Ironic, appropriate or both that the first women's basketball home game after Cindy Russo's retirement is against Old Dominion, alma mater of Russo and longtime associate coach Inge Nissen?
You don't need a shot of Old Grand Dad to know that FIU's got a shot at Old D if they find their defense. it's the only area of clear superiority for the Monarchs. In Conference USA play, Old Dominion has given up only 58.9 points per game and 35.9 shooting from the field. FIU's given up 74.5 and 45.8. And that's with a conference-leading three-point shooting percentage defense of 27.2 percent.
Old Dominion's men share four characteristics with the FIU men -- good defense and conference losses to Western Kentucky and at Alabama-Birmingham and Middle Tennessee State. But the Monarchs lead the conference in rebounding margin while FIU is last in assists per game and scoring offense. Not a good combination when you've got a ball stagnant team against a good defense. We'll see whether the 12-day gap swung FIU's offensive game toward the acutely sharpened or the obtusely dulled.
FIU's arena-based teams could move wholly back into their spaces today, the last day any Miss Universe people or stuff should be in the arena or parking lot.
That's according an FIU synopsis of the agreement between the school and Miss Universe.
A seat count from various photos taken late last week after the arena got set up for the contest comes up with 1,118 chairs + an estimated 1,500 bleacher seats on each side. That's 4,118, but the Miss Universe folks got 1,000 comp tickets per night. Preliminaries, Dress Rehearsal and the Finals sold out. FIU's $5 per ticket gets them approximately $46,770.
The Athletics release, which already downgraded the FIU benefit estimate from $400,000 earlier in January to $330,000, included $50,000 to $70,000 in ticket revenue and assumed $140,000 of state matching funds on the First Generation Scholarship Fund.
Anyway, it's back to normal for the FIU Athletics hoi polloi, whose staffing, workload and pay sometimes remind me of this scene from the 1985 classic DC Comics Crisis on Infinite Earths No. 8.
Freshman diver Rebecca Quensel's 1-meter and 3-meter wins against Florida Gulf Coast Saturday earned her Conference USA Diver of the Week for the fifth time this season. Coincidentally, that makes her the fifth diver to with a season's quintet of Diver of the Week awards.
Sorry that we missed forward Kiandre'a Pound racking up her second consecutive C-USA Freshman Player of the Week award Monday.
The surprise for many at FIU was that Cindy Russo returned for the 2014-15 season.
Since the start of the 2012-13 season, the standard prediction around the athletic department had Russo's retirement dovetailing with the end of star guard Jerica Coley's eligibility in 2014.
Last season's ineligiblity of 6-3 Marita Davydova infuriated Russo just as much at the end of the season as the beginning. She never flat said it, but she had to know that dropped the ceiling for Coley's last team and her last team with postseason potential. With some semblance of an inside/outside game, FIU could put together a winning season and would hold a puncher's chance in the Conference USA tournament. Without it, you get what happened -- FIU rising only to the level of Coley's superpowers. Once those ran out like a power ring's charge in the 25th hour against eventual champ Middle Tennessee State in the conference tournament semis, that was it.
Russo returned for one more year, I think, almost out of reflex. This is what she's done every fall since 1977. Routines beget full body muscle memory. But fatigue strikes earlier and earlier as the years pass until the time the remembering muscle tells the mind, "Forget this, I'm tired."
All college coaches essay the role of parent on some level. For years, Russo had been the caretaker for her elderly mother. That's not a Wikipedia example of "sandwich generation" but it's still "sandwich generation." Most "sandwich generation" folks don't go on bi-weekly business trips to places like Bowling Green, Kentucky or Huntington, West Virginia (in January).
Soon after Russo's mother died in late December, rumors began around FIU athletics that she'd retire. Worn down even before being weakened by the flu that refuses to leave her -- I almost wanted to pour chicken soup through the cell phone when we spoke Thursday afternoon, she sounded so bad -- she saw the rest of the season looming like K2.
The vastness of Russo's career can't be overstated, both as far as FIU and women's basketball.
When she began as an assistant coach at 1970s powerhouse Old Dominion, many families actively discouraged their girls from participating in team sports. Heck, many girls actively discouraged girls from participating in team sports. Not feminine enough, you know. Many states didn't have high school girls basketball tournaments. Indiana, home of the most storied boys high school tournament, didn't start a girls counterpart until 1976, the same year the Summer Olympics first included women's basketball. Pro leagues? Please. The NCAA didn't sanction college women's basketball, but rather the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) did. The first AIAW national championship game to be nationally televised ended the 1977-78 season, Russo's first at FIU, where a few structures dotted a lot of space. Parking not a problem back then.
