Football training camp begins today with FIU searching for playmakers instead of being a collegiate version of ESPN’s Playmakers as the Panthers were a year ago.
Pick any two Road Runner cartoons and you’d see more explosive plays than FIU provided a year ago. Only 14 turnovers gained by the defense or special teams, 112th in the nation, and four of those came against Southern Mississippi, the nation’s most generous team with turnovers. Only 11 quarterback sacks, also 112th. Only one touchdown of any kind from a play longer than 20 yards. Only 41 plays of any kind longer than 20 yards, 3.41 per game. And those last two sentences count kick and punt returns.
For any football team, those facts drop a team off in One Win Country. For a college football team in this state, even one going through raze-rubble-raise as FIU did last year, it’s an abomination.
That also shows how much FIU missed cornerback/kick returner Richard Leonard and wide receiver Glenn Coleman last year. In 2012, Leonard had a 100-yard punt return touchdown and a 49-yard punt return touchdown. Coleman averaged over 20 yards per catch in two different games.
Without long plays, turnovers and sacks, FIU needed far more precision than a team of its maturity could muster. Everybody needs cheap points. Nobody needs them more than FIU.
Quarterback: Which happens first? Junior E.J. Hilliard gets the ball out of his hands faster with good decisions or freshman Alex McGough adjusts to the speed of the college game? Because that’ll determine if Hilliard stays at the top of the chart longer than “You Light Up My Life” or if McGough goes from freshman boy to The Man and brings the “End of the Road” to Hilliard.
Hopefully, the quarterback situation won’t split the team the way some of the departed tell me Jake Medlock vs. Hilliard did last year.
Bud Martin, Akil Dan-Fodio, Luke Medlock will take snaps in practice and have their moments. But if anybody besides McGough or Hilliard sees significant playing time this year, only EA Sports will let FIU score in the double digits.
Sort of digression: FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said at the announcement of Ron Turner’s hiring, “He is no doubt, in my opinion and a lot of people’s opinion, the best quarterbacks coach in the country….”
So why is Cam Turner, zero previous years as quarterbacks coach, the Turner that's been listed as FIU’s quarterbacks coach the last two seasons? Especially when Ron Turner seemed to be the one coaching the quarterbacks last year.
Running back: When a coach says it’ll be “running back by committee” and not “we’ll see who steps up and takes the job,” he’s not sold on any of his current runners and knows the unknown that are freshmen.
They needed Lamarq Caldwell’s big body to take the battering from waves of tacklers crashing through a leaky line. Still, FIU overused him. Now is when redshirt junior Shane Coleman runs himself into playing time or just runs through practices toward a degree (hopefully). You can tell by the carries he was given during spring practices the coaches want him to own a role.
A pair of nifty sophomores need to show they can come off knee injuries, Alphonso Randolph’s suffered last fall and Silas Spearman’s suffered in the spring scrimmage. That Bowling Green transfer Anthon Samuel, out with a concussion in the spring, will be a walk-on says what they’re expecting from him.
The door’s open for freshmen Alex Gardner, a three-star rated running back out of Jacksonville Raines, and Napoleon Maxwell out of St. Petersburg Admiral Farragut. After all, FIU got only one run longer than 20 yards from its running backs last year, Spearman’s 32-yarder against Southern Mississippi.
Wide receivers/tight ends: The 2012 offense exploded when FIU started getting the ball to big, fast Coleman and Willis Wright. Their academic failure left FIU with T.J. Lowder (Johnny Quick speed, inconsistent hands), Dominique Rhymes (height, speed, inconsistent hands), Clinton Taylor (speed, inconsistent hands), DeAndre Jasper (speed, inconsistent hands) and Fred Porter (height, hands, gets-there speed).
FIU pass catchers got open for a lot of big plays last year. The catching and running (without fumbling) part of big plays proved a problem. And that’s why the wideouts produced only 16 receptions over 20 yards.
If Coleman’s all that he was, FIU’s offense gets a needed jolt from jump street. All 6-5 of Michigan State transfer Juwan Ceasar should give whoever’s throwing the ball a big, long target downfield. He came out of Coral Park High as a three-to-four-star recruit. So did James Louis, who hasn’t seen the field after transferring to FIU in 2011, but Louis isn’t 6-5.
FIU’s sliver of light in last year’s offensive nuclear winter, leading receiver sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith, could be the best tight end in Conference USA. Cory White got a sixth year from the NCAA. Junior Ya’keem Griner also will get his share of plays unless Turner goes away from the two-tight end offense he loves.
