that -- where does he fit in? So we put him in at running back and said, "OK, he's going to go in every other or every third series." Then, he got hurt. That game he got hurt (vs. Old Dominion) on the opening kickoff blocking for Richard (Leonard), that was the game we said "He's going in every other series. And we're going to give him the ball and do the things he knows and we can do." He got hurt on the opening kickoff and he went into the game early. He starte dthe game. We threw him a little screen pass. He caught it and was jogging. I said, "What is wrong?" and he was out (hamstring). I think he played three plays. He was out the next week, came back and still wasn't 100 percent. But he's a guy who'll be a huge part of what we do starting as a running back. We wanted to do some of the so-called "Wildcat," which we call "Rocket Package," but we couldn't. He's a guy we've got to make a big push to get him playing and involved.
Q: With all the injuries, did you have to burn any redshirts you hadn't planned to burn?
A: Oh, yeah, definitely. And we almost did a couple of others. (Offensive lineman) Neal Mars, for sure on the offensive line. We played him week (eight). He ended up playing mostly on field goal, but we had to get him in there. What other true freshmen played? We almost did with (running back) Collin Olsen. One game, he was the backup. He came this close to going in to putting him in and we didn't. The next week, he would've played, but he got a concussion in practice. (Cornerback) Kenyatta Anderson was one who wouldn't have played. He got a blocked punt for a touchdown, but...(Emmanuel) Lubin would've played, regardless. Kenyatta would not have. (Defensive end) Fermin (Silva) played, but he would've played anyway. Anthony (Jones) played, but he would've played. (Tight end) Mac Carey, for sure, would not have played...Milord Juste would not have played. Came that close to playing (linebacker) Sage Lewis. When I say close, I'm talking about on the sidelines asking "Should we put him in?" We did that one game with Neal Mars, "No, let's not put him in" and the next week, he went in anyway.
Those guys were great. Even with one or two games to go, they said, "If you need to put me in, I'm ready to go." (Wide receiver) Austin Maloney came close in one stretch.
Q: Will (safety) Wilkenson Myrtil be back? (Myrtil suffered a scary concussion in the third game of the season).
A: I don't know. He's made good progress the last two weeks. Right now, to be honest, that's the least of our concerns. Our concern is just getting him right. And it's going to be a little while. He's made really good progress and the last week or so or two weeks, he's looked like the Wilkenson of old.
Q: Has he been able to go to classes?
A: He has not. He went home for about 10 days. He's come back and not gone to class. He's getting a medical (withdrawal). He was doing a little better for while, then he wasn't doing very well. I've never seen one take this long, but it was pretty severe.
Q: Do you anticipate any coaching staff changes?
A: I hope not. I feel good about the guys. There's some things we have to do better, but nothing major. The staff gets along really well. They work hard. I think they do a good job. On my part, no. Hopefully, there won't be too many other parts, but you know how that goes. People come in and double their salary, it's hard to argue. I'd anticipate a couple. There usually are. Hopefully, it's just a couple.
Q: Anybody on the roster you've told not to come back?
A: No. I feel good about the roster. I like the guys coming back. I like this team. Whether or not some guys decide, on their part, they want to move, I don't know. As far as what we have, no, I feel good about the guys we have.
The positive to look forward to is we've got a lot of good young players on this team. I mean, really good. And, I guess the positive is they got experience this year. (Laughs) More than they wanted, more than they bargained for, which, in the long run, is going to help them. We've got a very good recruiting class coming in. In fact, we've got more guys who want to come than we have scholarships. It's going very well.
Q: In recruiting, any positions you want to focus on?
A: Overall, you hit every position. As the season goes, it changes a bit. Defensive line and offensive line, we've got commitments in both those spots. We should be in good shape there. We are going to look at a junior college or possible senior graduate in the defensive line and possibly offensive tackle just to get a little more experience in there if we can find the right guy. Cornerback, we might do the same thing. See if there's a JC corner out there who can come in and help us. Continue to fill the depth at all positions. Take one quarterback, at least one running back, maybe two. Get some receivers. Got to get a tight end. Defensive line, got to get two or three linebackers, already got two committed. Probably one more linebacker. Just got to find where we're going to get the spots for him.
I sat down with FIU football coach Ron Turner for the Third Annual Football Season Q&A Eulogy Tuesday. If you're here, you probably already know that the Panthers began the season with an upset at Central Florida, ended it with losses to Marshall and Western Kentucky by a combined 115-7 and finished the season 5-7. If you didn't know that, you do now.
Turner's answers are presented here with commentary limited to the expository.
Q: One more win than last year. But the teams you beat this season had a total of eight FBS wins. Just with Middle Tennessee and UAB last year (five FBS wins each), you beat that in 2014. Overall, was this a moving forward year?
