December 19, 2014

C-USA Media Votes 3 Panthers Football All-Conference

So my peers agreed with the coaches on Conference USA's Defensive Player of the Year. But they apparently agreed with me on the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.

The Conference USA Media Association, the group of beat writers covering the C-USA schools, sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith and redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard to our First Team all-conference team and junior defensive end Michael Wakefield to the Second Team. I voted for Leonard as Defensive Player of the Year, but the majority of the rest voted for Marshall linebacker Neville Hewitt, who the league coaches voted that honor.

Our Offensive Player of the Year and First Team quarterback was Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty and our MVP was Marshall running back Devon Johnson. Both got my vote, Doughty on the sheer weight of numbers -- 67.5 completion percentage, 4,344 yards, 44 touchdown passes -- and a brilliant performance in upsetting Marshall. You'll note we voted two Western Kentucky players to our First Team while the conference coaches didn't think an offense averaging around 44.0 points per game had an all-conference player.

That Marshall loss to Western also underscored how important the 243-pound Johnson was to Marshall's offense. Marshall's Big Johnson put up numbers almost as hefty as he is -- 1,636 rushing yards, 8.6 per carry, six catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns (3 for 79 yards and those two touchdowns against FIU).

And we voted Alabama-Birmingham's Bill Clark our Coach of the Year. Hopefully, it's as close as we'll ever come to giving an award posthumously. 

FIRST TEAM

Offense

WR – Tommy Shuler, Marshall, senior

WR – Antonio Vaughan, Old Dominion, senior

WR – Jared Dangerfield, Western Kentucky, junior

OL – Chris Jasperse, Marshall, senior

OL – Brian O’Leary, UAB, senior

OL – Mitchell Bell, Louisiana Tech, senior

OL – Clint Van Horn, Marshall, junior

OL – Cyril Lemon, North Texas, senior

TE – Jonnu Smith, FIU, sophomore

QB – Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky, senior

RB – Devon Johnson, Marshall, junior

RB – Jordan Howard, UAB, sophomore

Defense

DL – Diaheem Watkins, UAB, senior

DL – James Rouse, Marshall, senior

DL – Brian Nordstrom, Rice, junior

DL – Arnold Blackmon, Marshall, senior

LB – Neville Hewitt, Marshall, senior

LB – Derek Akunne, North Texas, senior

LB – Andrae Kirk, Florida Atlantic, senior

DB – Richard Leonard, FIU, junior

DB – Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech, sophomore

DB – Darryl Roberts, Marshall, senior

DB – Kevin Byard, Middle Tennessee, junior

Punter – Tyler Williams, Marshall, junior

Kicker – Corey Acosta, Southern Miss, senior

Returner – J.J. Nelson, UAB, senior

SECOND TEAM

Offense

WR – Jordan Taylor, Rice, senior

WR – Lucky Whitehead, Florida Atlantic, senior

WR – Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech, sophomore

OL – Jerel Watkins, UTEP, senior

OL – Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky, sophomore

OL – Matt Simonette, Rice, senior

OL – Josh Mann, Old Dominion, senior

OL – Roscoe Byrd, UAB, junior

TE – Kennard Backman, UAB, senior

QB – Rakeem Cato, Marshall, senior

RB – Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech, junior

RB – Aaron Jones, UTEP, sophomore

Defense

DL – Michael Wakefield, FIU, junior

DL – Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Southern Miss, senior

DL – Houston Bates, Louisiana Tech, senior

DL – Robert Singletary, UTSA, senior

LB – Jake Ganus, UAB, junior

LB – Jermaine Holmes, Marshall, senior

LB – Nick Holt, Western Kentucky, junior

DB – Tristan Wade, UTSA, senior

DB – Taj Letman, Marshall, junior

DB – Adairius Barnes, Louisiana Tech, junior

DB – D’Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic, senior

December 18, 2014

Incoming...

Even with nine full time assistant coaches and some graduate assistants, even with a full reporting staff devoted only to chronicling football recruiting in a region where talent runs thicker than a Snickers, guys can get missed. Coaches tend to follow the best teams. Recruiting trackers tend to follow the coaches and the best teams.