Now, well, look around. Despite the roles sexism and homophobia still play in college women's basketball, if you don't see the vast differences from 37-plus years ago, you're too obtuse to read this blog. FIU continues to grow an inexorably as The Blob.
Of course, Cindy Russo would've liked to finish this season, though it looks headed for a C-USA tournament one-and-done. No woman in sports Russo's age with any stature got there by leaving anything unfinished. All those women fought more battles than Patton just to get to the game time fight.
Russo's earned the right to say she's too tired to keep fighting.
Freshman quarterback Alex McGough started 11 games for the football team while freshman running back Alex Gardner tied redshirt junior Anthon Samuel for the led the team in rushing. Freshman swimmer Silvia Scalia and freshman diver Rebecca Quensel each have compiled four Conference USA performer of the week awards.
And now redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound has four Conference USA Freshmen of the Week awards. Pound averaged 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in FIU's losses at Western Kentucky and Marshall.
There used to be a saying among basketball coaches that "you can't press a good team." My first 21+ years in basketball country provided little evidence to the contrary, save No. 14 Cleveland State upsetting No. 3 Indiana in the first round of the 1986 NCAA tournament. I still believe an experienced, well-drilled team dismantles all but the most athletic presses and traps.
But "experienced" and "well-drilled" rarely describe even the best college-affiliated basketball teams these days. So many rosters get a remix each year. Players declare for the draft as soon as somebody tells them they have a shot. There's almost as much player movement between schools as there is between NBA or NBA D-League teams. Coaches seem to find it easier to get a team trapping and pressuring properly than getting a lineup proficient at dismantling it.
FIU can be a good team. They'd be better than 9-9 without spending eight consecutive road games during 44 days between home games. They're also a new mix of players -- Adrian Diaz, Kris Gulley, Daviyon Draper, Tashawn Desir, Ray Rodriguez all playing significant minutes this year, none on the floor for FIU last year.
That said, Saturday night, in a game between the two Conference USA schools without dedicated video people in their athletic departments, the Panthers looked completely discombobulated by Western Kentucky's press, improperly so. When Daviyon Draper said after the game that the press surprised the Panthers, I thought not sure why it should have, but I'm glad it did. I'd hate for a team to look that stunned seeing something they knew was coming.
Then, FIU either couldn't figure out who was supposed to stay back and help or when they got through, didn't know what to do with the numbers and space. FIU coach Anthony Evans said afterward he thought the Panthers got complacent in the second half and stopped attacking overall.
FIU maintained a lead most of the time Adrian Diaz sat with first half foul trouble, then slowly lost it before halftime. Diaz wound up playing only 25 minutes. After his second consecutive game with limited minutes by two early fouls, Diaz said he's got to stay out of foul trouble. The questionable quality of Thursday's calls on Diaz created a karmic situation satisfied by the way the refs turned a blind eye to Diaz repeatedly committing his fifth foul. Saturday, there wasn't much to beef about either way.
The Panthers have 12 days to sharpen themselves against the defensive schemes that caused their offensive malfunctions three of the last four games. This would've been the second travel partner game week, when you have one conference game because you're playing your travel partner, FAU in the case of FIU.
(For those unfamiliar with the travel partner system, it works thusly -- when FIU plays on a Thursday at, say, Marshall Feb. 26, FAU will play at Western Kentucky. Saturday, Feb. 28, FIU and FAU will switch opponents, just as Marshall and Western Kentucky did this week. So, there's only one conference game travel partner week, which was the first week of conference play and will be this week for everybody but FIU and FAU.)
The moving of the game from next Saturday to Feb. 3 to accommodate the Miss Universe pageant creates the almost-fortnight gap followed by five games in 10 days. At least the last two, Feb. 5 against Texas-San Antonio and Feb. 7 against UTEP, are at home.
Great crowd again, by the way. I think three of eight cabanas were in use.
Here's what both FIU basketballs face today against Western Kentucky:
Neither gender of Hilltoppers has lost to a team from outside the state of Kentucky since Thanksgiving. The women lost to Mississippi State Nov. 23 and the men lost to Stony Brook Nov. 25.
