December 11, 2014

Turner Talk, Part I; Cleaning Up

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

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.

 

December 10, 2014

Conference USA football coaches, you screwed up

The 2006 Miami Dolphins stumbled off the line, got their bearings just in time to tumble off the cliff to a 6-10 finish. During this verse in the Dolphins Decade of Disappointment song, they went to Chicago and spanked the previously unbeaten eventual NFC champion 31-13. They also shut out New England 21-0 and got Brady benched in the fourth quarter. Both featured superstar performances by defensive end Jason Taylor, who ended the season with 13.5 sacks; two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns; forced 10 fumbles and recovered two.

Taylor won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Whatever your favorite cliche phrase -- "impact player" "game changer" -- Taylor personified it that season. It was a reminder that great players and great individual seasons, particularly defensively, can happen on mediocre or bad teams.

I covered that Dolphins season for The Herald. I was reminded of it as FIU cornerback Richard Leonard sent plays boomeranging back at opponents this season until offenses just figured they'd just play elsewhere. I had no doubt Leonard should be named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year.

Wednesday afternoon, the conference announced Marshall linebacker Neville Hewitt received the award as selected by the conference coaches. And I say to the 13 Conference USA coaches as a group:

I've enjoyed talking to you. I respect that you know 78 times more football than me. Most of us don't even see most of the game that you watch naturally.

But you got this one wrong.

I didn't get Western Kentucky scoring points like that kid that sure plays a mean pinball yet you guys not finding a single First Team all-conference offensive player on their roster. And, I don't get this.

Leonard led Conference USA with four fumble recoveries (0.33 per game, which is how the conference ranks), finished second with five interceptions (0.42 per game) and tied for fourth with 12 passes defended (five interceptions, seven passes broken up).

His three  defensive touchdowns came in FIU's first three wins of a four-win season. The Pick Six against Alabama-Birmingham tied that game with FIU's offense imitating a tractor pull and his later interception set up a field goal in FIU's 34-20 upset. Oh, he also made a fourth-and-1 stop on Escalade-sized Jordan Howard. 

Leonard’s biggest lightning bolt landed, appropriately, after a two and a half hour lightning delay against FAU. With the Panthers up 17-10 in the third quarter but FAU about to score, Leonard scooped up a fumble in the end zone and ran it back 100 yards. Though more than a quarter remained, during which Leonard would intercept a pass in the end zone, that siphoned all the power from one sideline to the other. FAU waned while the Panthers waxed strong in a 38-10 win.

Even after quarterbacks began avoiding Leonard like The Triangle after dark, he proved too omnipresent to avoid entirely. He said he was surprised he didn't get more work against Marshall, against which he had an interception anyway with a potential game-turning long return truncated by a penalty.

I'm not going to rip Hewitt. I watched a number of Marshall games this season and he sometimes demanded my attention. Against FIU, two sacks were among his six solo tackles and eight total tackles. I think Hewitt benefits greatly from being part of a defense that was, statistically, the conference's best (20.8 points per game, 351.8 yards per game).

But I will say this: if you're going to use team performance in selecting an individual award like Defensive Player of the Year, shouldn't you take into account that the defense gave up 59 points in regulation, then a touchdown and two-point conversion in overtime to lose its goal of an undefeated season? Even as Old Dominion skated up and down the field on FIU, Leonard interrupted things with a fumble recovery that he returned into field goal range.

The coaches-selected All-Conference USA team put a Marshall player at each level on the First Team defense and along the line and linebackers on the Second Team. If that's valid and the Marshall defense is so loaded, why isn't there a greater statistical variation between The Herd and FIU?  The Panthers allowed four more points and 12.0 more yards per game than Marshall. FIU finished third behind conference title game participants Louisiana Tech and Marshall in total defense and second behind Marshall in scoring defense.

Maybe a superior individual season?

Also, it's not as if Leonard wasn't a significant part of a pretty good defense, too: 5th nationally in red zone defense (he had two fumble recoveries and an interception in the red zone), third nationally in turnovers gained (he had nine of FIU's 33), tied for the national lead in fumbles recovered (Leonard had four of the 19).

Teams win games. Teams win championships. Individuals win awards. This year's Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year award should've gone to Richard Leonard.

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

December 09, 2014

Three Make All-C-USA football; A-Team on the C-USA All-Freshman Team

FIU made out about as followers would expect on the All-Conference USA teams announced Tuesday. Certainly, the Panthers don't have an apoplexy-causing beef the way, say, Western Kentucky does (over 50 points six times, 59 offensive points in regulation against Marshall and Old Dominion each, zero First Team all-conference offensive players).