That's how Edison safety Robert Knowles came into Thursday morning with no rating on any of the recruiting sites. Soon after 247Sports.com announced Knowles verbal commitment to FIU -- an actual BREAKING story as opposed to the BREAKING one that "announced" Central's Fermin Silva committed to FIU long after that had been reported -- a rating of three stars went up on the site. One of the sites ratings czars got around to looking at Knowles highlights.

 

I asked one of our guys about him. What I got back was that he hasn't seen Edison in two years because they don't play in many big games, but heard good things about Knowles.

If FIU gets Central's Anthony Jones, I wonder if they'd give him his first looks at wide receiver or running back. Jones starred at running back this year, but his recruiting position was wide receiver when Central stampeded people with Joe Yearby and one of Jones' cousins, Dalvin Cook.

For what it's worth, despite using different ways of ranking recruiting classes, the three sites I quote often all have FIU around the same place. Rivals.com has FIU fifth in Conference USA and 247Sports.com has FIU sixth. Scout.com has FIU eighth but does aggregate points total and is missing several verbal commits. All three sites rank FAU as C-USA's No. 1 2015 recruiting class based on commitments.

BASEBALL

Kendall Rogers, now of D1baseball.com, reports that redshirt freshman lefthanded pitcher Chris Pelaez will transfer from LSU to FIU. Pelaez graduated from Florida Christian High.

December 17, 2014

Second Spirit of Service for Stewart

Redshirt junior Sara Stewart's been a starter on FIU's backline since early in her freshman season. The 5-9 Canadian plays more physically than some of her countrymen do on the ice -- she led the team with four yellow cards this season and got the only red card. But just like the enforcers on the rink often have the biggest hearts off of it, there's no questioning Stewart's status as an all-conference do-gooder.

That's because she's just been named of Conference USA's Spirit of Service Honorees for the fall athletic season for the second consecutive year.

Stewart tutors at a Miami elementary school during the school year, feeds the homeless, is a Special Olympics volunteer and works in a veternarian's office back home. And she's got a 3.72 grade point average as a bio sciences major.

That's a student-athlete-citizen.

 

December 16, 2014

Sports Illustrated Loves Jonnu Smith

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Swimming & Diving, vs. North Florida, Wednesday, 11 a.m.
Women's Basketball, vs. Western Carolina, Saturday, 1 p.m.

Being the nation's most productive tight end got sophomore Jonnu Smith ignored when it came to The Mackey Award semifinalists and the Associated Press All-America teams.

Sports Illustrated's All-America selections, however, listed Smith first in the Honorable Mentions at tight end. Salut, Jonnu.

Smith won't be in line for a raise. But it'll be interesting to see how much the pool of assistant football coach money increases, if at all. Several coaches, including defensive coordinator Josh Conklin and offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler, have come to the end of their original two-year deals.

December 15, 2014

C-USA Loves Pound; RPI Moves

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Swimming & Diving, vs. North Florida, Wednesday, 11 a.m.

Women's Basketball, vs. Western Carolina, Saturday 2 p.m.

Redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound's college career has lasted seven games, only five more than the number of times she's been named Conference USA baskeball's Freshman of the Week.

This week, Pound got the award for her 17-point, five-rebound performance during FIU's 76-64 loss at Jaksonville.

MEN'S BASKETBALL

Sunday's men's basketball upset of Florida Gulf Coast moved the Panthers from No. 179 to No. 111 in the important RPI statistic while Gulf Coast slid from 34 to 76. but Penhind the lacks.

Another RPI Win for FIU

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Swimming & Diving, vs. North Florida, Wednesday, 11 a.m.

Women's Basketball, vs. Western Carolina, Saturday, 1 p.m.

While the women's basketball team was falling like the night time temperature in Jacksonville, the men's team was knocking off previously 8-1 Florida Gulf Coast over in Fort Myers, 69-63.

FIU's 6-4 with two wins over teams in the top 100 of the NCAA's RPI rankings, No. 34 Gulf Coast and No. 60 Wright State. As importantly, the Panthers seem to be consistently getting better and should be ready for the Conference USA season.

December 12, 2014

Quick Hits From The Beach-Not-The Beach

I ran into Executive Director for Sports and Entertainment Pete Garcia at The Miami Beach Bowl Welcome Event Thursday afternoon.

