September 16, 2012

A few thoughts on UCF 33, FIU 20

When asked about quarterback Jake Medlock, who went off with a hand problem for half a fourth quarter touchdown drive, Mario Cristobal said he would be fine. But when asked about Rhodes, who left in the third quarter favoring his right ankle or foot, Cristobal admitted quietly, “He’s a little banged up.” He sounded a little worried. This is the second straight game Rhodes has had to be sidelined. Rhodes left the locker room with a big ice bag on his right foot and ankle.

Now, to the nitty, as Joe Bob Briggs used to say…

Jake Medlock was one for four passing before Kedrick Rhodes had one carry.

Shane Coleman got his first college carry before Kedrick Rhodes had one carry.

The Comcast Spots Southeast play-by-play folks, according to my Twitter timeline, blew three FIU names (“George Cristobal?”) before Kedrick Rhodes had one carry.

Kedrick Rhodes first carry went for 10 yards.

I understand and am a proponent of, calling plays with a slight randomness. Or, flat out taking the unexpected tack when negotiating a defense. But if it’s not working, get back to doing what you do and seeing how well you can work that. FIU didn’t until the second half when down 23-0.

Even with T.Y. Hilton, FIU’s offense worked off the run. (By the way, Wesley Carroll made the UCF game and dropped by the radio booth after seeing his high school team, St. Thomas Aquinas, fall to Don Bosco from New Jersey Friday night. Carroll’s staying in shape with the UFL restarting and a new version of the USFL starting. )

“The first half, we really weren’t running, we were trying to discover the pass,” running back Darian Mallary said. “We came in, we discussed that we were going to run the ball down their throats. It’s our offense. It’s what we’ve got to do. Whatever works for us, we’re going to keep doing it. If it’s not working, we’ve got to change it up.”

As anticipated, UCF adjusted after last week’s results in Columbus (Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller tore through UCF) and West Dade (Medlock runs for 141 on Akron). When FIU ran the read option, the Knights were going to take the ball out of Medlock’s hands.

“They were in squeeze technique and the guy had me all the way,” Medlock said. “That’s why I had to keep giving it.”

Here’s Rhodes’ first six carries: 10, 1, 2, 14, 5, minus 5 (on that last one, I think Medlock could’ve kept and dipped outside the right end, but, hey, not the point here). Normally, that would take us to the end of the first quarter. That was Rhodes’ entire first half workload. Mallary had three first half carries, two as FIU ran out the clock to halftime.

In the second half, FIU had 19 runs for 130 yards. One of those was a sack for a 10-yard loss, so really 18 runs for 140 yards while trying to come back from a 23-0 deficit. They had 11 planned runs in the first half while going from 0-0 to 23-0.

When throwing in the first half, Medlock (one of eight, 4 yards) was like a garden hose with the finger over the hole. There were plays to be had, most notably a short pass to tight end Akil Dan-Fodio, rumbling up the middle past linebackers and a secondary frozen by play action. Medlock so overthrew the pass that the 6-4 Dan-Fodio could get only an outstretched hand on it. Hit that and Dan-Fodio could’ve run halfway back home to Stone Mountain, Georgia.

None of this helped the defense, which clearly needs all the help it can get. The communication problems in the secondary continue. The first of several big passes to UCF wide receiver J.J. Worton saw him mosey into the secondary and get dropped like a cell phone into Brighthouse Networks Stadium. Boom, 36-yard gain, to set up the first UCF touchdown on the kind of error senior safety Johnathan Cyprien said this week the secondary’s been working to eliminate. One shudders to think what Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater (72 of 88 for 855 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions in three games) might do next week.

Tourek Williams called getting more pressure on Bortles in the second half “a matter of want-to.” They did get Bortles throwing off his back foot some. But, too often, FIU’s not getting there with a four-man rush and usually not getting there with five. Storm Johnson made some big plays, got stuffed on some runs. He’s that kind of back now. Brynn Harvey ran well on FIU, especially in the first half. The defense, again, got it together after a half, but that’s well below the standard they’ve set for themselves.

UCF won special teams. Rannell Hall averaged 32.0 yards per kickoff return. Worton averaged 12.0 yards per punt return. Especially the latter kept UCF in great field position the entire first half. Then, there's the bad snap by Mitch MacCluggage. FIU goes years without snapping problems and now has them in two of the first three games.

FIU got a little break from the Conference USA refs in the fourth quarter down 30-14. The game’s wildest play saw UCF’s Troy Davis strip Medlock inside the FIU 5, linebacker Terrance Plummer grab the ball and FIU’s Giancarlo Revila, not giving up on the play, grab Plummer and cause him to lose the ball. FIU wide receiver Glenn Coleman recovered. I think that’s the only time he’s touched the ball this year. Anyway, officials ruled Plummer had the ball long enough to qualify for “possession.” Possession? I wasn’t sure he had it long enough to cop a feel. It was ruled two changes of possession, first down FIU. Had it just been ruled a Medlock fumble eventually recovered by Coleman, it would’ve been fourth and 17 from the FIU 4.

FIU proceeded to drive 96 yards, some of it with Lorenzo Hammonds Jr. at quarterback after Medlock got hurt, to a touchdown. One of those life lessons people like to say sports teach: never stop hustling because you never know what can make a difference.

Speaking of which, here’s three plays that could’ve easily gone the other way/not happened and changed the outcome.

The safety: Mitch MacCluggage snapped the ball over Jack Griffin’s head so that Griffin’s only prudent move would be to make sure the ball got out of the end zone for a safety. Two points that kept FIU on the two-score side of the tracks in the second half. In the fourth quarter, when FIU scored its third touchdown, they were down 30-20 and had to go for two to make it a one-score game. Without the safety, kick the extra point and it’s a seven-point, one-score-does-it-all deficit and UCF is sweating.

(An aside: lousy two-point conversion play on concept. FIU lined up with no backs and ran no motion. With UCF having packed the middle of the box, thus cutting off any possible quarterback draw, only the drunkest in the stadium didn’t know FIU would be throwing and likely something quick. Medlock tried to gun it through tight coverage to Wayne Times – no go).

Hall’s layout 47-yard catch: I don’t know if the atmosphere came through on the TV broadcast or if you had to be there. But when FIU walked down to score on the first possession of the second half, then stopped UCF, a palpable mood change swept the stadium. FIU got a first down, then punted, but you could see the Panthers had it together. UCF was starting on its 17, its worst field position of the day. Brynn Harvey got stuffed on first down for no gain by Isame Faciane and Jordan Hunt. On second and 10, UCF reached back for the big Joe Frazier left hook and got it when Rannell Hall did a Superman take off leap to snag a 47-yard bomb to the FIU 21. Richard Leonard couldn’t have had much better coverage. If Bortles had dropped the ball to Hall in stride, Leonard was in position to make a play on Hall or the ball. Hall landed, held the ball, skidded, stopped, then the ball rolled away. The initial ruling of incomplete was reversed, properly, upon review. Instead of third and 10 from their own 17 -- and the Knights were one for four on third down in the second half – they had first and 10 at the FIU 21. Two plays later, they scored to restore the 23-point lead. That catch and ensuing touchdown looked even bigger when FIU answered just 2:57 later with Mallary’s 28-yard run. A 30-14 lead going into the fourth plays very different from 23-14.

Bortles fumble recovery: Or, 30-14 plays differently than 30-21 going into the fourth. On the last play of the third quarter, Tourek Williams got the only sack of the day on Bortles. The ball came out and bounced back up to Bortles, who managed to recover it while being taken down. If that ball bounces away from him at all or Bortles doesn’t cover it cleanly, well, the closest person to the ball was Faciane. Second closest might’ve been me. Isame could’ve written a song about the play on the ball before the nearest Knight reached him. A reprise of last year’s fumble return touchdown would’ve sent the game into the fourth at 30-21 with FIU conducting the Momentum Superchief.