Predictably, redshirt junior Richard Leonard made First Team Conference USA at cornerback with five interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, a fumble return touchdown among his conference-leading five fumble recoveries. Leonard also got the First Team nod at punt returner, the only player to make all-conference at two positions this season, and some Honorable Mention love at kick returner. I'd think he'd be the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, which will be announced Wednesday.

Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith joined Leonard on the First Team. Sacks and tackles for loss leader Michael Wakefield was named to the Second Team, as voted by Conference USA coaches.

On the Honorable Mention list: fifth-year senior center Donald Senat, junior defensive end Denzell Perine and freshman linebacker Anthony Wint.

Wint's one of three A's -- two Alexes and an Anthony -- that make up FIU's contribution to the conference's All-Freshman Team. FIU, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Texas-El Paso and Western Kentucky each placed three players on the team.
Quarterback Alex McGough played in every game and started all but the first game.
Running back Alex Gardner led FIU in rushing before missing the last four games with a shoulder injury.
Wint started the first six games and was second on the team in tackles, missed four with a knee injury, then returned to shore up FIU's run defense in the final two games.

December 08, 2014

Football Finances

The death of football at Alabama-Birmingham after a season of resuscitation brought the expected reaction from those looking to be first to Next: who else will dump football because it costs too much?

And then the many of the same people late in realizing FBS college-affiliated football is a business began looking at college-affiliated football programs as a business exactly like NFL franchises. Which is, of course, just as facile and foolish as looking at college-affiliated football as just another extracurricular activity.

So, they see a place like FIU, crowds like this year's Senior Day gathering...

IMG_0869[1]

...and assume the school will take a hard look at following UAB's lead.

Pshaw. If you want a good look at the business of football, especially at the mid-major level, check out this piece. Learn the economic reason why many schools like FIU, to quote Bear Bryant, do love the football.

December 06, 2014

Water Women No. 36 in nation, No. 3 in C-USA

The only team that escaped fall with a winning record, swimming & diving, is ranked No. 36 in the nation by CollegeSwimming.com.

That's one spot below Rice, to whom FIU finished second in last year's Conference USA meet. Up at No. 24 is Conference USA newbie Western Kentucky.

December 04, 2014

Turner Talk Tidbits; Baseball Schedule

I talked with head football coach Ron Turner for about 45 minutes Thursday about the 2014 season and 2015 prospects. Nothing that'll register on the Richter Scale in the manner of 1964 Anchorage, Mike Richter or Pat Richter, but a few tidbits:

*Turner expects cornerback Richard Leonard to forgo the NFL Draft to return as a fifth-year senior. He said if Leonard got analyzed as a third-rounder or better, he'd encourage Leonard to enter the draft.

*Turner talked with Alabama-Birmingham coach Bill Clark Thursday morning. He said FIU might try to pick up some of the UAB players left without a program after UAB football's death on Tuesday, particuarly if there are any offensive or defensive linemen he feels can help FIU.

*There won't be any coaching staff changes initiated by him.

*He's happy with FIU's facilities, although he would like a grass practice field and he thinks that's in the works.

I'll transcribe everything over the next couple of days and post it here.

BASEBALL

FIU gets to find out about itself quickly, hosting Tennessee Feb. 13-15 in a three-game set to open the season. The Volunteers went 31-23, 12-18 in the Southeastern Conference last season.

Other schedule highlights include a three-game series at FAU, April 10-12; a season-closing three-game series at defending Conference USA champion Rice; a first home conference series against Charlotte Mar. 20-22.

 

December 03, 2014

Load $16 Mill & What Do You Get?

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.

MEN'S BASKETBALL

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?

KennMountLandis

Thank you.

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

 

December 01, 2014

FAU up, UAB down and out, FIU where?

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Men's Basketball, vs. Kennesaw State, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

If we're to believe the noise from the media around That School Up North Near Del Boca Vista, tomorrow FAU will further differentiate itself from FIU by announcing a massive donation to the athletic department, the largest in school history. According to the story by the Sun-Sentinel's Nate Taylor, the gift will fund a new athletic facility that'll be primarily used by the football team. It might even include an indoor practice facility.