The last basketball game Western Kentucky lost was to Louisville. That's correct for either gender. The women lost to now-No. 4 Louisville 89-67 on Nov. 25 (apparently, the last truly bad day for Western basketball). The men's team lost to now-No. 6 Louisville, 76-67, on Dec. 20.
Since then, they've gone 18 for 18, 12 in a row for the women and six in a row for the men. The women sit just outside the Associated Press Top 25, atop the "Others Receiving Votes" group. The chances at Western for still-struggling FIU clearly rank around "Chaminade."
Western's men, who face FIU today on Lime Court at Formerly Sunblazer Arena, don't have that stature, but have been playing the best ball in Conference USA along with Louisiana Tech.
FIU could cause them problems, especially 6-10 Adrian Diaz inside. Western's got 6-10 Aleksej Rostov and 7-1 Ben Lawson to counter Diaz, but they combined for just over 27 minutes per game. Diaz plays 29.3 but unless he gets in foul trouble, look for him to get 35 or 36 minutes. Also, he'll need to help defensively on 6-6 senior forward George Fant, last week's Conference USA co-Player of the Week.
Both teams observed Casual Friday after winning overtime games Thursday night. Another reason besides winter weather the FAU-FIU travel partner swing ranks as the confrence's favorite: just get on the bus the next day for an hour. No lounging around in cramped airport seats. No possible plane issues. Western came down and broke a sweat.
FIU coach Anthony Evans put his name on the bottom of a letter asking for the same kind of crowd that filled the arena's lower sections for Thursday's win against Marshall. Could help -- before Thursday, the Hill People's last game outside Kentucky was Dec. 13 and they've played only five road games all season.
A happy Panthers bunch grinned and hugged through the alma mater Thursday night as if not quite ready for the come down usually already embraced by the time this closing credits tune sails.
And why not? In their 66-62 overtime win, they really made two comebacks to win in the kind of game where you usually get only one shot.
Down 38-21 early in the second half, FIU went on a 12-0 run as the Panthers got to Marshall on the defensive perimeter. As Marshall works inside about as well as NASCAR (and, frankly, aren't the most basketball intelligent team at either end), taking away the three turned the Thundering Herd into the Blundering Herd.
Center Adrian Diaz's points (two) matched his fouls (two) in the first half.
"When he's in foul trouble, I try to take him out," FIU coach Anthony Evans said. "Especially if he gets two quickly, we can't afford for him to get the third early because in the second half, I have to play more conservatively. So once he got two, he and Dennis (Mavin), I took them out and we had to ride it until halftime."
Early in the second half, Diaz's fouls edged ahead. Marshall's 6-9 Cheikh Sane threw himself into the part by throwing himself to the floor as Diaz got position for a rebound of a Marshall miss. A Diaz pass deflection launched Mavin to a hoop-and-harm three-point play on a fast break the previous possession. Now visibly roused by the bad call, Diaz blocked Sane the way an older brother blocks a younger one and whipped a pass out to Kris Gulley for another fast break layup.
At the next media timeout, with FIU closed to 38-31, FIU assistant coach Louis Rowe appeared to be telling Diaz to calm down and Diaz seemed to be saying, "I'm all right, I'm all right."
"Dennis was penetrating, getting to the basket," Evans said. "They were going to pay a lot of attention to him. They were downing the ball screen on the side so I thought the best advantage for us was a middle ball screen. Once he started doing that, he was able to penetrate, dish to somebody else, dish to Adrian. So it started to create some havoc with them."
After FIU closed to 38-33, Marshall got together a 9-2 run to go up 47-35 with 11:41 left. Running out of time wasn't so much a concern as running out of mental gas. Pick your sport, teams making big comebacks often have one in them, if that. If they get back into the game, they can ride that positive momentum and energy until either the end or the other team answers. If the other team answers, then you get saggy shoulders, the drained feeling. It's why it took until last weekend for an NFL playoff team to erase two 14-point deficits to win. Marshall had answered.
And the Panthers had something else for The Herd. Mavin ran off eight consecutive FIU points in the middle of a 16-4 FIU run that ended with a Diaz leaner in the lane to put FIU up for the first time all game 51-50.
The Panthers deserved to win. They outsmarted and outgutted Marshall. But they did get two important pieces of zebra help.