So, FIU’s 1-2 with Louisville coming to town and the Sun Belt season starting in two weeks with a trip to Lafayette. They need to get their minds right on both sides of the ball.

September 15, 2012

UCF 33, FIU 20: Medlock probably OK. Rhodes? Well....

Postgame blog coming later tonight or early tomorrow morning, but a couple of quick things:

Quarterback Jake Medlock had ice on his left hand after injuring it in the fourth quarter, but shrugged off any idea the injury that kept him out for half a drive would hamper him further.

FIU coach Mario Cristobal said junior running back Kedrick Rhodes was "banged up" again. Rhodes limped off in the third quarter slightly favoring the right foot that had a huge ice bag on it after the game.

Gameday III 2012, Take 2: FIU vs. UCF; women's soccer loses in the desert

Hopefully, a better version of the pregame blog. I went to bed not entirely happy with it, so we're up and fixing it from a Denny's booth.


As I break down this matchup, I like it better for FIU than I did last year's matchup with UCF. Of course, FIU won last year by eventually taking over both lines of scrimmage, especially imposing its will on UCF's offense. Shows how much I know. With that caveat, let's proceed...

One of you who ran into me at the Raleigh-Durham Airport mentioned FIU's annoying ability to play to the perceived quality of opponent and pointed to the Louisiana-Lafayette and Duke games last year. I still disagree about Lafayette, but when someone closer to the program mentioned they saw this as an FIU tendency -- and they've seen more FIU football than anyone -- I put it back in the "strong maybe" catetory.

It's not that they're loafing. But they're making mistakes, particularly on defense, you expect to see in 2010 or early last year. It reminds me of my daughter's reading comprehension and retention when she reads by herself in her room while rolling on her bed, fussing with Jake (one of our cats), wondering if her American Girl doll also has her schoolwork. There's a difference between that and how she reads after Dad's snapped, "Stop (censored) with Jake! Leave American Girl alone! She'll be fine until you finish." Then, she's fine. That makes me think they're playing without enough mental focus. Most people, high level athletes included, have to make an effort at getting into that proper state of mind. It's not always tunnel-vision, scowling DMV-worker face. Former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Tim Green, throughout his four years at Syracuse and eight-year NFL career, used to read. 

It's mental preparation. When players forget to make sure their focus is there, they're going forth unprepared for success in (quasi)-professional sports. I think FIU plays with that focus against because this game has too many connections for players for them not to come out sharp as a thumb tack. Also, on the defensive side of the ball, they've been embarrassed two weeks in a row. No matter how bad I've seen FIU play, I've never felt the football team played without pride. So -- hey, could be wrong, remember last year -- I think Saturday's FIU team will be closer to the one everyone who knew anything about the team thought they'd see the first two weeks.

That doesn't mean I think the Panthers are going to win, however. 

UCF's got George O'Leary, a coach with a defensive background, running the show there. Now, the first time he has the ball in the home opener, does he ride the emotional wave and take advantage of what's been the hole in FIU's defensive jeans and run some motion preceding 10 to 20-yard patterns? I mean, FIU's responded to passing off motion like Cro-Magnon man did upon seeing fire. Or, does Mr. O'Leary go Mrs. O'Leary (no cow) revert to conservatism and hope to (grunt and eat meat as you say this) establish the run and rely on his defense to smother FIU?

If I'm O'Leary, I tell my offensive coordinator "Let's get some points and make those guys feel like they have to get away from the run before they really do." That means 6-4 quarterback Blake Bortles throwing the ball over an FIU rush that hasn't been getting there into a secondary that, for the most part, hasn't been there period. I wonder if defensive end Tourek Williams has a knee or calf injury. Williams hasn't looked as if he's moving normally. Anyway, he's not the only source of a pass rush. There's no push up the middle, which quarterbacks back away from like it's Alien coming out of a stomach. This is where Isame Faciane, especially, needs to be more evident. The downfield fussing at each other about responsbility and coverage should be long past for FIU. That it isn't -- Johnathan Cyprien says they made better communication an emphasis this week in practice -- says that's where UCF, with a cadre of receivers that actually looks similar to FIU's, should try to strike first.

Alas, coaches, especially in the macho sports of football and hockey, get the squeaky sphincter quickly. Do you want to chance redshirt sophomore Bortles throwing early or rely on Storm Johnson and Brynn Harvey to set a physical tone (Latavius Murray is out with a shoulder injury)? I'd take the former, but I wouldn't be surprised if O'Leary took the latter, worried that an experienced FIU defense might find itself after two weeks in Wackyland and an overexcited Bortles would try to do too much. FIU's run defense has shown cracks. Bet that Johnson makes it through one of those cracks for a big one. But I don't see the Knights paying the rent on the run. Eventually, this game could come down to which redshirt sophomore quarterback gets coaxed into the last, biggest mistake. If O'Leary's thinking the same thing, and coaches rank among the biggest Anxiety Andys, he'll try to keep the game out of his quarterback's hands.

On the other side, FIU will open with the run because a) the Panthers have done it pretty well the first two games and b) UCF didn't just look pushed around by Ohio State's read option attack, it looked confused. UCF's defense moves well and I don't see FIU moving them like the Buckeye Beef Boys. Again, if I were FIU, I'd throw a screen or short cross early to a tight end or a back, something to occupy the linebackers and give them something to think about. That extra time you create in their head translates to time on the field. A half-second, a quarter-second can be 2 to 20 yards of difference. FIU hasn't thrown much off the option yet this year, which has surprised me. It was open during the time of the game FIU ran The Rockettes offense (one, two, three...kick!) and Medlock was a little hyperactive. UCF got gashed by Ohio State on read option plays. They've had a week to buckle up. If they haven't, look for Medlock to have a good day and Kedrick Rhodes to have an above average day. If they have, well, now we get to the element that could win or lose the game for FIU.

While Akron needed to throw just to get some offensive work in after UCF took a 35-0 halftime deficit, Ohio State threw just enough to keep UCF off balance and didn't complete a pass over 15 yards. If FIU establishes the run early, on the second or third drive, the Panthers should launch one deep among the first plays of the drive. Just to remind UCF it's out there.

FIU's receivers need to help a Medlock out more outside of a two-minute situation. On those drives, his decisiveness takes over. Otherwise, he's more hesitant to make throws into tight spaces and he's holding onto the ball too long. I'm not sure he throws the pass to Jacob Younger along the right sideline last week that led to the pre-halftime touchdown if the play happens with, say, six minutes left in the quarter. FIU's most talented receivers, Willis Wright and Glenn Coleman, have a combined one catch this season. That's not going to get it done over the long term. The Panthers definitely could use more from either one tonight. Whether it's grasping the offense (a problem for Wright in the past), blocking ability, getting outworked in practice or what, an FIU offense with either or both working well truly scorches earth.

As it is, I don't have beef with the offense so far. They haven't been perfect, but any coach would take what they produced during the competitive phase against Duke and the whole Akron game. But this game feels like it could have two or three big offensive plays. I see Storm Johnson getting one for UCF. The others most likely will come from receivers. Whichever team gets them, wins.

Or, those massive, nuclear plays could come on special teams. On punt returns, J.J. Worten's averaging 20.0 yards per return for UCF. Wouldn't it be funny if this game had back-to-back touchdown returns? Whenever that happens, everybody loves it, dances like the Carol City band, high fives, low fives, laughs while coaches explode with every orifice flowing with smoke and slime. Special teams' margin for error in this game would fit between my thumbnail and forefinger. More likely to make a big play? FIU. More likely to fumble it away? FIU. That's a problem anytime. It'll be a bigger one this game, where I see the offenses petering out short of the goal line.