Huh. Why don't we have announcements like this from FIU athletics? Clearly, there's a giving spirit among those who love FIU. The rest of the university's as festooned as Mount Sinai hospital with major donor names. The last similar announcement I can recall concerned a donation from Judy Blucker, the mother of FIU women's sports and one of the university's early pillars, and her partner Annette Gathright. They're leaving FIU a $1 million gift in the form of a dual life insurance policy that'll endow scholarships for female athletes.  

When I talked to FIU athletic director Pete Garcia almost three years ago, he said FIU's youth as an athletic department with a football team meant its massive alumni base still needed to get used to ponying up the dollars necessary to be a top flight football program.

Looks like FAU's alumni base got used to it. And you can bet the Woodsys' new facilities will be shown off to recruits along with FAU Deep In Debt Stadium. Then, for those recruits FIU wants also, the Boca Boys' will contrast their new toys with the more modest facilities of their public school cousins down in Miami-Dade.

At least FIU will still have a football program. The University of Alabama Board of Trustees, with Bear Bryant's son essaying the Mr. Potter role, reportedly will kill Alabama-Birmingham's football program.

This is the same board that blocked UAB's hiring of Jimbo Fisher before Fisher went to Florida State and blocked the building of an appropriately-sized downtown stadium for UAB football. That kept the Blazers rattling around Legion Field, a massive, historic stadium now as depressing as the surrounding underclass neighborhood. A stadium version of a once-mighty senior citizen now fighting collapse, Legin's upper deck was condemned and amputated, yet it remains too large for a UAB.

Oh, they'll speak the hooey about athletics undergoing the same campus-wide long-term strategic planning the rest of the school is. Hogwash. That football program spent much of its existence being treated like an underfunded Cinderella. This happens as first-year head coach Bill Clark, some kind of prince for not blasting his employers for dashing his and his players' immediate futures, got UAB to bowl eligibility with Saturday's win against Southern Mississippi.

Conference USA doesn't want you in the club if you can't bring some football. UAB and its nice basketball history will get shunted off to some non-football conference. C-USA will search for a replacement.

Georgia State? It's in Atlanta and C-USA does like schools in or near major markets.

Louisiana-Lafayette? Lou-La brings strong fan support and talent in many sports, especially football.

South Alabama? The other end of the state's version of UAB in Legion Field: South Alabama in Ladd-Peebles Stadium. But South Alabama's not under the University of Alabama Board of Trustees' thumb and has otherwise suitable faciliities from what I saw there two years ago.

Anyway, it's a sad day considering what UAB accomplished this year. Well, sad for about the 22 seconds until schools consider those on that talented roster with eligibility remaining will be free to sign anywhere else and can play next year.

 

Pound C-USA Frosh of the Week

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Men's basketball, vs. Kennesaw State, 7 p.m.

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.

Hoops By the Pound; Radio, Radio

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Men's basketball, Tuesday, Kennesaw State, 7:30 p.m.

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.

RADIO

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?

No reason for that.

 

 

 

November 27, 2014

Losing, But Not That Much

The national media push to shed light on the sad situation at Alabama-Birmingham, where UAB football supporters maneuver to keep the University of Alabama Board of Trustees from killing off the UAB football program it's abusively starved, led to this story by CBSSports.com's Jon Solomon.

Readers fall victim to a bad headline -- "UAB football isn't alone in losing money for athletic departments" -- and quick judgement. Because of the headline and the accompanying chart, some interpret the story as saying FIU football is losing the athletic department $19.9 million per year.

If that were happening, everybody from athletic director Pete Garcia to the equipment managers wouldn't be looking for a new job. They'd be looking for a lawyer, a plea bargain and the prison with the guys who con you out of $100,000 instead of the hard ankle guys knock you in the head for $10.

FIU football doesn't spend $19.9 million per year. It spends around a third of that. It's operating budget going into 2013-14 was $6,604,000. Now, I'm not saying the football team doesn't lose money. Most do. Many more used to before television came along to play sugar daddy to the less powerful in the Power Five and the entire Group of Five.

What Solomon's story points out is how many athletic departments lose money before student fee income and state subsidies get added. FIU's still getting 77.4 percent of its athletic budget from student fees. That's under 80 percent. It's still far too high. For a school with so much enrollment and local alumni, it speaks of a disconnect with giving time or money to the athletic department.

 

 

November 26, 2014

Conklin Nominated for Broyles Award

FIU's defense led the nation in turnovers forced (33) and fumbles recovered (19). They scored six defensive touchdowns. As often written, the Panthers didn't win a game without a cornucopia of turnovers and turning one into a defensive touchdown.