No surprise as Garcia and FIU President Mark Rosenberg were at the announcement of the creation of the Miami Beach Bowl (to be played in Miami). The bowl's Executive Director Carlos Padilla said he's been in constant contact with Garcia the last few months. I wonder after a couple of years, if the visiting teams don't travel well, the bowl says "to heck with it" and FIU winds up there the way Louisiana-Lafayette winds up in The New Orleans Bowl. The Miami Beach Bowl has BYU this year, a school with a huge worldwide following. Memphis? Well...

Anyway, about FIU...

*Garcia said he didn't know exactly how much the current FIU Arena roof repairs/upgrade were costing the athletic department (the money is coming out of several different FIU pockets), but said Athletics was taking the brunt of it because the school belief is Athletics will benefit most from it. Because of the Miss Universe pageant, the work got put rushed to be finished in time for the pageant to hang all its lighting.

Garcia said this will allow FIU to be a contender for concerts, which I'm guessing like similar heavy lights and stuff for its stage show.

I heard from an FIU source across campus from Athletics that the department ponied up around $400,000 for those repairs/upgrades.

*I've heard talk that Garcia's contract, which is up in 2016, will receive a three-year extension in 2015. He said nope, there have been no extension talks yet.

 

 

December 11, 2014

Turner Talk, Part II

Surprised at all by your defense this year?

Maybe a little bit. You hate to say that because it sounds like you didn’t expect much. But you never know how a young guy’s going to respond. Once I saw them in training camp, I wasn’t surprised by what they did in games. Guys like Anthony Wint and Fred Russ and Treyvon Williams and Jordan Guest, those linebackers from day one were overly aggressive – “Guys we don’t need that late hit, this isn’t full contact.” That’s a problem you want to have. You can’t teach someone to be aggressive, but you can teach them to be smart about. (Safety Demarkus) Perkins was playing with that attitude in camp.

(Defensive end Michael) Wakefield, unbelievable motor. Goes full speed all the time. (Defensive end) Denzell Perine, another of those guys with a great, great motor. They got a little bit bigger, stronger in the offseason. They stepped up. I think that affected all the other guys on the defensive line. Giovanni (Francois) stepped up and started to show the same kind of motor that Wakefield and Perine showed. It was contagious. The norm was for them to play hard with a great motor. It was great to see.

(Linebacker) Davison Colimon, he’s a guy with great motor. He was a totally different guy this year. Colimon played great football for us. He played with great intensity both on defense and special teams.

What do you plan to do about your punting situation?

Find somebody, hopefully. Terrible. Jose (Laphitzondo) stepped in, the first time he’d ever played and did the best he could do. Chris (Ayers) has a good leg. He just hasn’t been able to put together, stay healthy, punt with confidence. But we’re looking. We’re looking for guys out there as well. I don’t’ know if it’ll come from within, but we’re looking at guys on the outside as well.

The problem is you don’t have a lot of scholarship spots. It’s hard to give one to a punter you don’t have here or one to a kicker because they’re so hard to evaluate. But we’ve definitely got to get better. The field position that cost us...we’re going to go back and chart, but it’s just…we’ve got to get better.

What about Luke Medlock? (an All-State punter in high school)

He’s got a chance. We worked him at a lot, early, especially. But he was just too inconsistent. But he’s got a chance. He’s got a strong leg, so he’s in the mix. He’ll be there along with Chris, Jose and (kicker) Sergio (Sroka) wants to try punting as well. We’ll give anybody (a chance).”

What players who have eligibility remaining do you not anticipate coming back?

(Quarterback) EJ (Hilliard) is not coming back. I don’t anticipate (wide receiver) Dominique (Rhymes) returning. (Wide receiver) Richard Burrows, he’d be a fifth-year guy and you’re not going to bring him back for a fifth year. Other than that, I don’t know. There’s a couple of guys I’ve talked to…we’ll see. People think that because the guy’s a fifth-year of eligibility, he automatically comes back. No. They’ve got to want to come back and we’ve got to want them to come back. That’s not just here, that’s everywhere.

What do you see you need to beef up in recruiting?