FIU's got the better kicker and they might need Jack Griffin to keep it close. If blow early scoring chances as they did against Duke and Akron, this could be over early.

I'll be on Twitter during the game as usual,

Out in Vegas, the bettors like UCF big. Then again, they liked FIU against Duke and split on Akron and FIU. So, I'm sticking with my preseason section call: UCF 20, FIU 13.

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

A good sign for my day, at least. As I walked into Denny's, this was playing, a song on my Saturday morning playlist because I used to use half my 50-cent allowance to play it and Eddie Kendricks' "Keep On Truckin'" on the bowling alley jukebox.




Not a good night for the soccers. The men lost to Furman 2-1 and, out in Tucson, Arizona beat FIU 2-0 Friday night in the (inhale) Loews Ventana Canyon Cats Classic (phew).

The 3-3-1 women play Arizona State Sunday.

September 09, 2012

A few thoughts on FIU 41, Akron 38 (OT)

I’ll try to keep this postgame blog more linear than the one-night miniseries of a game it analyzes. That said, most of its being written on short sleep while trying to keep the auditory lid on the back end of a sleepover, so if it gets as all over the place as Richard Leonard was Saturday, so be it.

Leonard, the sophomore cornerback, embodied the game for FIU: moments of excellence, moments of nice-but-want-more, moments of inadequacy. He showed why FIU likes him on punt returns, properly navigating well-blocked seams on a 49-yard punt return touchdown to put FIU up 28-20 in a wild fourth quarter. He showed why he might not be returning punts much longer when he committed his second punt return fumble in two weeks, this one leading to Akron’s field goal and a 28-23 score just when Akron’s offense seemed to be sagging before a revitalized FIU defense. He had two pass break ups, including a near interception in overtime. But he didn’t make that interception, just as senior safety Johnathan Cyprien dropped an interception the play before Akron’s third touchdown. And Leonard got flagged for pass interference on third and 8 from the FIU 36 when he never turned around to clearly play the ball on a sideline throw that wound up hitting him in the helmet. Akron took a 31-28 lead the following play when running back Jawon Chisholm beat linebacker Winston Fraser up the field.

It was that kind of game. So much to discuss, but it all boils down to this: little about FIU, notable exception for quarterback Jake Medlock, is as good as anticipated after the first two games.

Not the defense. Not the special teams. Not parts of the offense. Not even the crowd, which half-filled the stadium and a student section that went from packed to spotty during that insane fourth quarter. I know last week’s trouncing by Duke (which got the what for from Stanford Saturday night) sledgehammered the big toe on the fan base’s preseason expectations, but sheesh, a Saturday evening home opener against a 23-point underdog with the Hurricanes and Dolphins on the road…as Cartman would say, “Super weak.”

One thing you can say for the offense: they get it done in the two-minute drill. End of the first half against Duke, they got FIU into field goal range in less than a minute. End of the first half Saturday, a touchdown. End of the game, in position for a field goal. Well, after being in position for a touchdown with 28 seconds left and a timeout and only getting off a blown snap that pushed the ball back to the 13. Whether it was an early snap or just a Medlock muff, it was the second such play of the game. Ideally, that should happen maybe twice a season. With a new quarterback-center combination, up it to five times. Twice in a game? Too many.

Give some credit to quarterback Jake Medlock for spotting the height mismatch of 6-5 Jairus Williams on a not-6-5 Akron cornerback then throwing the fade to Williams for the pre-halftime touchdown. That’s something FIU didn’t do often enough last season. Down 20-14 at halftime feels very different than down 20-7.

Medlock said coaches told him, “Jake when its two-minute offense, it’s always the same. Play fast and slow it down in your head.”

As fans have begged for the last two seasons, FIU put Medlock under center in a short-yardage situation. In the Herald’s season preview, I wrote FIU might have a curve ball for these situations when they’d need a bowling ball. They threw that curve Saturday night, putting defensive lineman Greg Hickman at fullback in a package with Darian Mallary at tailback. Mallary carried for nothing on third and 1 from the Akron 5, then for a 5-yard touchdown on fourth down.

Hickman played fullback in high school: “In high school, I played anything. Long snapper, kicker, punt returner, anything I could do ot be on the field.

Mallary played because sophomore running back Kedrick Rhodes suffered an injury in the first half. After Medlock optioned Akron to death early on his way to an FIU record for quarterback rushing yards in a game, FIU couldn’t appear to get much push. The passing game got nothing going as receivers could create no separation and Medlock occasionally held the ball too long. Both Medlock and Rhodes took a pounding.

“I think he got winded like he did on those couple of long runs,” Cristobal said. “After that, we had to haul him back in. he just wan’t himself for a few series. Then, the second half, he started getting on that roll again.”

In the four consecutive three-and-outs of the first half, FIU blew a chance to wear down Akron earlier than it happened. Also, they didn’t work the Zips defense side-to-side like I thought they might. In the end, though, FIU put up 31 offensive points in regulation, helped by the Hickman interception that put the ball on the Akron 14. It’s Akron, not Alabama, but it’s still 31 offensive points and 428 yards of offense in regulation.

Most of the game, special teams continued to be spotty. Sam Miller’s 80-yard punt return touchdown got called back on an illegal block. Punt coverage set out the Welcome Home mat for Belen graduate Imani Davis. Senior kicker Jack Griffin pushed his first field goal attempt wide left. Then again, Griffin was doing double duty. Unhappy with Josh Brisk’s punts last week, FIU benched him for Griffin this week. Neither provided punts the coverage could get under unless your name was Jeremiah McKinnon. The freshman from Southridge made two nice tackles on Davis in punt coverage to immediately snuff returns and took fourth quarter snaps at cornerback.

Oh, Brisk’s benching included holding on field goals. Mitch MacCluggage was back long snapping, but tight end Zach Schaubhut took over holding for Griffin. No snap issues and Griffin nailed the kicks he most needed to hit, as he usually does. So special teams comes out on top after all is said and done.

“Maybe it’ll wake up Josh a little bit, come back strong this week and have a better week,” Cristobal said.

While poor-mouthing his way through his part of last Monday’s Mid-American Conference media conference call, Akron coach Terry Bowden said he hoped the Zips followed the maxim that the greatest improvement in their new offense’s execution would be from Week 1 to Week 2. Maybe it was. The Zips certainly looked like they knew what they were doing while it was FIU’s defense that once again appeared trapped in a Saturday-at-Calcutta-market  chaos. Usually, that chaos followed Akron running motion through the backfield, an action that seemed to mesmerize FIU almost as badly as it did last week against Duke.

“They ran some shifts and motions that caused confusion in our secondary and found away to get some mismatches for them,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “The quarterback did have some nicely placed balls, but a couple of them were wide open shots. We need to do a better job on that. When you go tempo like that, you’ve got to be able to adjust on the run.”

Again, that’s what you’d expect an experienced unit to be able to do. You don’t expect that kind of flummoxing in the first place.

On Akron’s first touchdown, I counted three FIU defenders frozen in electric football player poses. On Jawon Chisholm’s first touchdown catch, he went in motion to the left, circled out of the backfield, up the sideline and ran past linebacker Jordan Hunt, who originally looked well-positioned to make a play. The play before, a third and 5 from the FIU 24, showed exactly the kind of immaturity you don’t expect from an experienced defense. Defensive end Tourek Williams appeared to jump offside, but the real problem was instead of following through with the play, almost the entire FIU defense downshifted to neutral as if the play would be stopped. Most of the Zips offense did the same, but that group doesn’t have as many snaps in their memory bank. Akron’s Dalton Williams and Keith Sconiers kept playing and hooked up on a 13-yard completion for a first down. 

