Getting redshirt junior cornerback/kick returner Richard Leonard back injected danger into FIU's return game. It gave defensive coordinator Josh Conklin options, especially when defending the run because Richard Leonard can fly. And, Saturday, ithe speed Leonard shows on defense and vision he shows on returns might be put to use on offense.
Which is why Leonard could be the player on whom FIU upset hopes hinge against Alabama-Birmingham.
This isn't what I would've said a month ago when I picked UAB as one of FIU's victims this season.
Alabama's played Mr. Potter to Alabama-Birmingham's Bailey Building & Loan since UAB started football in the 1990s. Alabama, with Nick Saban on the way, blocked UAB's hiring of Jimbo Fisher (you can hear Fisher's "Phew" all the way from Tallahassee). The Tuscaloosa-centric Board of Trustees blocked UAB's attempt at an on-campus stadium, leaving the Blazers playing in 87-year-old Legion Field. UAB's other facilities got a needed upgrade only this past offseason after the hiring of Bill Clark.
Clark's got the perpetually underachieving Blazers playing offensively up to speed -- literally. UAB's 17.2 yards per completion as a team and wide receiver JJ Nelson's 26.8 yards per catch jump out at you, but that all works off the run. UAB's run the ball 149 times in three games and thrown it only 86 times. With running backs Jordan Howard and D.J. Vinson averaging a combined 4.8 yards per carry, the threat of the run opens up space for Nelson, Josh McGee and tight end Gerald Everett.
These days in college football, good offenses eventually eat. You just have to keep them out of the buffet line. That's where Leonard comes in on defense. His and Jeremiah McKinnon's ability to single cover UAB's wideouts can allow the front seven plus strong safety Demarkus Perkins to do what they've done to three of four rushing attacks so far this season.
Don't expect Leonard and McKinnon to zero out the UAB streakers. That's not realistic for any cornerback short of All-America status. They just have to prevent a total strafing that would prohibit FIU from even attempting to have a balanced offensive attack.
And either the defense gives the offense a short field with some turnovers, scores on turnovers or Leonard needs to returning as many Hunter Mullins punts as he can. Mullins made the Ray Guy Award Watch List as one of the nation's best punters. Like Guy, Mullins can outkick his coverage and I'm not talking about his girlfriend. Alabama A&M took a Mullins punt back 77 yards. The Blazers cover kickoffs better, allowing 21.7 per return. Similarly, don't head for the bathroom early when FIU punts. Nelson's got more flat out speed than Louisville's James Quick, whose shifty speed didn't allow him to take full advantage of some holes in FIU's coverage.
Accepting the premise that even a good defensive job on UAB keeps the Blazers tractable in the mid-20s, that still means FIU's offense needs more juice that its shown in the last seven quarters against FBS competition. Don't be surprised if that's where Leonard comes in on offense.
FIU's had one, real, multi-play touchdown drive against a non-Wagner opponent this year and that was in a quasi-hurryup situation against Pitt. Otherwise, there's been a 9-yard drive and two two-play drives. FIU's last in Conference USA in average possession time.
FIU needs to increase offensive production. Neither quarterback, Alex McGough or E.J. Hilliard, gets it done consistently. The run game breaks off a big gain, then breaks down the next two or three plays. Should the Panthers try harder to create long drives? Or, do they throw a few more chips on the Big Play line and hope the long drives just wind up coming because UAB's defense isn't Louisville's or Pitt's?
That's why you might see Leonard, FIU's most dynamic player this year, on offense. The same vision, elusiveness and acceleration that makes him a threat on kickoffs can do the same on jet sweeps, reverses or bubble screens. It would be a logical thing to try.
UAB has started slowly in each of its three games. If FIU can get something going early, the Blazers might panic despite themselves.
Even if they do, I see them calming down by halftime. Their habit of slow starts doesn't look as self-destructive as FIU's habit of giving up points in economy-size chunks. That's a problem against a team that likes to score that way.
UAB 44, FIU 21.
But that's one the opinion of one Hoosier descended from Kentuckian grandparents (proving evolution). I could be wrong.