Offensive line: Everybody’s back in the same place – left tackle David Delsoin, left guard Jordan Budwig, center Donald Senat, right guard Jordan White and right tackle Aaron Nielsen.
The running game should benefit the most from the line slogging through 12 games together last season. Even subtracting the 52 sacks allowed, FIU averaged only 3.25 yards per carry. That hurt on first down. Be it player youth or coach stodginess, Ron Turner didn’t exactly feel comfortable doing much risky on first down last year. So, over and over again, it was here you go, Lamarq, good luck!
FIU’s inability to gain yards on first down led to the nation’s worst third down conversion percentage, 22.5 percent. That led to the defense being on the field too often. That led to the defense began breaking down with about four games left.
And that leads us to this year’s defense.
Defensive line: Imarjaye Albury, Marques Cheeks, Darrian Dyson each came out of high school with three-star ratings in 2012. And Leonard Washington, Dyson’s teammate at New Orleans Edna Karr, actually had a better 2011 than Dyson.
Training camp will be about finding who of the above will or won’t evolve into being proper replacements for defensive tackles Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman. On the ends, redshirt junior Wonderful Monds II should press seniors Denzell Perine and Giovanni Francois for playing time.
Linebackers: How long and how big?
How long will junior Luis Rosado hold off sophomore Treyvon Williams at middle linebacker? Rosado’s taller, older, more experienced, but Williams just keeps showing up in the middle of plays. Rosado needs a good enough camp to keep coaches from believing it’s worth keeping Williams’ advantages in time and upside on the bench.
Now that the NCAA says schools can feed Division I athletes unlimited meals to student-athletes – the rule went into effect Friday – maybe junior Patrick Jean puts more meat on those 6-3 bones. Unless FIU’s not up to feeding its student-athletes, that is, which would be a shame. A bigger Jean, with his range and Davison Colimon’s speed would give FIU linebackers that can create fumbles, sacks, interceptions.
Secondary: Leonard looked fantastic in the spring. So did his cousin, junior Jeremiah McKinnon.
McKinnon’s always around the ball on defense and special teams. On special teams, he makes the tackle. On defense, he makes the tackle after his positioning somehow wouldn’t result in a breakup or interception. Signs of change should come in training camp.
McKinnon might give Randy Harvey a run for the cornerback spot opposite Leonard. At times, teams ignored Sam Miller’s side of the field and picked on Harvey last year. They’ll be even less apt to try Leonard, so whoever’s over there will stay busy. Sophomore Wilkenson Myrtil also stood out in the spring. If guys like Myrtil, Leonard and McKinnon have game-turning speed. FIU picked off only seven passes last year and returned them only 48 yards.
Three of those interceptions came from fifth-year senior safety Justin Halley. Halley’s shoulder injury kept him out of spring practice. August will give him time to get sharp. Homicidal hitter Demarkus Perkins occupies the other safety spot. He’ll do well not to hurt somebody in training camp.
Special teams: No jobs are more open than kicker and punter, the most fungible positions on the team. After a bad day for the booters, I half expect to see the coaching staff pulling up at Panther Mover stops around Camp Mitch like contractors looking for day laborers. “Can any of you punt or kick a football? Want unlimited food or at least breakfast bars?”
Redshirt sophomore punter Chris Ayers lost his job midseason to quarterback Jake Medlock, who transferred to Valdosta State for his senior season. Now, Ayers will be challenged by freshman Luke Medlock, Jake’s younger brother and an All-State punter at Jacksonville Fletcher. And there’s also walk-on Jose Laphitzondo from Argentina.
The kicker contest will be between sophomores Austin Taylor, Serge Sroka, Karson Dietrich, Cody Hodgens and freshman Scott Wade. Taylor nailed a 52-yarder last season. But he was only eight of 12 overall and nobody kicked off well.
Among the returners, everybody’s practicing to be Leonard’s backup.
Training camp won’t be open to the public. When I told another college football writer that, a perplexed look preceded, “Are they kidding? With what they drew last year, they should be opening everything to everybody.”
I agree. We were watching a Miami Dolphins practice at that moment. An open practice with fans welcome to watch the team learn their new offense, practice various unique plays and try various personnel combinations. Day camps brought kids by for part of practice.
Meanwhile, FIU closes practice despite running a basic 4-3 defense and what an opposing Conference USA assistant told Athlon is “pretty basic, a pro-style offense. They will huddle and do what Ron Turner did somewhere in the NFL.”
Whatever. Here we go.