Despite erratic help from the offense as far as time of possession, the defense finished 40th in the nation, allowing 363.8 yards per game.

For these and many other improved defensive numbers, FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin has been nominated for the Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant coach.

The award is named after longtime Arkansas head coach Frank Broyles, under whom many future head coaches served as an assistant. Broyles became sort of a collegiate John Madden, as famous to one generation for being a college football color man on ABC's telecasts ("he's a fine ath-uh-lete") as he was to the previous generation as a tremendous coach.

November 25, 2014

Roster Changes

The last two quarterback recruits to enroll early at FIU, EJ Hilliard in 2012 and Alex McGough last January, wound up starting games the following fall.

Just throwing that out there after FIU announced Monday that Lakeland Christian's Christian Alexander would enroll early this January.

According to MaxPreps, Alexander's completed 163 of 265 passes (61.5 percent) for 2,613 yards and 34 touchdowns against only seven interceptions for Lakeland Christian. He's also run for 427 yards at 5.7 per carry. Lakeland Christian faces Jacksonville Trinity Christian with 2015 commit Deion Eakins at offensive guard in the next round of the Class 3A playoffs. Alexander's rated at three stars across the board and reportedly had offers from Central Florida and the University of Miami.

This was the Twitter welcome. Almost Tebowesque...

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As reported in a previous blog, Hilliard asked for his release Monday. After he missed a team meeting Friday morning, Hilliard tried to contact the coaching staff. He next heard from a coach when the coach was on the team charter to Dallas Friday afternoon for the North Texas season closer. Hilliard was left back in Miami. So was senior offensive lineman Yousif Khoury.

Feeling that crossed the fairness line for a player who hadn't been a problem and unhappy Hilliard hadn't been given more of a chance when the offense struggled under McGough this season, Hilliard's family went in Monday to ask for his release.

"He came in and asked for his release and we gave it to him," FIU coach Ron Turner said.

Hilliard leaves after playing in 22 games, starting eight, completing 175 of 274 (63.9 percent) for 1,756 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

Also not in the final game were redshirt junior wide receiver Dominique Rhymes and junior fullback Lamarq Caldwell. Caldwell didn't play in the final three games, Rhymes the final two. Turner wouldn't say each was suspended for violating team rules (Turner generally doesn't like to talk about team discipline), but did say the two didn't make the travel roster.

As for whether or not each will be back next year, Turner said, "They each have one more year of eligibility remaining. I'm going to meet with each player on the team next week to talk about what they need to do moving forward."

I'm betting against Rhymes being back next year. He'll end the FIU portion of his college career with 28 catches for 317 yards, no touchdowns.

Losses & Leavings

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.

November 24, 2014

Lighten Up

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 power went out about a half hour before Sunday's FIU women's basketball game on Replacement Lime Court at Unsponsored FIU Arena. Not sure what happened. I'm pretty sure FIU has paid FPL. The lights came back on in time for Cleveland State to beat FIU 73-65.

Just in case, however, maybe you want to bring flashlights for Friday's opening of the FIU Thanksgiving Classic.

 

 

Leonard Makes Conference USA POW History, Gets CFPA Love, too.

Redshirt junior Richard Leonard's 74-yard punt return touchdown Saturday against North Texas got him this week's Conferece USA Special Teams Player of the Week Award. He also won that award the first week of the season. Leonard received C-USA's Defensive Player of the Week honors in consecutive weeks earlier this season.

That makes Leonard the first player in Conference USA history to win multiple player of the week awards at two different positions in the same season.

Leonard's also the College Football Performance Awards National Punt Returner of the Week.

 

A few (belated) thoughts on North Texas 17, FIU 14 and 4-8

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.

November 23, 2014

Mizzou Invite, Day 3

UPCOMING HOME MATCHES/GAMES

Sunday, women's basketball, vs. Cleveland State, 2 p.m.

Friday, women's basketball, FIU Thanksgiving Classic vs. Arizona 6 p.m.

When you're a mid-major program who gets a transfer from an SEC school who was a national junior champion in the 200 butterfly, how long would you guess before your 200 fly school record falls like Marvis Frazier?

Anybody guessing "the first major meet," give yourself a Pop Tart. Junior Valerie Inghels, a transfer from Auburn, took FIU's 200 butterfly record from Marina Ribi on the last day of the Mizzou Invite while senior Johanna Gustafsdottir added to her collection of school records in the 200 breaststroke.