FIU finally got a pass rush going late in the game, a factor of talent and habitat – I lost two pounds just doing my customary tailgate walk before the game. I wondered how long it would take Akron to lose something.

FIU lost two replay challenges and I wasn’t surprised on either one. Both original calls happened at the end near the press box and looked wrong from where I sat. Vantage point isn’t everything. The referee and the head linesman framed Medlock getting blatantly horse-collared by J.D. Griggs late in regulation and made no call. Cristobal detonated on both. Make up calls quickly ensued – Cristobal didn’t get flagged himself for unsportsmanlike conduct and, two plays later, they gave FIU a pass interference gift on a pass whose catchable quality was dubious.

Now FIU goes to Central Florida, which lost to a slightly better team from Ohio Saturday and walloped Akron last week. You can’t use comparative scoring exclusively because games and seasons are about matchups. So it means little that comparative scoring says Central Florida should be a 39-point favorite over FIU, take it down to 35 for Akron having a game under its belt when entering La Cage Saturday night.

But, on the matchups, UCF’s across a chasm that FIU needs to bridge this week to keep from being embarrassed next week in Orlando.


September 03, 2012

Monday, Monday

Stuff from the Monday before FIU hosts Akron at La Cage Aux Panteres:

Don't be surprised if Mitch MacCluggage is the long snapper on at least field goals and extra points this week. Mario Cristobal called the position a weekly "open competition." Two bad snaps in a game, even if they didn't cost anything, tend to get coaches popping Tums like Chiclets. The two Saturday were terribly costly.

Richard Leonard will keep the punt return job, at least for this week. Cristobal really likes Leonard, but, again, give coaches the choice between a guy who could break it or drop it and a guy who'll catch the ball but maybe only give you five to 10 yards per return, they'll take the latter.

Freshman wide receiver DeAndre Jasper, whose speed got him rated at three stars by some recruiting analysts, should have his cast off this week and return to practice after sitting out since the start of training camp with a broken left hand.

Akron coach Terry Bowden's in the situation Cristobal was back in 2007 -- a program in the dumps, but in an area so talent rich, there's plenty left over even after the biggest schools eat. Akron's got a gorgeous new stadium, beautiful facilities and consecutive 1-11 records. Bowden said behind recruiting Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, he try to make inroads for Akron in South Florida and Florida's Gulf Coast.

"Heck, they don't know where Akron is," Bowden laughed on the MAC coaches conference call. "They don't know Akron from Toledo or Bowling Green."


There's a Bill Cosby routine in which his Dad threatens to get The Belt: "We had never seen The Belt. But we had heard about it. The Belt was 9 feet long...8 feet wide...and had hooks on it. And it would rip the meat off your body if it ever hit you."

The Sun Belt got The Belt this weekend.

FIU's loss. Middle Tennessee State lost at home to McNeese State, 27-21. Then, there you had the expected routs: LSU 41-14 over North Texas and Oregon's pinball machine 57-34 over Arkansas State. Only Troy beat an FBS opponent, outlasting Alabama-Birmingham, 39-29.

"Our demeanor, there were a lot of guys in shock, you could tell," Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said. "We've go a lot of youth and inexperience. I think there were a lot of big eyes. We didn't respond to the adversity, at all."

"Defensively, we missed too many tackles. We weren't consistent enough tackling. we gave up a lot of yards after contact. Offensively, we were our own worst enemy there. We got inside the 5, had to settle for field goals."

North Texas coach Dan McCarney found a positive in the Mean Green's offensive line: "Zero sacks, zero penalties, zero missed assignments by the starting five. That's about a pretty good way to get started against as good a defense as there is in college football."


August 27, 2012

Mario Wants Panthers to be Bubble Boys

Monday's nomadic FIU practice -- from FIU Stadium t0 under the south stands of FIU Stadium to the Dolphins practice bubble in Davie -- gave FIU coach Mario Cristobal a chance to point out to the school how handy dandy it would be to have one of these down at the ever-expanding Mitch Maidique Campus (Camp Mitch).

"I think it's a good idea to get our FIU people down here and look at this bubble first hand and see the benefits of something like this, especially with the weather we have here in South Florida," Cristobal said. "The track team, soccer team, certainly our football team. This is a tremendous investment and it showed today."

Don't pooh-pooh just yet. What I call the Nick Saban Memorial Bubble is air-supported and built to withstand serious hurricanes by Stiles Construction. The reported cost, back in 2006, was $2 million. FIU will have the land. As Cristobal pointed out, it could be of use to several teams (heck, you could open it to students for large chunks of rainy days). And, finally, let's be blunt: Cristobal's the most important coach FIU has right now, keeping him isn't a matter of throwing annual salary cash at him and a construct that would make him or his successor happy also would drop happy pills in a several other coaches' Kool-Aids.

The first players to enter the into the bubble took pictures of each other...

Davie-20120827-00708 did succeeding players (Ya'keem Griner critiques the work of photographer Jacob Younger)

FIUpracticeatbubble 008

By the way, looks like the joint is pretty much finished.

South Westside-20120827-00707


The latest line on Saturday's game favors Duke by 3.5 to 4.0 points, down from an open of Duke by 5.5. In other words, what money is coming in on this game so far is being put on FIU.

Expect some radio news by the end of the day tomorrow. I'll be on furlough, however, so the earliest you can read it here will be Wednesday.


August 24, 2012

Men's soccer starting Friday; volleyball, too; football, see you next week

Both the soccer field and the men’s program needed a spruce up job. Friday against Bryant University, 7 p.m., will be the first showing for how far new head coach Kenny Arena is on both.

To swim down the fault stream of FIU Soccer Field just sends anyone who cares screaming for tequila, so let’s just use the old reliable “What a dump.” But Thursday morning, Arena stood at the field checking out some of the improvements being made that’ll make the field more presentable.

 “We’ve tried to make the players understand that this is a very important program with a very rich tradition,” Arena said. “We’ve tried to upgrade everything from the way we practice to our facilities, to make this an environment that not only looks very professional, but operates very professionally. It’s what this program deserves based on what the program has achieved.

The nod to that tradition comes from the replacement for the last connection to that tradition. Munga Eketebi – All-American player on the great mid-1980s FIU teams that were as good as any at any level, longtime assistant coach, then head coach – couldn’t beat NCAA sanctions and Conference USA. A 5-8-2 record last year left him at 27-51-9. Sacking Eketebi as the program finally got back to full scholarships reeked of both unfairness and an understandable desire to just start anew.

FIU showed signs of being something like what it once was last season. Against ranked teams, they went 1-0-2 and lost in overtime to perennially good SMU. But it also included a loss to Georgia state and getting smoked badly at Tulsa and Memphis.

“We definitely had a strong squad,” said senior defender Anthony Hobbs, FIU’s lone representative on the preseason All-Conference USA team. “It was whether we were going to turn out to play or not. Against the better teams we did well, we competed with them. Against teams we should beat, we just didn’t show up.”

In addition to Hobbs, FIU returns sophomore forward Quentin Albrecht, who lead the team in goals, and senior midfielder Lucas Di Croce, third on the team in scoring. Freshmen outnumber seniors, 8-5.

Perhaps it’s a good thing, then that Hobbs notes Arena brings a more positive vibe. Positivewavesbutton

When I asked Arena about his emphasis on the postive, he covered more ground than grass in an interesting answer:

“There’s going to be times you have to critique, but if you do it in the right way, everybody enjoys learning. So, it’s my responsibility to make sure that they want to come to work every day. That they enjoy this experience. But also that the experience is very challenging.

