UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES
Women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic, vs. Arizona, Friday, 6 p.m.
Women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic, vs. Toledo or Virginia, Sunday, 2 p.m.
The FIU football season ended Saturday with the defense allowing 17 points, a paucity by modern college-affiliated football standards; all the Panthers points coming on two return touchdowns; the offense shut out; and, finally, a loss to a team a step below at least two teams FIU beat.
That perfectly summarizes the second season of the FIU Football Family Affair Under Ron Turner.
Yes, 4-8 remains below .500, below the standard FIU fans set during the bowl seasons, below the record needed to generate the kind of charge about the program that electrifies recruiting or a fan base. It's also three wins better than 1-11, one to three wins better than any prognasticator predicted in August and two late game collapses from bowl eligibility.
And let's remember how The Firing and the Fallout did for FIU football's immediate program health what that little nuclear problem did for Chernobyl's community health. The Panthers began 2014 still being laughed at nationwide after being one of college football's favorite punch lines in 2013. Losing to FCS good Bethune-Cookman, getting the first win against FCS eventually good Wagner -- a little like losing your virginity to a street whore -- didn't change much.
To go from that to a couple of defensive stops/offensive first downs from bowl eligibility says Odysseus sits closer to home today than previously. So a bronze star sticker for the overall season.
Of course, better talent helps the situation. Most of the starts at each of eight different positions featured players not on the roster last year, ineligible last year or suspended for part of last year. All upgraded talent at their positions, some exponentially, i.e, freshman Jordan Wint and redshirt freshman Jordan Guest among the linebackers and junior transfer Anthon Samuel, freshmen Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell at running back.
Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith continued to evolve into one of the nation's best at his position. Defenses scheme to take him away from FIU and he still finds ways to produce. Barring injury, Smith's next two years will satisfy tight end snobs. And maybe even The Mackey Award folks.
And, Richard Leonard had perhaps the greatest individual seasons FIU will see from a defensive back/kick returner. Saturday's 74-yard punt return touchdown put the dodging, flourishing signature on a season thick with impact plays. His four return touchdowns broke the school record held by TY Hilton. He broke Hilton's FIU record for punt return average in a season of 23.25 with a 23.77 average that would've led the nation had Leonard had enough returns to qualify (needed 15, had 13). His 1,184 total return yards in a season rank second in FIU history behind Lionell Singleton's 1,305 in 2007 (lot of points allowed that year, lot of kickoffs to return).
The spectacular returns, the anticipation whenever you saw a hole and hoped Leonard did, too because you knew if he hit it, later...forget those for a second. He made some plays in run defense, including a fourth down stop against Alabama-Birmingham, 5-9 cornerbacks usually decide to avoid. He led the team in fumble recoveries with four. He had one interception in the end zone against FAU and one against Marshall that killed a drive in the red zone, the latter on a night Marshall's Rakeem Cato almost refused to throw at him.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings up a question one former FIU football staffer posed to me: why wouldn't Leonard declare for the NFL draft now? While a redshirt senior year helps him grow in his craft, he won't grow in height or wingspan, Leonard's main physical shortcomings. Odds are against any defensive back repeating such a special season. He scares opposing kickers, punters and quarterbacks like he's wearing Jason's goalie mask while holding Leatherface's chainsaw with Freddy Kruger's gloves. They'll avoid him. The quarterbacks did over the last five games this season.
Also, Leonard turned 23 in September. If he waits another year, he'd be a rookie at age 25. Nothing wrong with that except it's one less year on a NFL or CFL career of indeterminate length.
Leonard finished tied for third in touchdowns on the team this season, behind sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith's eight and Samuel's five. That speaks to much of what FIU most needs to repair this offseason.
The defense and special teams scored or set up 110 points or 39.8 percent of FIU's 276 points. The Panthers didn't win a game in which they didn't get a defensive touchdown. They still haven't won a game under Turner without piling up turnovers the way I used to pile up Peter Bondra's hockey cards: four in the lone 2013 win; six, six, four and five in the four wins this season. That's an ominous overreliance. The downside swallowed FIU against North Texas, Rice, even Texas-San Antonio. Sort of like the 1970s "energy crisis" taking an oil barrel upside the heads of American car companies continuing to crank out unapologetically huge, low gas mileage Monte Carlos and LTDs in the 1970s. Or rising gas prices taking an oil barrel upside the heads of American car companies banking heavily on SUVs in the early part of this century.