Overall depth. Every position we need to bring guys in. Playmakers, speed is one thing we’ve got to get. And playmakers aren’t always speed guys (DJN digression: the Hall of Fame wide receiver nicknamed “The Playmaker,” Michael Irvin, wasn’t a speed guy). Speed guys and or playmakers. We’ve got to continue to get them, whether it’s offense, defense, whatever.

We lost six senior offensive lineman. We brought in a really good freshman offensive lineman class last year. So we’ve got to continue to keep those numbers up where they are. That part is going well at that position. Offensive line and defensive line, you’ve always got to recruit numbers and get depth. To me, we’ve got numbers and good players, guys that we really like who are committed. We’ve just got to hold onto them.”

How has recruiting changed this year as opposed to last year, especially locally?

Last year, I thought our guys did a really good job of recruiting. The reception we got out there was good. I think it’s even better this year. I think people are seeing what we’re doing. Every high school coach I’ve talked to are seeing what we’re doing and seeing the strides we’re making, seeing what our guys are doing off the field as well as on the field and in the communi9ty and how they’re playing. I’ve had several coaches say “It’s night and day difference when we watch on the field this year than last year.” We’re basically full on our commitments. We’re actually getting guys calling us who were committed elsewhere who are asking “Do you still have scholarships available?” That’s a positive.

Do you plan to reach out to any of the Alabama-Birmingham kids, who are now free to go anywhere?

We possibly could. We’ve talked about it as a staff. There might be a couple of positions, offensive line, defensive line, if they’ve got some guys who have eligibility remaining, I don’t care if it’s one year, three years, whatever. Yeah, it’s something we’d look at. First of all, I think it’s a sad, disappointing thing. I feel so bad for those players. Watch that video of the team meeting. It’s a bad, bad deal. Those kids go there and – I look at our team room and I see how hard our guys work and everything they’re doing. The trust they put in us. And to see it pulled out from them like that without any warning. I look at the coaches, they went there a year ago, Bill Clark and his staff. I don’t know Bill really well, just from meetings and playing them. He seems like a really class, good human being. To see him go there a year ago – everybody talks about the head coach, but you’ve got a staff, nine full time assistants – and to have it all pulled away, it’s a sad deal.

On one hand, you almost feel like a vulture if you go in and take those guys. On the other hand, those kids want people to come in and recruit them because they want to play Division I football. We are going to take a look at it and see if there are guys we have spots for. We don’t have a lot of spots unfortunately – and if it’s a good fit. I spoke with Bill Clark this morning. It’s just a tough, tough deal. Those kids are going to go somewhere. So, we’ll get in the mix, try to help them. And, help us.

Any staff changes?

I hope not. I love our staff. I think we’ve got everything exactly where I want it right now. I couldn’t be happier with them. There will be no changes on my part. You never know what’s going to happen. Jobs open up, guys come calling from bigger conferences or the NFL. I told the guys, “You have something you’re interested in, someone contacts you and it’s better for you and your family, I’m 100 percent supportive and I’ll do what I can do to help you get it. But I really want everyone to stay. And I’ll do what I can do to try to get you to stay.”

(DJN: According to USA Today’s assistant salary table, FIU spent $1,065,400 on assistants last year, fourth in Conference USA behind UTEP, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State)

It’s hard to get a staff together, nine full time coaches and four graduate assistants that everybody gets along. Egos usually get in the way and you have some issues there. We have zero. We have a group of guys who are not afraid to express their opinion, talking about what they want to do. At the end of the day, if we decide “this is what we’re going to do” whether it’s a defensive scheme or offensive scheme or how we’re practicing, they’re 100 percent behind it. The personalities on the staff and how they get along could not be better, as good as I’ve been around. I think our players have a lot of confidence in our coaches and know our coaches care about them as individuals, not just winning games. And they’re all doing a really good job of recruiting.

Facilities-wise, what’s the next thing you’d like to see?

Grass practice field. That’s something I’ve been talking to the AD (Pete Garcia) and to the President (Mark Rosenberg) about. It’s going to happen at some point, I’m not sure when. Just the wear and tear of that (points out the office window to Ocean Bank Field) takes its toll a little bit. It’s not mandatory that we get it, but it would be nice if we get that.