“I respect the fact that they have a lot of responsibility, being student/athletes and playing. We demand a lot out of them as an athletic department to serve in the community. Being a student-athlete today is one of the hardest jobs. When we’re done as an athlete, I don’t think the first couple of years when we have careers that it’s as hard as it is when we’re here. These guys train from 8 to 10 in the morning. that means they’re up at 6 eating breakfast. Then they have treatment, weights, they have classes, they have community service. Then they have to study, they have games. It’s a very exhausting, but very rewarding experience.

“If you’re asking them to do that much, then it’s our job to make it a positive environment so that you keep them going.”

Just as men’s hoop coach Richard Pitino clearly got his half his chromosomes from Rick Pitino, Kenny Arena couldn’t be more recognizable as the son of former U.S. National Team coach and current Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. I asked Arena, 33 hours ahead of his first game as a college head coach, to name the one or two biggest things he’s learned from each coach he’s worked under.

“Bob Bradley was very disciplined. He made sure everyone was held accountable all the time,” Kenny Arena said. “My father, he treated each player with an incredible amount of respect and gave them their freedom, but found a way to have a culture that every time they stepped on the field, they gave it everything they had.

“The last coach I worked with, (UCLA’s) Jorge Salcedo, he was very organized,” Arena said. “He found a way to make life easier for the players, whether it was during practice or traveling. From the details of the hotel to what they’re eating to the timing of all that stuff, he made sure everything was organized so all operations ran smoothly and I found that helped the overall psyche of athletes. When everything’s organized and thought of ahead of time, they can just concentrate on playing.”


Last week, Mario Cristobal declared Jeremiah Harden "1A," close to Kedrick Rhodes at running back. I asked the pecking order and if Harden and Rhodes were even going into the season. 

"Ked is No. 1. Ked's going into the game first," Cristobal said. "Those other guys have earned playing time. Both Harden and Mallary have pushed really hard. They've got to play. theyr'e smart, they're tough, they've made good plays in practice. Shane Coleman, he's getting better. He's not at the level of Harden and Mallary yet, but he's a guy you feel comfortable putting in the game as well."

Just throwing out there: don't sleep on freshman defensive lineman Fadol Brown. Brown and Darrian Dyson might have some problems early in the season as they get used to dealing with pushing and shoving against nearly grown men for 60 minutes. But both possess the size and athleticism that'll eventually get you a few plays a game if they're rotating off the bench.

Tonight's the free food, drink, stuff meet the Panthers event at The Stadium Club in FIU Stadium.  


As change marks the men’s soccer program, so does the volleyball program head into its Friday night season opener at the Campus USA Credit Union Invite in Gainesville against Florida handling grand metamorphoses.

And we do mean grand – big group of newcomers containing bigger young women playing a vastly different style for a very different head coach.

Daniela Tomic rolled up a .721 winning percentage in seven seasons, easily the best by any FIU volleyball coach, before leaving for Bowling Green last winter. Former Tomic assistant and Trinidad and Tobago national team coach Trevor Theroulde took over, then added assistant Travers Green.

Redshirt sophomore setter Jessica Egan said, “The coaching staff is more in sync, which is vital.”

One consistency left from Daniela Tomic’s seven years as head coach: Jovana Bjelica making the preseason All-Sun Belt team. The senior outside hitter’s third such honor was announced Thursday morning. Bjelica led The Belt in kills last year and realizes as the established best player on the team as well as being a senior

“In a playing sense, I’m playing the same, but I think it’s harder now,” she said. “there’s a lot of younger girls who need some kind of role model and we older ones, upperclassmen, we need to be more of a role model. So, I have to talk more, which I don’t like.” Bjelica laughed at her shyness. “We need to talk a lot because many of them are still shy and don’t feel the freedom to talk.”

In a 2011 blog post about Bjelica, I noted that on the eye test, you’d pick her as FIU volleyball’s best pentathlete. On this year’s team, that athleticism blends almost as much as her height (5-10) does among the team’s 10 players 6-foot or over (last year’s team had seven).

“We’ve added a lot of height and we’re very stacked in positions, you could say,” Egan said. “Last year, we kind of ran into an issue where ran out of people with injuries. This year, we’re not going to have that problem. There’s competition at every position.”

Egan's playing time increased after 6-3 Renele Forde suffered a season-ending injury. Forde is back as a fifth-year senior.

Four or five of the new players walked through the Graham Center two weeks ago while I was working there around lunch time. You never saw that place get so quiet. Palpable awe.

“We are much bigger than before,” Theroulde said. “We are playing way above the net. We are much more athletic. We could be big and slow, but we’re not big and slow. We’re big, quick, athletic. We’re more aggressive.

“My style of coaching, we’re going to be more aggressive. We’re really going after the opponent.” Theroulde laughed, “I prefer to be the predator than the prey. I want to be the real Panther.”

Which brings us to FIU’s nemeses, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, picked to finish first and second in the Sun Belt’s East Division. FIU’s picked to finish where they have the last two years, third.

“We’ve been changing our style,” Egan said. “There’s still some kinks to it. It’s a powerful style we’re going for. Western and Middle have really different styles. Middle Tennessee is very fast. The way we’re playing, we’ll be able to handle that, no problem. Western Kentucky, they’re simple, but they’re good at what they do. It’s just a matter of zoning in on those players and executing our side of the court.”

Theroulde said the team must play up to its ability, but getting that out of them is his job.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself. I said, ‘if we do not do it this year, we have to analyze ourselves as a coaching staff,’” he said. “We have all the pieces. We need to put those pieces together. And make sure they’re able to function effectively. Then, we’ll see that beautiful picture. We’re trying to play a different style of volleyball. It’s faster, it’s powerful.

They’re strong teams, too. They’ve added parts, too. It’ll be interesting to see how they deal with us. It’s a totally different team than we had in previous years.”

Wednesday, Theroulde watched video of FIU’s 32-4 2009 team.

He estimated, “In key positions, we’re way better. We’re still trying to develop that mental toughness that last team had. If we’re able to get that and a level of consistency, nothing is impossible.”


August 22, 2012

Football Friday to Futbol Friday

Wondering if I should shave my moustache for the first time since the Clinton Era (Bill, not George) while working on some last minute preseason section stuff...

At 6 p.m. Friday evening, this year's Panther Preview will be held in the Stadium Club at La Cage. Free food, drinks and prizes and I'm sure some rousing words from FIU coach Mario Cristobal. Now, I don't know what the prizes are, but when I was a college student with no money, free food and drinks (even if they were non-alcoholic) within striking range assured my presence.

Then, it's over to FIU Soccer Field for the season opener against Bryant University (is the strongest major there Heating & Cooling?), which starts at 7 p.m. The tailgate starts at 5:30 with free food there, too. So, maybe you start there, go over to La Cage, then back over to the soccer game, fat and happy. Hopefully, it'll be drier than last week.

 Men's soccer season opener advance coming.

August 21, 2012

Tuesday sans Morrie

The Tuesday morning full pads scrimmage began as another defensive crush job. But the first team offense eventually got its licks in and earned a split in the two-minute drill and the four-minute drill.

Those were two of the three situations coaches created that were derived directly from last year. For the two-minute drills, they used the situation from the loss to Louisiana-Lafayette (Lou-La prefers to be called just "Louisiana" so we will): down 36-31, ball on the FIU 21. In the game, Jake Medlock, playing his third quarter of college action, missed a fourth and 3 from the FIU 41 when he eschewed a clear running path to the first down and overthrew Wayne Times on the run. Tuesday, Medlock directed a scoring drive that ended when, he said, "Wayne Times turned a 20-yard pass into, I think, a 60-yard touchdown." 