Diaz got his fourth foul with 10:16 left in regulation. Apparently, to get his fifth, he would've needed to use weaponry and insult each referee's mama. You can say that's karmic balance for some of the lousy calls on him earlier. Or, you could point to Marshall's laughably pathetic six for 16 from the line -- making FIU's 16 of 27 (59.3 percent) look like a team of Rick Barrys and Steve Alfords -- and 10 for 39 shooting from two-point range to conclude it flat didn't matter.
Also, the Mavin miss that Diaz jammed home for a 63-62 lead with 58 seconds left in overtime, the most important overtime bucket? Mavin didn't just travel on penetration. He ran for a first down.
The final book of game statistics and play-by-play didn't include an official attendance. A second quad set of cabanas now grace the east side of the court, giving the house eight cabanas to not sell. That moved the pep band over to Section A, the Lincoln Road section, while keeping their playlist back in 1967-87. That helped fill in the student section, on the south side. So, there was good noise for the first home game in Originally Sunblazer Arena since America had hope Annie wouldn't be the disaster it was.
"Hopefully, for our game Saturday, they'll all come back," Mavin said.
Just looked this up: last season's official average attendance, 1,474, placed FIU 265th in the nation and earned athletic director Pete Garcia a bonus of approximately $7,613.
This is the track team boarding a bus for their workouts. Behind them sit two of the four massive, parking lot cramping trailers that have something to do with getting FIU Arena ready for Miss Universe. Not sure why the scene struck me as metaphor, but...
In his season season as FIU's defensive coordinator, Josh Conklin became the highest paid assistant coach in FIU history ($200,000) and did a pretty good job of earning it.
Though working with better talent than most of us "experts" anticipated, Conklin had more than a little something to do with a defense that put up fat stretches of good football and collected turnovers like boys collect Hot Wheels -- first in the nation in fumble recoveries, fourth in total turnovers gained. Defense and special teams scored or set up 110 points for FIU and the Panthers had at least one defensive touchdown in each win.
Linebackers' coach Rob Harley coached the biggest surprise, a rapidly rambunctious group of mostly young linebackers. Before FIU, he'd been a graduate assistant on the coaching staff that included defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, now the head coach at Pitt.
FIU sources confirmed a Sports Illustrated report that Conklin will be taking the same position at Pitt. The source also said Harley will be going with Conklin.
FIU's two quarterbacks for 2012 and 2013 were Jake Medlock and E.J. Hilliard. Medlock transferred to Valdosta State last year with one year of eligibility remaining. Now, Hilliard will be doing the same, he announced via Twitter Thursday.
As early enrollment begins Friday, FIU should be welcoming Lakeland Christian All-State quarterback Christian Alexander, Central running back Anthony Jones and Central defensive lineman-projected linebacker Fermin Silva.
The flu that's sweeping Florida put FIU women's basketball coach Cindy Russo on the injury report for Thursday's 75-60 loss to Middle Tennessee State.
Central Florida's made official that the season opener for the state's two largest universities will be Sept. 5 at UCF. This is the game UCF asked FIU to postpone this year so the team from Orlando could have a bye week after playing Penn State overseas. FIU filled the gap with Wagner.
FIU goes to Bloomington for the first of a home-and-home with Indiana Sept. 12. They get what should be a layup against UMass on Oct. 3. Between those two games, the Panthers still need another game. Wonder if Booker T.'s available...
Larry Dennis started the last five of the nine games he played this season for FIU, but hasn't played since the FIU win against Florida Gulf Coast in which he had no points and one rebound in seven minutes. Dennis declared on social media he had no problems with anybody nor did he have problems in the classroom. He didn't feel he was getting any better as a player, so he's transferring to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
Swimming & Diving, vs. Central Connecticut, TCU and FAU, Thursday, noon
Women's Basketball, vs. Middle Tennessee State, Thursday, 6 p.m.
Swimming & Diving, FIU Relays, Saturday, 1 p.m.
FIU announced they've signed a five-year deal with two one-year options with addidas that'll allow the athletic equipment and apparel manufacturer to keep clothing all FIU teams, as they have done since 2005. The deal's announced as being worth $2.6 million.
That includes uniforms for FIU's sports teams; a suite at FIU Stadium; and signs at FIU Stadium, FIU Arena and FIU Baseball Stadium.