Other than that, they’re doing a good job, they’re committed to a lot of stuff. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot. All the players I’ve gotten in here, I ask every one of them, I ask one-on-one, “Do you have any issues? Any concerns? Do you have anything you’d like to see done better?” Every once in a while, somebody will say, “Well, the food…” But they say that in NFL camps when they’ve got gourmet food coming in. Other than that, they’re happy with the support staff, happy with the academic staff, happy with our medical staff.

We’re putting in a little player lounge for them which I think they will enjoy. Somewhere they can do to relax a bit. We’ll try to get some things like that done. We’re not at a competitive disadvantage within our conference in any area, so…

What did you think when you saw the massive donation at FAU and what FAU’s planning?

What’s FAU planning?

They just got a $16 million gift from the Schmidt Family Foundation toward a $45 $50 million facility that’s supposed to have an indoor practice facility, academic center, weight room, etc.

I didn’t know anything about that. Good for them. The thing we have to do is make sure we’re not at a competitive disadvantage in our conference and teams we’re playing. Hopefully, we’ll continue to upgrade our facilities. I don’t think we need to do a whole lot. We’ve got pretty good facilities here. Obviously, there are some things you can do every year.

I think all that stuff is good, but what sells recruits more than coming in and seeing a nice locker room and this and that – I think our facilities don’t take a back seat to a lot of people, but the thing that kids and their parents are most impressed with is the people. Obviously, it’s nice to have great locker room, great everything for them to come to, but the bottom line is the people. If we get them on our campus and they get around our coaches and they see what kidn of people we are, they get around our players. We have a very good chance of getting htem. Last year, on our visits, we had one weekend where we had 20 kids visit. And we had 19 commit to us when they were here.

Turner said the season captains were voted as Michael Wakefield, Richard Leonard and center Donald Senat. The game captains changed weekly, save Wakefield.

“As coaches, we talked about it every Monday. I’d say, ‘OK, game captains this week” and they would nominate some guys. Every time, somebody said, ‘Wakefield” it would be ‘OK, it’s going to be Wakefield and Richard’ or ‘Wakefield and Perk’ or ‘Wakefield and somebody.’ By the second half of the season, we didn’t even say his name, we’d just say ‘Wakefield and who else?’ Based on work ethic, performance the week before, doing the right things. We tried to get at least one offense, defense, special teams.”

  

Turner Talk, Part I; Cleaning Up

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Swimming & Diving, vs. North Florida, Wednesday, 11 a.m.

Before we get to my postseason chat with football coach Ron Turner, cleaning up a couple of things:

Upon The Herald sports gods realizing the writers schedule as written left the No. 15 men's basketball team in the country uncovered last Saturday, I got switched from FIU women's basketball Saturday night home game against Central Florida.

Maybe that helped. While the men's team in Coral Gables fell to Wisconsin-Green Bay and the David J. Coverage Voodoo that's wrecked the Panthers, the Dolphins and FIU, the women's team picked up its first win of the season by upsetting UCF 66-57. The most important statistic in the game wasn't FIU's three players in double figures, led by Taylor Shade's 18, or Kiandre'a Pound's double double (15 and 11), but UCF's 31.9 percent shooting from the floor and 13 turnovers. Previously, the Panthers' defense should've been sponsored by Sun Pass because it doesn't slow anybody down either.

Also, big ups to senior forward Quentin Albrecht for his First Team All-Region selection.

Now, to the other football.

A week and a half after FIU finished its 4-8 season, I sat down with Ron Turner for something of a postmortem. Though it's no "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Fingertips" or "Keep On Truckin'," I decided to go multipart with this one.

You said a few weeks ago, even if you don’t make a bowl game, the season is a positive, you’re moving forward. After a while to ponder, do you still feel the same?

I think there’s a lot of positives, a whole lot of positives. I think we did make progress. We didn’t win as many as we wanted, as many as our goal was. We did make tremendous progress. Not only in what we did on the field, off the field. Establishing the attitude, the culture, the togetherness, the bonding in the locker room that we want. It’s not where we want it, but it’s very, very close. It’s 100 times better than the year before.