For the four-minute, exhaust-the-clock drills, they used the situation from Western Kentucky: up 9-7, 3:31 left, ball on the FIU 11. In the game, FIU went three and out, Wesley Carroll holding onto the ball until he took a 13-yard sack on third and 3 from the 18. Western kicker Casey Tinius punched through a 34-yard field goal as time ran out. Tuesday, the offense successfully killed the time once.

Also, Mario Cristobal said, some players got used out of their usual spots to see if they could get FIU through in a pinch "Playing Kenny Dillard at mike linebacker. He did a great job. Putting (safeties Demarkus) Perkins and Chuck Grace in there for extended play. Chuck's been a fixture in our defense, but giving them a starting role and letting them run the whole way through. (Cornerback) Sam Miller played a couple of different positions as well. And limited some guys, like (safety Johnathan) Cyprien and Tourek (Williams). We want to see how well we can maintain that level that the 1s maintain with certain guys in the game. Like Giovani Francois, he took the bulk of the reps with the 1s."

Cristobal didn't say, but it's not hard to see where that let's-be-prepared came from. As referenced often on this blog by me and some of you, the two games after Grace went down last year saw disorganization in an inexperienced secondary that was inexpertly guided. Louisiana and Duke strafed FIU in those losses.

Freshman defensive tackle Darrian Dyson, the 6-3, 315-pound Lousiana land mass with legs, got some time with the elder group, as did freshman cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon out of Southridge; wide receiver Nick England; linebacker Leroy Owens; and wide receiver Raymond Jackson.

Cristobal called the No. 2 quarterback competition still too close to call, but he'd decide by the end of the week. From the plays I saw, freshman E.J. Hilliard was working more with the second team and Lorenzo Hammonds with the third team.


August 18, 2012

Friday in the wet...

As the rain fell on Camp Mitch, the women's soccer team handled it like Michael Schumacher, drenching Stetson 4-0 while dominating possession for at least 75 of the 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, the crew keeping statistics and running the game clock from a deck that stood where a condemned press box once stood tried to keep the electronics dry.

August2012 011

It got worse later when the canopy sprung a leak.


Meanwhile, over at FIU Stadium, Friday's scrimmage started on time. FIU coach Mario Cristobal, after watching film until half past midnight, passed along these tidbits:

Nobody got hurt. The defense definitely had the better of it over the 120 plays, as expected. "It wasn't until late that the offense got going," Cristobal said. He was once again especially laudatory toward defensive end Giovani Francois ("playing at an uncommonly high level" and has been "explosive) and also complimented Tourek Williams, Greg Hickman, Winston Fraser and Jordan Hunt. Defensive tackle Isame Faciane, apparently, has satisfied the coaches lately. 

Also getting head coach props were linebacker Kenneth Dillard and Mitch Wozniak, who switched from wide receiver to defense this week and had an interception.

On offense, wide receiver Willis Wright "had his best day" and caught a long touchdown in the overtime drill from Jake Medlock as Medlock escaped the pocket. The offense did convert in some short yardage situations and was good on second down. Both sides of the ball showed good awareness in third down situations of the yardage necessary. In the two-minute drill, the offense hustled well and did the little things that give you extra seconds that can add up to another play or two.

Next scrimmage Tuesday. Saturday, the team took a recess field trip -- South Beach for sand, bowling and barbeque.


Sorry I didn't include this yesterday, but FIU officially announced the transfers of Louisville's Rakeem Buckles, FAU's Dennis Mavin and the Owls' Raymond Taylor. Mavin and Buckles had been noted here previously. All will have to sit out this season before being eligible in 2013-14. Both Taylor and Buckles came out of Monsignor Edward Pace High, where FIU assistant coach Mark Lieberman coached for 13 years.

August 14, 2012

Two more things from Media Day

A couple of things I forgot from earlier...

1. Some programs shoo NFL scouts away for fear the temptation of league money will shorten the careers of their best players by one or two years.

FIU, on the other hand, embraces the NFL hawks.

"Not every school allows them in for preseason camp," Cristobal said. "We do because that's the next phase of our program."

He said three NFL scouts would be at Monday night's practice and NFL scouts would be around the team throughout the season.

"When a guy like Anthony Gaiter and T.Y. (Hilton) catches their attention, now there's that much more focus that there are legitimate, really, really good football players down at FIU," Cristobal said. "So we open up the doors to them. We actually provide weekly e-mails and footage and information.

"We want guys to graduate and they will. Again, that's the most important thing. But we make no reservations about it -- we want guys to come here who want to play in the NFL. We want to coach guys and want to play with guys who want to play in the NFL, who want to make this a way of life. That do not want to make this a hobby."

2. The players present were logical ones: quarterback Jake Medlock; kicker Jack Griffin; and the preseason All-Sun Belt players -- running back Kedrick Rhodes, right tackle Rupert Bryan, Jr, left tackle Caylin Hauptmann, defensive end Tourek Williams, linebacker Winston Fraser, safety Johnathan Cyprien.

The only preseason All-Sun Belt player not there? Junior defensive tackle Isame Faciane, not having the best camp so far. I'm hearing it was a coincidence, however.

Quick hits from Media Day; T.Y. pics from Sunday

Not much new at Tuesday's Media Day. But here are a few tidbits, some of which appear also in a story that'll appear in tomorrow's print Herald and online later this evening:

Mario Cristobal said there's a significant gap from Jake Medlock to Lorenzo Hammonds, Jr., and E.J. Hilliard, but that in less than two weeks, he expects the latter two to be up to where they can help FIU win and not just get FIU through the night. As far as their classmates, he expects 23 to 26 freshmen or redshirt freshmen to play on the first or second string or play serious special teams time.

Cristobal called Jeremiah Harden "1A" at running back behind Kedrick Rhodes and said Darian Mallary looked as good Monday evening as he has in two years.

Senior left tackle Caylin Hauptmann, when I asked about the senior leadership this year and the way they've done so much teaching with the younger guys, he said, "When we went to our bowl game two years ago, we had great leadership from people like Brad Serini and Cedric Mack. Whereas last year, we didn't have a core leadership -- what to do, wehwer to go, what steps to take. I remember that, our seniors remember that. We just took from that. To be able to see that two years ago, we're just implementing it to them."


T.Y. Hilton, Sr. sent me some photos from Sunday's Indianapolis Colts preseason game. Here's one of T.Y., who had a total of five touches (three catches, one run, one punt return)...


...and one of T.Y. Hilton, Sr. and Cora Hilton




August 13, 2012

Another day at Le Cage; why is the Graham Center BK closed today?

Though posts on volleyball and soccer don't "move the needle" on this blog, readers from the last 12 months know I actually like to post on both. Those three teams started practice last week and I'll be blogging on them soon. Men's soccer has a preseason game at Barry Thursday. The women's soccer team took a 4-0 spanking from North Florida in a preseason game.

As for the American football team, today's a two-practice day. They got out of Saturday's scrimmage with only a minor toe injury to freshman linebacker Josh Glanton (and anybody who thinks there can't be a "major" toe injury has never had one or lived with someone who had one -- trust me, you'd rather they broke an arm). Glanton should be OK soon.

Upon further film review from Saturday, some guys earned practice time with the next unit up. Sophomore defensive end Giovani Francois earned some first team reps. Redshirt sophomore center Donald Senat got put with the first team offensive line for part of practice. Last week, coach Mario Cristobal said at each position, he'd put the best player on the field, but on the offensive line, he'd put the best five who worked in unison.

Redshirt sophomore Mitch Wozniak moved from wide receiver to outside linebacker/safety.

"He's been, arguably, our best special teams player over the last couple of years," Cristobal said. "And we're pretty thick at wide receiver. So we moved him over and his first play there today, he made a tackle for a 1-yard gain and caused a fumble. At 205 pounds, running the way he does. He's had two ACLs since he's been here. Now, closing in on the latter part of his career, we've got to find a way to get him on the field."