Point the finger at freshman quarterback Alex McGough because, well, he's the quarterback. But don't make it the index finger and don't make it the middle finger (that's just rude).
The coaches tend to like the way McGough runs the offense, how he handles the play options and that he usually knows when to throw the ball away. Or, at least, he does all those things, especially the third, better than junior EJ Hilliard. That's why once McGough got the job, you knew they'd ride or die with him this season. If the guy with more experience isn't the guy coaches believe is better from the neck up and he doesn't have a decisive physical advantage, he's the backup. It's why when fifth-year senior Wes Carroll held the ball too long and took a horrible sack late against Western Kentucky in 2011, starting the chain of events leading to FIU's 10-9 loss on a walk-off field goal, I wasn't surprised when redshirt freshman Jake Medlock was named the starter the next week.
McGough made some bad decisions. He made some bad throws. Freshmen do that. He also never got the best pass protection -- ehhh o-line and freshman running backs often screw up pass protection help -- and his wide receiving corps redefines "frustrating." For fifth-year senior wideout Glenn Coleman and his sometimes superhero abilities, with great talent comes great inconsistency. The rest seem to have all the physical tools to be good college mid-major receivers. But just having the tools doesn't mean you can build the house.
I'm not counting freshmen wide receivers, Dennis Turner and Thomas Owens, in that mix. They didn't contribute the way Gardner and Samuel did at running back, but it's unfair to judge them by that standard. Apples and mangoes. Turner, especially, you'd like to see grow into a viable big play option that'll keep defenses from packing the box tighter than the rows on the last FIU football charter.
In recruiting, FIU's got two Alexanders, Lakeland Christian's 6-3, 205-pound Christian and Booker T. Washington's 5-10 170-pound Maurice, verbally committed. From what I've heard, read and seen, Christian Alexander's more Ron Turner's style of quarterback while Maurice Alexander's the kind of dual-threat quarterback proliferating throughout football. Not that Christian can't run and Maurice can't throw the ball well from the pocket. If FIU comes out of Signing Day with both, camp will be enlivened by the All-Alexander Shootout between McGough and the two freshmen for the starting job.
As far as game-breaking wide receiver commits, Central's Anthony Jones is listed as a wideout, although that might be where he played while Central had Joe Yearby and Dalvin Cook. Jones is tearing it up at running back this year. Jones ran for 156 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries and took a post-safety free kick back for a touchdown as the Rockets scored the last 28 points in a 35-19 playoff win at previously undefeated Hallandale High.
FIU's got three running backs who've shown they can wiggle or break a tackle and go 60 on you. The Panthers need wide receivers that make opposing coaches stomachs do a flippy flop. They don't have to shop locally but it seems everybody else comes down to the 305 Player Mall for their explosives. FIU should be able to do the same. They are doing a better job of developing relationships down here.
I like the defense, back to front. This season, the defense possessed the kind of dynamic play you expect from a school based in Florida, especially South Florida. It's set up to continue in that manner. Young, fast hitters, the kind that apply hits that make Big Mama in the stands worry about her baby, among the linebackers. Speed on the corners with Leonard (if he comes back), junior Jeremiah McKinnon (very happy to see his Pick Six Saturday), sophomore Wilkenson Myrtil and freshman Shemarke Spence. Hitting and ball-hawking at safety with redshirt sophomore Jordan Davis. Watch FIU's coverage units and you can see the speed and excellent tackling abilities sophomore Deonte Wilson and redshirt freshman Vontarius can bring to the defense next year.
They've got commits from Central's Olin Cushion and Booker T.'s Ocie Rose. I haven't seen much of Rose. What I've seen of Cushion made me say, "They got a commit from him? Good deal."
Up front, there's another year of defensive ends Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine chasing quarterbacks (read that sentence out loud in Birmingham and watch UAB's Cody Clements flinch). All the defensive tackles return for at least one more season. Hopefully, they'll be more stout against the big Peterbilt running backs, their one consistent vulnerability. Overall, FIU needs another few defensive linemen to really set themselves up for 2016 and beyond.
FIU punting brings out the Tums. You want to know that when you need a bomb, you won't get a dud. FIU doesn't know that now. Sophomore kicker Austin Taylor's 15 of 21 season on field goal attempts counts as adequate. Kickers and punters are fungible anyway. FIU should always be able to find returners on its roster.
Next year will tell us if which direction the FIU football program is headed in a definitive manner. This year did what it needed to do -- got the program out of the homeless shelter and into a low cost apartment. Now, it's time to build the house.