A: I think so. This was was just a very disappointing year and very frustrating year. Disappointing just because we had such high expectations coming in. I'm not disappointed in the players, I'm disappointed in the results just in the fact of I don't think we were able to do what we wanted to do. We weren't the same team halfway through the season that we were coming into it. Just because of the injury situation and the youth we had to play.
Everybody has injuries, I understand that. I've never been through anything like this. With five games to go, I’m watching the (practice) tape with the coaches and I said, ‘This feels like spring ball because we’re running new plays with new people doing them. The difference is we’ve got three days to get them ready to go.’
That part was really frustrating for me, personally, and us because of that. I knew coming in -- I don't know if you remember my comments -- but I said I think we have a chance to have a really good team and be really competitive in this conference if we stay healthy because we don't have a ton of depth. Obviously, we didn't. It hurt.
And it was certain positions. Offensive line got hit hard, starting with (junior guard) Jordan Budwig in the summer before camp even started. Two-year starter, preseason all-conference first team and Trenton Saunders getting hurt in the third or fourth game, missing eight and a half to nine games. All of sudden, we've got (redshirt freshmen) Kai Absheer and Chris Miller in there who are going to be really good players. They're going to be really good players, but they weren't ready to play this year. Then, they got hurt. One missed three and a half weeks, one missed four and a half. But that's four weeks of practice time they miss and all of a sudden, they're thrown back in. (Redshirt freshman) Daquane Wilkie started at right tackle (12 games) who is going to be a really good player as well, but he's not there yet. He shouldn't have been playing. That part of it got hit hard, especially at the guard position. Our tackles were fine.
And then the safety position, four guys, three of them basically for the season. Jordan Davis played one game, (missed) two because of academic suspension, then got hurt. Shemarke Spence (broken arm) didn't play any. Wilkenson Myrtil missed nine games. Niko (Gonzalez) missed four. Not only did he miss four, he had a shoulder, he couldn't work out, so then he comes back and he's...the development part of it. That really hurt. Then, obviously, our tight ends (Ya'Keem Griner and Jonnu Smith). Tight end, linebacker -- two of our starting three linebackers basically missed the season. Treyvon missed (eight). Davison (Colimon) missed 11/2.
Our two best playmakers on offense. One missed seven games and the other one, Jonnu, missed four. That made it frustrating. All the stuff we planned to do on both sides of the ball, we had to limit what we did, minimize what we did and try to play to their strengths.
Q: (Graduate senior transfer) Jephete Matilus came in and clearly did the best he could. But, realistically, his actual game experience was almost at a freshman level. What kind of dropoff was that from (junior middle linebacker) Treyvon Williams?
A: Jephete came in and gave us everything he had. I'm glad he was here. I don't know what we'd have done without him. He stepped in and did as well as he could in a tough situation. He didn't have a lot of game experience. A lot of our guys, even though they might've been juniors or seniors, in some cases, they didn't have much experience. (Offensive lineman) Edens Sineace, first year starter, he played left tackle. Then, we had to put him at guard and all that stuff.
But, getting back to (Jephete)...first time in the system. Didn't go through Spring Ball. Limited playing time -- most of his playing time was on special teams at Minnesota. And he's thrown in as a starter for eight games. Give him credit, he did as sell as he could do. But, it hurts your depth. Now, if something happens to him, you're going down (indicates with his hand moving to a lower level).
"That's the thing -- we had too many guys playing too many plays because of the injury situation. Playing more plays than they should and, by the end of the year, you're worn down. It affects your practice time. By the end of the year, we couldn't practice as much as we wanted. We couldn't wear pads as much as we wanted, even (just) shoulder pads. We had to cut the time down in practice because we had nobody. Guys were just so worn down, we had to try to get them fresh on game day.
No bye didn't help. (FIU's open week is this week.) Not that we would've gotten a lot of guys back because most of them were season-ending (injuries), but at least we could've rested some people and healed up a bit.
Q: How does that happen? Where does that fall through the cracks?
A: That's the conference scheduling. I called immediately when I saw it. Called (Senior Associate Commissioner) Alfred White immeidately and said, "Alfred, we don't have a bye." He said, "Yeah, you have one the last week." I said, "We're playing 12 straight weeks. So, we have no bye." There's two teams that didn't. Somebody else had a bye the first week and they played 12 straight. (North Texas, which started 0-7 and is now 1-10).
If you stay healthy and you get on a roll, you don't mind, you go. But even then you have to be smart, you have to be careful how you practice and everything else.
Q: What did you have to change in the offense and defense to accommodate your situation?
A: Everything, honestly. Offensively, when you lose guards and you've got young guys in there, you limit your protections, you limit some of the run schemes you do. We had a lot of stuff we wanted to do that we did in training camp and spring ball and we just said, "It's too much. We can't do it. With all the adjustments you have to make and different fronts that you see, it's just too much for these guys." So, we really had to simplify what we're doing.