Also on the defensive line, fifth-year senior Andre Pound took many of the defensive tackle reps usually taken by Isame Faciane. It was exactly this time last year that Tourek Williams got put with the second team in favor of Paul Crawford because the coaching staff felt Williams wasn't putting out enough on the practice field and Crawford was showing well. Williams got the message, got to work and was back with the first team in a few days. Let's see what happens with Faciane.

Tuesday afternoon will be a special teams scrimmage.

To close, let me say...unless it's holiday break, spring break or major plumbing or fire problems, whether or not classes are in, there's no reason for the Burger King in the GC to be closed. Not like the GC was empty around lunchtime, either...

August 12, 2012

A few thoughts from Saturday night; Hilton's debut and football cards

Usually, as readers of this blog know from last year, my usual long-winded postgame blog analysis is done after the game and posted sometime in the wee am hours (exceptions for excessive sleepiness preceding multi-hour morning drives). Last night, I planned to do the same. I didn't plan to get home late, sleepy and still needing to hit Lincoln Road for dinner with the wife.

So, it's Sunday morning.

Head Coach's view (or, part of it):

"Kedrick Rhodes ran really, really well. Tourek Williams played really really well. Richard Leonard, Junior Mertile, big plays. Jeremiah McKinnon played some good fotoball...a lot of big plays both sides of hte ball. Back and forth in a good way. That's what you want to see. A really good first scrimmage."

While there were big plays by both offense and defense, it seemed most of the offensive explosiveness came from the 3s facing each other. My first thought after the scrimmage was, "Well, that's probably the best defense they'll face all season..."

Fireman's Fund full coverage in the secondary. A pass rush that usually got to or around the quarterback. Solid tackling. That was the first team defense all night. They had maybe two real failures in a series of downs. The first I describe in the next paragraph. The other was a third and 10 with the offense backed up on its own 1 on which quarterback Jake Medlock completed a pass to Zach Schaubhut for about 19 yards.

Medlock was upbeat afterwards, but that's him.  He's the kind of guy in the action movies who says, "So I lost an arm -- I still had one to shoot with and there was less of me for them to shoot at!" He said he wanted to show composure after bad plays and he did that. He also showed a good voice at the line, turning a third and 6 into a third and 1 by drawing defensive tackle Isame Faciane offside. He nearly did it again on the third and 1, the entire defensive line jumping forward and back like a quartet of Kappas or Q-Dogs in a step show. Rhodes plowed for a first down. Mario Cristobal was happy about that.

Othewise, it was pretty much a shutdown. The second teamers didn't have quite the same amount of success with the second team offense, but they allowed only one score, an incredible one-handed catch sky sweep by Jairus Williams with Mertile in his jersey. They had some outside containment problems. Shane Coleman got outside for a 48-yard run and Hammonds broke out for a 22-yard run. They had freshman linebackers Leroy Owens and Patrick Jean working the middle much of the night. That's going to happen with young guys. Owens, who also had a sack, made the interception that killed the second team's two-minute drill drive.

Among the third-teamers, quarterback E.J. Hilliard, aside from telegraphing a throw that allowed Mertile to jump the route for a pick six with the second team, showed his legs and a pretty good arm for distance and accuracy. He escaped the pocket and hit redshirt sophomore Michael Curry deep for a 70-yard touchdown.They hooked up for a 42-yard play earlier in the scrimmage. Both were behind freshman safety Davison Colimon, who bounced back after the first one with a fumble recovery.

The touchdown to Curry came with Hilliard being chased by freshman defensive tackle Darrian Dyson. A helmetless Darrian Dyson, who drew a flag for it. According to Mario Cristobal, this year, once you lose your helmet, you can't re-engage a block and can't rejoin pursuit of a player. Three helmets came off during plays Saturday night, which Cristobal mentioned as a concern.

Freshman quarterbcak Favian Upshaw hit redshirt freshman T.J. Lowder for a 44-yard touchdown late in the scrimmage. That kind of made up for the handoff between Upshaw and freshman fullback Lemarq Caldwell that freshman defensive lineman Diegot Joseph snatched up.

I would've been shocked if I had seen anything else Saturday night. FIU's a top notch defensive team -- and big, really looking big -- with a strong running game and a quarterback still getting it all together. That's only slightly less the case with the second team units.

There's still three weeks practice time left before Duke. And as I wrote in a story from Sun Belt media days, given the choice, every Sun Belt coach said they'd rather have the best defense than the best offense.


 Hilton made his preseason debut with Indianapolis today -- three catches for 25 yards, one rush for 9 yards around the right side as the Colts lined up in the shotgun, one punt return for 6 yards.

A few days ago, his father texted me pictures of three autographed Hilton rookie cards.





August 11, 2012

Saturday (not so) early...

The title refers to the blog post, made after lunch The Saturday morning practice definitely was early. Like if this were the old Saturday morning cartoon days, FIU would've been on the field before the first In The News.

(Digression: Between Schoolhouse Rock, In the News and ABC's Time for Timer, the segments that ran between classic Saturday morning cartoon days of the 1970s acted as if viewers actually had young, fertile minds that could handle two minutes of relevant information between half-hours animated fun of wildly variant quality cut by commercials for toys and breakfast food)


This morning was special teams work time with the scrimmage tonight. Jack Griffin's kickoffs landed perfectly, either in the end zone or pushing the returner to the sideline inside the 10. Griffin's kickoff length got some help from new rules pushing the kickoffs up to the 35 from the 30 to cut down on the dueling kamikazes collisions that are kickoff returns.

Several returned kickoffs -- last year's non-T.Y. Hilton regulars, Wayne Times and Richard Leonard; Kedrick Rhodes; Sam Miller; and freshman Nick England. Without Hilton, who plays his first preseason game for Indianapolis Sunday, FIU needs someone to burst forth as a guy who can create field position on returns if not quick touchdowns.

Whatever you thought of Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, he nailed it when he'd talk about "hidden yardage" -- the other guy's penalty that gives you an extra 10 yards to prolong a drive where you don't score, but you suck time and swing the field; your own penalty that wipes out a great punt or a great return; this block, that missed tackle, etc. Saturday, Mario Cristobal said FIU's equation is 80 yards of hidden yardage=7 points. There's a lot of hidden yardage in special teams.

Freshman Johnnie Durante, a two-way player who made First Team All-Dade last year at defensive back, has been working with the wide receivers this week.

I'll be blogging again very late tonight or early tomorrow after the scrimmage (and, possibly, after late dinner with the wife). 

August 10, 2012

Friday Football Fun at FIU

Alliteration abounds!

Saturday's scrimmage will be 120 plays, divided evenly among 1s vs. 1s, 2s vs. 2s, 3s vs. 3s. They'll roll out most of the offense.

Safety Jordan Davis, a freshman out of Tampa Alonso, will have knee surgery in the next few days to determine the extent of his ligament damage.

One of the most interesting drills Friday, especially on a team with some big receivers with hops, was the fade pattern drill. It took the quarterbacks a few rounds of throws but eventually, both Jake Medlock and Lorenzo Hammonds got the touch (suddenly thinking of Dirk Diggler singing).

Kicker Jack Griffin got one through from 53 yards out, missed and hit from 48. Last year, Griffin's long was 46 yards.

Mario Cristobal likes the way freshman wide receiver Raymond Jackson looks so far. He said Jackson was brought to his attention by New Orleans O. Perry Walker High coach Emmanuel Powell when Cristobal went to look at defensive lineman Marques Cheeks. Upon being told Jackson was playing quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and safety and was drawing attention, but would like to go to FIU, Cristobal asked where he was. Powell replied, "He's right behind you," prompting Cristobal to turn around and try to look beyond a big guy wearing a beard and jacket who he assumed was a coach..and turned out to be Jackson.