For the third time this season, 6-foot redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound has been named the Conference USA Freshman of the Week. She averaged 14.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game in FIU's 1-2 week.
FOOTBALL, PAST & FUTURE (?)
USA Football chose FIU commit Austin Maloney, a 5-11 wide receiver out of Columbus High, for its Under 19 team that'll play Team Canada in the 2015 International Bowl Feb. 7. Maloney gained 939 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on his 59 catches this season and returned a punt for a touchdown.
Wide receiver Glenn Coleman, who graduated as a student in December, and safety Justin Halley will play for the American side in the Medal of Honor Bowl Game Saturday in Charleston, South Carolina. Especially for Coleman, who averaged 20.3 yards per catch on his 23 catches, this is a huge opportunity to showcase his talent for NFL scouts.
Swimming & Diving, vs. Central Florida, Texas Christian, FAU, Thursday, noon
Women's Basketball, vs. Middle Tennessee State, Thursday, 6 p.m.
No longer the new kids on the block, FIU's still given less of a chance in the Conference USA basketball jungle than New Kids on the Block would be. But in the mid-major hoops world, all hoop dreams remain in play until you lose in the conference tournament.
At least the 7-6 FIU men know they'll participate in that this season, making the conference schedule about something more tangible than media guide filler. As for the 3-8 women, though they played perhaps their best game of the season in beating Bowling Green 68-55 in Tuesday's consolation game of the FIU Sun & Fun Classic, they're still piecing together who best fits with whom and where.
Redshirt freshman Kiandre'a Pound, clearly FIU's best Panther, lacks the range and playmaking ability omniweapon Jerica Coley had, but she's a smooth, confident scorer with height (6-0), build and athleticism that pushes her high end above Coley's. Over the last six games, Gulf Coast Community College transfer guard Destini Feagin has established a place on the perimeter and her scoring numbers the last four games have been, in order, 3, 6, 10 and 15 points.
The erratic offensive games of point guard Taylor Shade and senior center Marita Davydova don't cause FIU as many problems as the Panthers erratic team defense. Whether slow afoot, on the help or on the rotation, the Panthers' defense arrives on Miami time far too often. Usually, when you see a team giving up 45.8 percent shooting from the field (335th out of 343 Division I teams), they aren't outrebounding teams by 8.1 per game. Check out the teams ranked 333rd (Saint Francis, PA), 334th (Alabama A&M), 336th (Loyola Maryland) and 337th (Grambling) in field goal percentage defense. Respectively, they average -14.6, -11.4, -8.2 and -18.4 in per game rebound margin.
Fellow Sun Belt refugees Middle Tennessee State, last year's regular season and tournament champion, and Western Kentucky have the best RPI. Western (11-2) and Marshall (8-3) have the best records going into conference play.
On the men's side, "I think it's a great league," FIU men's coach Anthony Evans said. "Obviously, UTEP, La Tech (the preseason favorite), Old Dominion have been playing really well. Charlotte, too. Then, I think there's a second tier of teams and we're probably in the mix."
Evans knows what he's going to get from fifth-year senior guard Dennis Mavin and center Adrian Diaz every night. I asked him who else needs to gain that regularity of production to move FIU into that upper echelon of C-USA.
“The other guys, the Daviyon Drapers, the Ray Rodriguezes, the Jason Boswells, Marco Porcher Jimenez, if those guys continue to improve, then it helps us because now we’ll have more people they have to worry about than just two guys,” Evans said. “That’s what our numbers say. If those guys are making shots and playing well, I think we’re a really good team.”
FIU plays the 6 p.m. games in the 30th Sun & Fun Classic, a women's basketball staple at FIU since the Sunblazer days, over the next two days at FIU Arena. I've never seen a team whose results could so clearly be gauged by a single statistic. Seven FIU opponents have shot 47.6 percent or better from the field. FIU is 0-7 in those games. Two FIU opponents have shot under 47.6 from the field, in fact, under 40 percent. FIU's record in those games: 2-0.
Tennessee State running back Tevin Spells claimed on Twitter Monday that he was transferring to play at FIU. Spells ran for 199 yards on 49 carries for Tennessee State last year as a sophomore after apparently doing most of his work on special teams his freshman year.
Considering the flaky health of running backs, you can never have too many good ones. But Spells does come to a backfield that already has Alex Gardner, Napoleon Maxwell and Anthon Samuel, each of whom already put up better numbers against better college competition than Spells.