Inghels. from France, cranked a 1:59.44 in the Saturday morning prelims, the first sub-2:00.00 200 fly in FIU history, then came back with 1:59.37 in the final. That brought her in 1.01 seconds behind the host school's Sharli Brady. FIU also got a second out of freshman Silvia Scalia, who finished second in the 100 backstroke for the meet and in FIU history in 1:55.55. Junior Karin Tomeckova came in fourth, clocking 1:57.73.

The 200 back record holder at 1:54.40 and, before Scalia's leadoff 400 medley leg Thursday, the 100 back record holder snagged the 200 breast record Saturday. Gustafsdottir's 2:14.20 lowered her previous best by six seconds for the day, got her sixth place in the event and toppled the oldest timed event record at FIU, Sara Giovannoni's 2:14.38 from the 2007 NCAA meet. 

FIU's A team -- Gustafsdottir, sophomore Jenny Deist, Paulina Zelazna and Tomeckova -- got fourth place points in the 400 free relay in 3:23.64, the only event time that's behind the best of what FIU posted last year at the Mizzou Invite. Then again, last year's 400 relay had Gustafsdottir and Sonia Perez, probably the two best swimmers in the program's young lifetime, Jenny Alfani and school record speedster Klara Anderssson.

On the platform, freshman Rebecca Quensel and sophomore Lily Kaufmann finished second and fourth, respectively.

To recap the three days: it's clear FIU's going to be much tougher at the Conference USA meet, where they finished second to Rice last year, because they've got the kind of depth that eventually triumphs at big meets. Scalia and Inghels give FIU two more consistent point scorers as well as swimmers for the relays. If FIU gets similar points from diving, the conference meet could come down to the relays.

 

November 22, 2014

Gameday XII: Last Call in Texas

FIU's headed for Denton, Texas, suburban Dallas (the most redundant phrase to appear on this blog), for today's game with North Texas on Swift Air. This continues the travel comedy of FIU football.

A plane's paint job shouldn't matter. It eases the mind, however, if it has a paint job and doesn't have that look of carrying skydivers or factory widgets to Omsk. Of course, if skydivers were the payload, players could sit without their knees tickling their noses. Check out these two pictures.

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The folks pictured come in regular size. Imagine being, say, 6-4, 324-pound Jordan Budwig. When you hear "chartered flight" you envision being pampered by flight attendants floating down the aisles with fruit and beef not imitating Yogi Coudoux squeezing himself into a box on "That's Incredible."

 

When the Panthers uncoil themselves at DFW or Love Field, they'll find a North Texas team on its third or fourth quarterback. Easier to count touchdowns they've scored against FBS competition than signal callers.

FIU's defense just needs to not try too hard to get the turnovers so necessary to the Panthers wins this season. North Texas defense looked stout before...aw, heck, that was months ago. The pterodactyls of UAB put up 56 on them. Rice put up 41. UTEP trampled them last week in a not-even-close-to-being-that-close 35-17 win. The Miners had 195 yards rushing before the game was 16 minutes old and were up 28-0 21:10 into the game.

(If Bill Clark's not C-USA Coach of the Year for what he's done with the stegasauruses at UAB, it's Sean Kugler at UTEP. The preseason coaches poll put UTEP as the only team worse than FIU in Conference USA. They're bowl eligible).

The Panthers have the better punt and kickoff returner. So, we'll hang our hat on special teams. Besides, it's late and I'm getting sleepy.

FIU 27, North Texas 16.

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

Judgement Night

UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES

Sunday, Women's Basketball, vs. Cleveland State at 2 p.m.

How do you judge whether or not you win?

It seems simple in sports. That's part of the appeal to the masses. Life's complex. When you crush your spouse in a debate over where to spend Thanksgiving, are either of you better for it? Is your relationship? Could you wind up down by coming out on top? Push your child, don't push, gently steer? Who's right in the Middle East and why?

Sports provides the simplicity, right? You score more points than your opponent, you win. You don't, you lose. You get to the finish line ahead of your competition, you win. You don't, you lose. And winners can claim rightness rides with them. That's why championship coaches functionally separated from their wives and estranged from their bailed-out kids get to sell books telling you how to win at life. They won. They must know what they're doing.