Another Louisiana native, defensive tackle Isame Faciane, got kept after practice for a one-on-one with Cristobal at the middle of the field. Both have looked happier.

"I want to see more out of Ice," Cristobal said. "That's a big talented guy. I know what he can be. He knows what he can be. I know there's a lot on his plate with school and everything else. We demands the most out of these guys. We don't compromise academnics and we don't compromise what they have to do out there in practice. I just think when you have the opportunity to coach a talent like that. You just can't settle for what they do well and OK and average days. You have to push that young man to be elite and that's what we're going to do."

Reminds of something defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said about defensive end Tourek Williams Thursday. The difference between Williams this year and Williams of past years, Orlando said, "His mindset is to be That Guy with it. Maybe in the past, it would be, 'I can do this, but I can do it 65-70 percent of the time.' Now, he's saying, 'I can do this every play.'"

That's indicative of the tone around camp this year. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.


August 09, 2012

Thursday at La Cage Aux Pantheres

Thursday's practice included the Board Drill, the most physical of the one-on-one drills, third down and red zone situations.

The head coach said: "Today, we brought about as much pressure as you can bring. Both in the run and the pass. So many people get caught up in running pressure ong passing downs, passing plays that a lot of times people forget when you're running pressure and people run the football, you've got to be able to tackle on the run like that. That's a different animal, too. We worked a bunch of that today. We made it very difficult for the offense to create numbers that were positive (as far as players in "the box"). Especially the defensive backs, as much as we put them on the island today, those guys looked pretty good. Then, we missed a couple of big plays, a couple of plays we should make. We rebounded later. But, early on, it was definitely better (for the defense)."

To Channel 7, Cristobal lauded Jake Medlock with, "He's had a heck of a camp against a defense that we expect to be one of the better ones in the country."

Freshman wide receiver DeAndre Jaspher wore a cast after surgery on a broken left hand that'll sideline him until about a third of the way into the season.

Saturday's scrimmage won't be open to the public. They're trying to keep the new offensive scheme under wraps.

August 07, 2012

Day 5: Pads

Sorry about the lateness of this blog post. Ever had one of those days when you couldn't hit the ground with your hat? Repairs, parking, snail-driving gray hairs creeping along 107th Avenue in their Toyota sedans in the Turn Only lane have continued a trend that had me quoting 1930s boxing manager Joe Jacobs ("I shoulda stood in bed") back around the first time a running back got devoured on the handoff today.

Head coach's view: "After four hard days of practice and with the academic obligations we currently have, we cam eout iwth agreat attitude, an incredible amount of enthusiasm and they fought through a lot of plays. We even went extended plays today. We've been going anywhere from four, five, six-play series. Today, we took them on some occasions up to 10, 11, 12 plays. They responded well."

Freshman linebacker Patrick Jean took some first team reps today in team drills as Winston Fraser sat out some time so coaches could get a look at Jean. Jean and Leroy Owens, who seemed to be in on the tackle or around it on 70 percent of the team drill snaps that were 2s vs. 2s, not only have emerged early on the field, but Mario Cristobal sees them being accredited leader status by the other freshmen.

"Again, credit to the older guys like Winston Fraser and Jordan Hunt for tutoring those guys," Cristobal said. "They naturally love the physical part of the game. They showed it today. They threw some bodies around and made some plays."

During one 7-on-7 period, Quarterback Jake Medlock went with the first group, then stood on the side as Lorenzo Hammonds was with the first team receivers and backs through the rest of the drill. The carrot of playing time, perhaps even starting, is being left out there for Hammonds and freshman E.J. Hilliard. But Hilliard's a freshman and Hammonds, a redshirt freshman, is still getting the complete offense down. Hammonds made a lovely throw deep up the right sideline that Jairus Williams outjumped Richard Leonard to get during individual drills.

When the 1s faced each other in team drills, the defense again could claim overall victory. Justin Halley looked better in run support than he had last year. But the offense didn't get squashed. The line sprung Kedrick Rhodes on some good inside runs of 7 and 10 yards and Medlock made some nice throws, including one on the run to Glenn Coleman at the right sideline. Medlock also showed some maturity in one throwaway and another check down completion to Ya'keem Griner.

When the 2s faced each other, the interior defensive line detonated plays before they could happen.

By the way, as a courtesy to your fellow fans, shower and Old Spice (or Secret) before you come to La Cage Aux Panthere this season. Not like it was Soldier Field windy before, but with the enclosure of the north end, there will be even less wind. Same chewy humidity. More sweat. More funk.

Not this kind of funk...



August 06, 2012

Day 4: Early Up, Early Out

Threatening weather reports prompted an early start to Monday morning's practice. I wonder if anybody was still trapped in online registration limbo when the team took the field. More red zone and third down work Monday, important areas of focus for any team and quarterback, but Alabama-high on the To Do list for a team that had red zone trouble the previous year and has an inexperienced quarterback.

Full pads go on Tuesday before a day off Wednesday. They'll have a full scrimmage Saturday night that might or might not be open to the public (my money's on not). 

"These next few days, we'll do a lot of crossover training," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. "Tomorrow, we're going to teach all our offensive kids to tackle. We don't want interceptions or fumbles, but they're bound to happen. When they do, let's not have them go 80, but get them on the ground right there."

Also, they'll find out who can pass, who can punt, who can long snap in addition to the players they already know have those additional qualities. The conversation swung that way when I asked about long snappers. Few fans ever think about long snappers until a series of bad snaps aborts field goal attempts or punts in a close game. Coaches, on the other hand, want to think about long snappers just long enough to make sure they're more dependable than the living room TV. John Denney's in his eighth year with the Dolphins, his fourth Dolphins head coach, because he's had maybe two bad snaps in his career. Mitch McCluggage is back as FIU's long snapper. Jonathan Cyprien and Shae Smith are backup long snappers. They also have Matthew Cowart out of Hollywood South Broward as a freshman long snapper.

Another freshman making a good early impression is wide receiver Nick England out of Suwanee Collins Hill. England made some nice catches over the middle in 7-on-7 and team drills Sunday. With FIU using so many three-wide sets, it's entirely possible he could scale the depth chart to playing time level.

See today's story on Justin Halley at


August 05, 2012

Day 3: Sunday in shoulder pads

The first full pads practice will be Tuesday. Today, the team worked shoulder pads, as they will Monday. 

Today saw some red zone work, an area that FIU did well in last year as far as getting points (86.7 percent of the time, 2nd in the Sun Belt) but not necessarily touchdowns (48.8 percent, 8th in the Belt). Those who read this blog during last season know that one of my pet peeves with FIU most of last season was the thin usage of tight ends Jonathan Faucher and Colt Anderson, two of their best athletes, in the red zone. It wasn't a coincidence that, late in the season, they got to the end zone on almost every red zone visit they threw to the tight end. Just based on that and having a 6-3 quarterback who consistently can see over defensive linemen on a short drop, I'd bet on Ya'keem Griner, Zach Schaubhut and Junior Delpe to get some play from 5 to 10 yards out.

I wouldn't be surprised if there was some extra work put in on center snaps the next few days.

Freshmen linebacker Patrick Jean, linebacker Leroy Owens and defensive lineman Fadol Brown are making strong bids for second-string playing time. Freshman defensive back Jeremiah McKinnon picked off two passes Sunday, one in team drills against the third team, another in individual drills. Again, caveat: it's not real until somebody gets hit in the mouth.

FIU coach Mario Cristobal will be on Channel 7 Sunday Sports Xtra tonight at 11:30.

Check out today's story on Kedrick Rhodes at


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