We won four games and we lost four by three or less. There’s no consolation there because we’re in here to win those games. But the next step is we’ve got to learn how to win them. I’ve been in this before. I’ve been in turnaround programs and it doesn’t happen overnight, unless you take over a team that’s got no off the field issues and is a really good team. It was a total rebuilding. We took the steps the first year. Didn’t show up on the field. But as far as establishing our identity, establishing who we are, what’s expected of them, I thought we made great strides this year. The next step is to learn how to win these games. It reminds me a lot – and I’ve told some of the players this – when I was at Illinois. We went 0-11 my first year. We went 3-8, the next year, we had some close games. And then we we went 8-4 the next year, including a bowl win down here. Just because it happened there doesn’t mean it’s going to happen here. But I’m excited about where we’re going. I’m excited about the future. We’ve got a ton of guys back. We lose some seniors who were some good players, but not very many of them. We’ve got guys behind them who can step in and be every bit as good of players. They just need experience.

I’m excited. I’ve been meeting individually with every one of our players. I’m probably three-fourths of the way through the roster right now. There is a ton of confidence right now, a ton of energy and enthusiasm because they know what we have coming back.

Look at the production we have coming back, and I went over this with the team as a positive. Look at our returning production on defense – 77 percent of our solo tackles are coming back, 80 percent of our assisted tackles, so, overall, 78 percent of our tackles. Tackles for loss, 85 percent coming back. 85 percent of the guys who made tackles for losses. 79 percent of our sacks. 82 percent of our quarterback hurries. 86 percent of our interceptions. I’m rounding off here a bit. 86 percent of our interception return yardage. Pass breakups 79 percent. Whatever category I’m talking about defensively, a high high percentage of it is coming back.

Offensively, you look at the rushing yards – 99.7 percent of our rushing yards are coming back. 100 percent of our rushing touchdowns. 99.6 percent of our total carries. 86 percent of our passing, 93 percent of our passing touchdowns. Same with receiving – 85 percent of our receptions, 74 percent of our receiving yards all the way across the board, we’ve got a lot of guys coming back. Special teams, all of it’s coming back. 100 percent of our kicking, not that that was very good, and punting, 100 percent of that’s coming back -- not that that was very good, we’ve got to get better there. Almost all of our return stuff. We know who that was and he’s coming back.”

You’re sure Richard Leonard’s coming back?

Nothing’s 100 percent. I’m confident he’s going to come back. We’re doing a lot of research. I’ve talked to him and I’ve talked to his parents. I told them, "Richard, I honestly want what’s best for you. If you’re going to go in the first or second round, the third round, go. No question about it. If you’re not, you’ve got to make a decision."

I’ve talked to quite a few GMs, I’ve talked to a lot of personnel people. I told them I would do that. They have a thing you can do with the advisory committee, I’ve done the paperwork for that. So they’ll give us a projection of where he’s going to go. If you’re going to go in the first second, maybe the third round, go. If not, the consensus is to stay in. I’ve talked to several GMs, several personnel people, they’re watching film. Some have gotten back to me, several more will get back to me, based on what they see on film. Besides the advisory committee, these are guys I know, I trust and they will give me an honest evaluation. It depends what it is. But I think he’s coming back. If not, then we’ve still got a lot of production coming back.

Offensively, a freshman quarterback, two freshmen running backs, a guy who hadn’t played in a couple of years at running back, not always a recipe for success or improvement. Even with all those things hampering you, how much more had you expected to see out of your offense this year (last in Conference USA again)?

I expected to see more, especially in the passing game. There are reasons why – we’ve got a true freshman quarterback. But I think he’s a very good true freshman quarterback.

Receiver-wise, I was a little disappointed we didn’t have anyone step up and do what I wanted to do. We were shuffling a lot of guys in there. I didn’t like doing that, but no one really stepped up, took it and made it clear, ‘I’m your guy.’” One guy, the next week, somebody else is in there. That’s very hard on the quarterback to establish continuity. Ideal situation, "here’s our top five receivers, here’s who we’re going with. One guy gets hurt, you put somebody else in there." We didn’t have that. I think that hurt.