Friday night, FIU did nothing to special to promote the home men's basketball game against Florida Memorial. For last Friday's season opening duel gender doubleheader, the athletic department all but drove students to the game, carried them to their seats and burped them after halftime. This week, nothing. Plus, rain. Plus again, traffic in the Doral-Sweetwater-Kendall area snarled in such knots, some of the game staff worried they wouldn't make tipoff. So did the writer coming from The Miami Herald building in Doral. (Seriously, the clogging made apparent that anybody thinking an MLS team should play anywhere west of the Palmetto Expressway with the already inadequate roads and lack of good public transportation isn't just wrong, they've slotted thsmelves solidly between "idiot" and "moron.")

So, what happened? A packed student section, well-filled in grown folks side, even two of the cabanas in use. Great crowd even sans grading on the curve of the given conditions. Did FIU win by having a full house for the seating provided? Or did they lose in comparison to what they could've gotten if they'd tried to pump a little rah-ran into this game, could they have gotten even more?

On the court, the score said the men's basketball team clobbered Florida Memorial 74-48 to go to 3-0. Winning, right? Not to FIU coach Anthony Evans, who displayed his deadpan wit after the game when I asked him if there was anything he thought his team did well tonight.

“I’ll have to watch the film," he replied after holding silence for a second. I laughed. Understand that Evans usually reels off fairly detailed, analytical answers in postgame media sessions. He's not filled with one-liners, but he's the coach for hoop junkies. Have to watch the film? Clearly, on this night, he didn't want to be unkind to his team.

"I just think as a team, we have to take advantage of every opportunity when we step on the floor to get better," he said. "I didn’t think we got much better tonight. I thought we reverted back to some old habits. And those are things we have to break.”

So did they win by going to 3-0 or did they lose by not rising above the basketball slop more of the night?

"I think it's important for us (starting 3-0) because we haven't had a lot of time together on the court because of injuries," Evans said. "Getting off to a 3-0 start gives us confidence. It shows us some of the things we can do as a basketball team when we're playing together. When we do that, we're solid. When we don't do that, you can see some of the defienceies we have. As long as, when we step on the floor, whether it's practice, shootaround or a game, looking to get better every day...that's the most important part for us."

That's the almost the whole deal in swimming. Get better compared to you. To compare to others can get be soul-crushingly overwhelming. One of my best friends, husband of a swim coach and father of three daughters who swam until they left for college (then one walked on for four years at a Big Ten school), said with a smile I could hear, "There's always somebody better..."

"There's one Missy Franklin."

"Yep."

Unlike last year, FIU hasn't finished first in one Mizzou Invite event yet. Friday night, senior Johanna Gustafsdottir came closest, finishing second in the 400 individual medley in 4:14.86. She wasn't No. 1. She came in second by 3.33 seconds. Still, she lopped 3.02 seconds off her prelim time and that time beat her previous personal best by 7.18 seconds. Sounds like a win to me. Also sounds like a win for 400IM school record holder Sonia Perez, whose 4:09.59 at last year's Mizzou Invite remains the school record by a fat 5.27 seconds.

FIU also finished second in the 800 freestyle relay with Gustafsdottir, freshman Brittany Fant, freshman Skye Carey and junior Karin Tomeckova coming home in 7:20.85. That's 35 hundreths of a second ahead of last year's 800 free relay time at the Mizzou Invite with a more experienced team (Perez and Gustafsdottir were the first two legs). The 7:27.50 this year B team (freshmen Silvia Scalia and Paula Zelazna, juniors Becky Wilde and Jessica Chadwick) swam is 7.71 seconds faster than last year's B team did it.

The 200 medley relay (freshman Silvia Scalia, senior Klara Andersson, sophomore Jennys Alfani and Deist) came home fourth, but with a new FIU record of 1:41.78. That beat the 1:42.16 mark set by Gustafsdottir, Andersson, Valerii Popova and Kelly Grace at the 2013 Sun Belt Conference meet. And Tomeckova, Chadwick, Zelazna and Mayhew's 1:42.90 is the fourth fastest in FIU history.

Scalia's backstroke led off that relay just as her school record 100 backstroke led off Thursday's 400 medley relay. Friday, in the 100 back itself, she was third in 53.38 seconds just a blink off the 53.30 that started Thursday's relay. Also under Gustafsdottir's former school record was fourth place Tomeckova in 53.75. Alfani got sixth place points for FIU in 55.67.

Fant's 1:49.65 brought her home fourth in the 200 free. Jessica Chadwick got in with a 1:03.39, getting FIU sixth place points in the 100 breast. 

FIU's second in the standings overall.