When Griner went out, that had an effect. We're such a two-tight end-oriented offense. We were that 70 percent of the time when those two guys were healthy, especially on first or second down. If we weren't that, we were one tight end. We always had at least one. We even had a three-tight end package that we did earlier in the year, that we worked hard on in training camp. That went out the window quickly.
When Jonnu went down and we've got Akil Dan-Fodio...he did a tremendous job for us. He did the best he could. But, he was out of his element. He's more a F motion guy, put him in the slot, block backside, that sort of stuff. All of a sudden, he's at the point of attack trying to block and that's not his strength. So we had to limit what we could call -- "we like this, but we don't have the tight end to do this. It's not his strength." It's unfair to ask people to do something they're not capable of doing. It really affected what we had in the game plan and, on game day, what we called.
Same thing defensively. With our safety situation, our linebacker situation. We've got Jephete in there, like you said, new in the system. Davison (Colimon) out, who had great experience. We could make a lot of adjustments and do some things with him. He was our best blitzer probably. Missed the whole year, basically (hurt in the first game).
Then, it has a trickle down effect to special teams. All of a sudden, you've got guys playing and somebody else has to take their place on special teams. You've got to watch their reps. It's the culmination of everything. It takes its toll.
Everybody has injuries. But I've never seen anything like this. Going into the last game, we had 27 guys that were either starters or were going to play a lot miss games. Sixteen of them missed four games or more. Several of them were season-ending. If you total those games up, it was 138 games by guys who are going to play a lot. Budwig, 12. Shemarke Spence, 12. Davison Colimon, whatever the number. I don't know anybody that can lose four guards, four safeties, two linebackers and two tight ends and go play. Nobody. I don't care what school. I don't care if you're Alabama, to lose that many and not have a huge dropoff.
For us to be playing game No. 12, to get win No. 6, to me, it's a credit to those guys. I told them that (Tuesday). I was disappointed in the season, in teh results, in the finish, but not disapointed in you guys. Alex McGough was in here. We talked for 45 minutes. He didn't play very well the last two games as he admitted. He goes, "To be honest with you, the frustration built up and I was trying to do too much."
I told him, "you know what Alex, I found myself trying to do some things we weren't capable of doing. Trying to make some calls we probably weren't capable of doing because I'm trying to make a play." I'd love to have some of those calls back. With our normal team in there? Yes, it would've been great. I said it minimized what we did, but there were times I tried to do it anyway. And, it didn't work because we weren't capable of doing it. It's not fair to the players to ask them to do something they can't.
Eventually, I think it took its toll on everybody. But I never heard one guy complain about it. I was sitting here talking to (redshirt junior defensive tackle) Imarjaye Albury today and I was telling him about some of the injuries. He said, "Wow, I didn't realize that." I said, "You didn't realize our top four guards were out, top two out for the year, basically?" He said, "No. I knew Jonnu (was out)." I said, "You didn't realize our top four safeties were out? Three of them for the entire season?" He said, "No, not really."
(Freshman safety) Tyree Johnson goes in and, again, he's going to be a really good player. But he shouldn't have been playing. But those guys didn't know. I guess that's why they didn't complain about it!
Q: Why did the run defense just fall apart?
A: As the season went on, I think we got worn down. We didn't have our main linebackers in there. I think it took its toll. We didn't have our top safeties in there. In our defense, safeties are huge in run support.
Like most people, you play quarters coverage, they're the run support guys. The corners play outside, we had two good corners. It affected how we played. We couldn't get the safeties down involved as much as we wanted because they just weren't ready for it. So we couldn't press the corners and challenge out there as much as we wanted. Our safeties were inexperienced. When they did feel for the run, it wasn't always exactly where they should be. And they were young. They weren't as physical. No fault to them, they gave everything they had. So, we had to watch what our calls were and couldn't get them as involved as we wanted to.
And I think we got worn down. Too many reps, guys playing too many plays. And the last two weeks, we played the two best teams in the conference (Marshall and Western Kentucky). Very physical offensive lines that were senior dominated. Last week, that was the most physical line in the conference. We played two really good teams.
Q: What happened to (sophomore wide receiver) Thomas Owens the second half of the year?
A: Teams started to press him more, play him a little differently, get a safety over the top at times. Protection-wise, we got against better teams, we had to get the ball out quicker. I think Alex got frustrated, a combination of things. We just weren't able to get the plays to him. We tried. We tried going to him and making plays. We just struggled sometimes beating press man coverage. That takes a little longer to get open. His strength is not his speed, his strength is being physical, going up and battling for the ball and yards after the catch. He's a strong runner afterwards.