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.
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.
Maybe they'll know up at That School Up North Near Del Boca Vista in two years. FAU's president figures that's how long it'll take for the school to build all the fun, new stuff that the $16 million Schmidt Family Foundation gift makes possible. They're still going after the rest of the $45 to $50 million needed for this project. But they got Richard Schmidt, an FAU donor but not an FAU athletics donor, to pony up a pile of green.
This should put FIU on notice that it's time to get up offa its thing and find some Other Peoples Money of its own. And do so before FAU decides to do something about that locker room-deficient basketball arena and puts FIU a lap down.
Few points and a few fans.
It turned out the 38 points FIU allowed Kennesaw State in Tuesday's 59-38 win established a new record for opponent offensive futility. Kennesaw's 26.9 shooting percentage also might've been a new low, but the occasional sketchiness of early FIU basketball games makes that a tough confirmation. Your thoughts on Kennesaw's shooting, Judge?
After an overabundance of home football games (eight), there's a paucity of home men's basketball games (three) before the turn of the year. Despite a team fat with newbies, skinny on expectations, bad opponents and an established student tradition of giving basketball games the Friday afternoon lecture hall class treatment, FIU drew an average of 1,276 fans.
That's 251st in the nation. But it's far from the Kiwanis Club-sized gatherings of past early season games against schools athletically one step above those you see advertised on Judge Judy.
UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES
Women's Basketball, vs. Central Florida, 6 p.m., Saturday
Redshirt freshman Kiandre'a Pound averaged 21.5 points and 12.0 rebounds per game over two games in the FIU Thanksgiving Classic. That earned Pound Conference USA Women's Basketball Freshman of the Week honors.
Cindy Russo didn't even have to offer a scholarship to get FIU women's basketball's best post-Jerica Coley recruit. The school wound up getting a delayed two-for-one during the recruiting of redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound's brother, former FIU defensive lineman Andre Pound.
"I was here on his visit when they were building the stadium," Kiandre'a Pound said. "When they were showing him around, I was there and I fell in love with the school the first time I came. I think I was in seventh or eighth grade. I always said I was going to come here. God made a way when I got an offer from them."
Seeing the athleticism in Pound that the FIU roster needed, Russo recruited the 6-0 Pound as a guard. But, figuring Pound could use her quickness on the bigs inside, Russo moved her to forward. After 34 minutes total the first two games this season, Pound's logged 29, 36 and 37 minutes while putting up 24, 25 and 18 points, respectively, on 24 of 52 shooting from the field (46.1 percent) and 16 of 18 (88.9 percent) shooting from the free throw line. After FIU's 74-61 loss to Virginia in Sunday's FIU Thanksgiving Classic closer, Pound was named to the All-Tournament Team.
Though Pound looks more like a kicker's or wide receiver's sister than a defensive tackle's, she moves with strength. Against Arizona Friday, she powered through a Wildcat getting full palm on the ball near the apex of her jump and fired in a baseline shot. Another time, she simply muscled through the Arizona defense for a shot. She brought in some contested rebounds in the manner of a mother snatching a toy from an overly grabby child in Target.
"I've been physically strong. I'm (only) 146 pounds," Pound said. "I think it's a mental thing. I don't really think about the physical. You feel like you're strong, you're just going to be strong."
Despite Pound's emergence, FIU remains winless after five games.
The other tournament teams -- Arizona, Virginia, Toledo -- all had radio play-by-play broadcasts from the tournament. FIU doesnt' have hoe or away basketball radio for either gender. Maybe this juxtaposition hit me because I couldn't follow the FIU men's basketball game against Wright State Friday by radio as I drove to the game.
Toledo has radio from the road for women's basketball. FAU has men's basketball road radio as well as coach's shows for football and men's basketball each. But FIU has nothing?
The men's basketball team suffered its first loss of the season, 78-72 to Georgia Southern Monday night. They'll continue their tour of the mid-major minor south at the Spartanburg Marriott Upstate Classic in South Carolina, where they'll play South Carolina-Upstate, Wright State and Cal State Fullerton on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Junior quarterback EJ Hilliard has asked for and received his scholarship release. That's the second consecutive year a quarterback has asked to transfer from the program after quarterback Jake Medlock last year.