Offensive line-wise, we got better as the season went on, especially the running game. The second half of the year, we ran the ball pretty well. We just couldn’t complement it with the passing game. Part of it was protection. Part of it was the receivers. The whole thing never really clicked. The passing game part of it, we’re not even close to where I envision this offense being. I’m not calling many games like I want to call them. There’s things I might have in mind to do that I can’t do. I probably said the same thing last year. This year, wasn’t to that same degree for other reasons. Still, there were some things I wanted to do I saw was there, we just weren’t able to capitalize on them. I think we’ve got things in place. We’ve just got to execute at a higher level.

With Christian Alexander enrolling early, is Alex going to enter as the No. 1 guy or will you say “everything’s open again?”

Both. First snap we get of spring ball, Alex is our starter. If someone’s going to win the job, they’re going to have to beat him out. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Alex. I think he can be a very, very good player, especially when we get help around him. He’s got everything you look for. He’s got some things he’s got to work on. When he gets more confident in the guys around him and what we’re doing, those things he needs to work on will improve. So he’s going in as the starter, but I told him when I met with him and I told the other two quarterbacks we have on the roster (freshmen Bud Martin and Luke Medlock) and I’ll tell Christian the same thing when he comes in in January: I want them to come in with the mindset that they’re competing for and going to win the job. And if they do, the job will be theirs. I told Alex the same thing. He’s got to go out there ready to compete.

I tell these guys all the time, that’s how it is in life. Just because you do something one year, somebody else comes in and does a better job, they’ll take your job. So, you’ve got to maintain your edge and compete. Christian will come in, he’ll be right in the mix. He’s a guy we’re excited about. He’s a high school senior right now, so you don’t know how he’s going to respond.

Where do you expect to find the wide receiver or the wide receivers that’ll make a difference on this offense?

I think Dennis Turner’s going to be a really good player. He shouldn’t have played this year. He’s a true freshman, weighed 160 pounds on a good day. Late in the year, he started to come on. The last two weeks of the season, maybe three, he looked like the guy we thought he was as far as playing with confidence and running fast. I’m talking about in practice. It didn’t always show up in games because he didn’t have opportunities. But I think he has a chance to really good. I think Thomas Owens has a chance to be good. He’s big, physical, strong receiver with great hands. He’s got to work on his speed. Work on techniques in getting off press coverage. But he’s big and strong and got an unbelievable knack for timing it to go up and catch the ball over people. Even though he’s never going to be a speed guy, he’s got a chance to be a good player. He and Dennis will compliment each other well.

Clinton Taylor’s got a chance to be a good player, in the slot, especially. He came on late in the year. We probably should’ve used him more than we did. But we were so comfortable using (sophomore tight end) Jonnu (Smith) in that slot and using him. But I can see Clinton coming on and definitely being a factor. De'Andre Jasper has some good ability. I think he can help us. Juwan Caesar who redshirted this year, a transfer from Michigan State, 6-5, 218 pounds. I saw him today about a half hour ago, I said “Don’t get too big. Unless you want to go to tight end.” And Akil Dan-Fodio can be a guy who was a tight end, but more of a slot tight end. Can pick up some slack in that part of the game as well.

I’m leaving some guys out, who I think can step in and, hopefully, take the next step. Plus the guys we’ve got committed, we’ve got recruited. I think those guys will have the ability to contribute right away.

What do you need more, possession guy or stretch guy?

Stretch guy. Need both, but we need a speed guy, we need a big play guy. I’m hoping Dennis will give a bunch of that, I’m hoping Juwan will give us some of that. In recruiting, we’ve got to bring in at least one guy who can do that. We’ve got a couple of guys who can do that who are more the slot or possession type guys, but they’re very, very good. We’ve got our eyes on a couple of speed guys who I think we’re going to get.

The individual player I’m asked about most often is Jasper, who came out of high school as a speed guy, scored on a reverse as a freshman and ran back kickoffs well. What does he have to do to get on the field more?

He’s got ability, no question. I’m hoping he can take that next step. I think it’s just a matter of adjusting to Division I football and competing at a higher level. He’s got ability. We’ve got to make sure we do a good job and probably do a better job of putting him in positions, utilizing him and giving him some more opportunities to compete and show what he can do. We’re going to make a concerted effort to do that more this spring with he and Clinton.