You catch a touchdown pass in six straight games, they're going to realize that, too. They're going to put a safety over the top and do some things that make you look to the other side. Especially when Jonnu went down. Once Jonnu and Griner went down, we didn't have that inside threat. When Jonnu wasn't as productive earlier in the year and people were saying, "Why isn't he as productive as he was last year?" I said, "Well, they're playing him. They're doing things to take him away." All of a sudden, T.O. starts making plays and Griner starts making plays and we're running the ball, it opens up Jonnu. Well, when Jonnu's not in there and Griner's not in there, they can do things to take away T.O."
FIU senior center Adrian Diaz put up double doubles in the Panthers loss to James Madison (12 points, 10 rebounds) and the loss to Oral Roberts (14 and 13). He did 17 and 7 against Tennessee-Martin, FIU's lone win of James Madison's Men Against Breast Cancer tournament.
For this, Diaz was named Conference USA Player of the Week.
Westminster Christian wide receiver Elbre "Tony" Gaiter IV, son of former Killian All-Dade player and Hurricanes player Tony Gaiter, has committed to FIU, according to 247sports.com and Scout.com. The former didn't have him rated. The latter had him rated at three stars. Gaiter caught 28 passes for 479 yards (17.1 per catch) and nine touchdowns this season. He ran seven times for 78 yards and three touchdowns.
Let's take care of two things that aren't happening...
1. FIU dropping football or dropping to FCS. Anybody suggesting this should happen based on the results of the last few seasons or attendance reveals himself or herself to be a whiny baby who needs the Entitlement Pacifier taken away. FIU's had some truly awful years, a couple of good years and a bunch of losing seasons that run together. Your actual in-house attendance fluctuates congruently before applying other factors (noon start, lousy weather, etc.). Welcome to life as an FBS college football program that's not a traditional power.
In case you haven't noticed, schools don't tend to move from FB0 to FCS. You went 5-7 by beating some weak sisters. Again, welcome to life as an FBS college football program that's not a traditional power.
2. FIU coach Ron Turner's not going anywhere. Look at athletic director Pete Garcia's situation. He doesn't have a new contract yet (but does have an attendance bonus of $8,393 coming from FIU's 15,381 average, 117th in the nation). Firing Turner after three seasons says "That guy I fired in December 2012? Big mistake." And that might as well be asking FIU to move on to a new athletic director.
Has a 5-7 season ever had a more depressing end than Saturday without involving an ambulance? Lightning delays alternating with rain. Barely enough people to fill the Graham Center food court, much less La Cage. Western Kentucky scored on the second play from scrimmage and what turned out to be the last play from scrimmage (and a whole lot of plays in between).
There really isn't much to say when a team ends its season getting outscored 115-7 over its last two games. I'm not going to say the team quit. That's too harsh an insult. I will say they seemed to become disheartened and locked into bad patterns (and I'm not even talking about the 4-yard bubble screens).
Injuries hurt the defense, especially the safety positions. The loss of middle linebacker Treyvon Williams, one of the defense's two batteries along with outside linebacker Anthony Wint, unplugged the defense. But so did flat play by some from whom more was expected and a soft concept.
When you like to run a lot of double tight end sets and two of the most productive tight ends in the country go down for the last four games, it hurts. Period. That's not a position of depth at many Power 5 conference teams, much less G5 teams. The inexperienced, banged up offensive line never got together. Also damaging was cautious play calling and inscrutable personnel deployment.
I'll have more later and expect to talk to Turner this week at length about the season.
Been a busy week at Casa David (which is also a fantastic Italian restaurant in Amsterdam). As I'm just getting around to this now, I'm just letting fly with a bunch of thoughts about today's FIU football regular season finale.
*If they call one of those bubble screens with one blocker and one receiver against three defenders in the first five plays, sophomore quarterback Alex McGough should audible to a deep ball. And throw it, no matter if the receiver's open or not. And when asked about it, tell the coaches, "Same result, less beating, more exciting and chance of success."
*Play Juwan Caesar. What the heck, this could be his last college game and he's a big possession receiver body for those predictable chain-moving slants FIU will use when trying to keep the ball away from Western's point-a-minute offense. No reason for Caesar to not be out there.
*Give freshman Anthony Jones the ball before you're 30 points down in the third quarter and give running back Alex Gardner a breather. The last time we went through such a "why isn't he playing/getting the ball more?" with a prized recruit, Willis Wright got stapled to the sideline. Word was he didn't know the offense enough. Yeah, well, same thing I thought then -- if you have to draw it in the sand, on your shirt like a street football quarterback or flat out call the play then tell him what to do, do that. And get the man the ball.
*Gamble on defense. Stop playing church bingo and enter the casino. Hey, House, bring the house. Send The Company. Get the cornerbacks up and chucking. Don't sit back and get cut up like Jim.
Western Kentucky 45, FIU 34
But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.