 

December 10, 2014

Conference USA football coaches, you screwed up

The 2006 Miami Dolphins stumbled off the line, got their bearings just in time to tumble off the cliff to a 6-10 finish. During this verse in the Dolphins Decade of Disappointment song, they went to Chicago and spanked the previously unbeaten eventual NFC champion 31-13. They also shut out New England 21-0 and got Brady benched in the fourth quarter. Both featured superstar performances by defensive end Jason Taylor, who ended the season with 13.5 sacks; two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns; forced 10 fumbles and recovered two.

Taylor won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Whatever your favorite cliche phrase -- "impact player" "game changer" -- Taylor personified it that season. It was a reminder that great players and great individual seasons, particularly defensively, can happen on mediocre or bad teams.

I covered that Dolphins season for The Herald. I was reminded of it as FIU cornerback Richard Leonard sent plays boomeranging back at opponents this season until offenses just figured they'd just play elsewhere. I had no doubt Leonard should be named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year.

Wednesday afternoon, the conference announced Marshall linebacker Neville Hewitt received the award as selected by the conference coaches. And I say to the 13 Conference USA coaches as a group:

I've enjoyed talking to you. I respect that you know 78 times more football than me. Most of us don't even see most of the game that you watch naturally.

But you got this one wrong.

I didn't get Western Kentucky scoring points like that kid that sure plays a mean pinball yet you guys not finding a single First Team all-conference offensive player on their roster. And, I don't get this.

Leonard led Conference USA with four fumble recoveries (0.33 per game, which is how the conference ranks), finished second with five interceptions (0.42 per game) and tied for fourth with 12 passes defended (five interceptions, seven passes broken up).

His three  defensive touchdowns came in FIU's first three wins of a four-win season. The Pick Six against Alabama-Birmingham tied that game with FIU's offense imitating a tractor pull and his later interception set up a field goal in FIU's 34-20 upset. Oh, he also made a fourth-and-1 stop on Escalade-sized Jordan Howard. 

Leonard’s biggest lightning bolt landed, appropriately, after a two and a half hour lightning delay against FAU. With the Panthers up 17-10 in the third quarter but FAU about to score, Leonard scooped up a fumble in the end zone and ran it back 100 yards. Though more than a quarter remained, during which Leonard would intercept a pass in the end zone, that siphoned all the power from one sideline to the other. FAU waned while the Panthers waxed strong in a 38-10 win.

Even after quarterbacks began avoiding Leonard like The Triangle after dark, he proved too omnipresent to avoid entirely. He said he was surprised he didn't get more work against Marshall, against which he had an interception anyway with a potential game-turning long return truncated by a penalty.

I'm not going to rip Hewitt. I watched a number of Marshall games this season and he sometimes demanded my attention. Against FIU, two sacks were among his six solo tackles and eight total tackles. I think Hewitt benefits greatly from being part of a defense that was, statistically, the conference's best (20.8 points per game, 351.8 yards per game).

But I will say this: if you're going to use team performance in selecting an individual award like Defensive Player of the Year, shouldn't you take into account that the defense gave up 59 points in regulation, then a touchdown and two-point conversion in overtime to lose its goal of an undefeated season? Even as Old Dominion skated up and down the field on FIU, Leonard interrupted things with a fumble recovery that he returned into field goal range.

The coaches-selected All-Conference USA team put a Marshall player at each level on the First Team defense and along the line and linebackers on the Second Team. If that's valid and the Marshall defense is so loaded, why isn't there a greater statistical variation between The Herd and FIU?  The Panthers allowed four more points and 12.0 more yards per game than Marshall. FIU finished third behind conference title game participants Louisiana Tech and Marshall in total defense and second behind Marshall in scoring defense.

Maybe a superior individual season?

Also, it's not as if Leonard wasn't a significant part of a pretty good defense, too: 5th nationally in red zone defense (he had two fumble recoveries and an interception in the red zone), third nationally in turnovers gained (he had nine of FIU's 33), tied for the national lead in fumbles recovered (Leonard had four of the 19).

Teams win games. Teams win championships. Individuals win awards. This year's Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year award should've gone to Richard Leonard.

But that's one black man's opinion. I could be wrong.