Buffalo announced cornerback Sam Miller signed with the team as an undrafted rookie. The Bills cut another undrafted free agent cornerback, Michael Carter out of Minnesota and Pompano Beach Ely High.
Miller got a look in Buffalo's rookie camp on a tryout basis. He's listed as fifth on the depth chart at left cornerback. Miller's got a shot at making the Bills via special teams. A little bit of defense, a lot of special teams plays and Miller might make the 53 or the practice squad.
IN ANSWER TO A QUESTION IN THE COMMENTS...
The Herald preseason section hopefully will have the same amount of FIU coverage as the last few years.
While the rest of the country zeroed in on a Browns-Lions preseason game to watch how Johnny Manziel would translate "Johnny Football" to the NFL, I tuned in to check out former FIU defensive tackle Greg Hickman in his preseason debut for Detroit.
(By the way, how strong is just the idea of "Johnny Football in The NFL" that people cared about watching a Browns-Lions preseason game?)
As it turned out, the bulk of Manziel's playing time came in the second half and coincided with the bulk of Hickman's time. Detroit rotated Hickman with a few other defensive tackles throughout the second half.
Officially, Hickman had one tackle, a solo, and a quarterback hurry. The tackle was on a 2-yard off tackle run to the right by Terrance West. Hickman worked through and chased down West from behind as the running back got clogged in the hole. Hickman somehow didn't get credit for later dismissing Keavon Milton and stuffing running back Dion Lewis for a loss of 2.
Hickman had two plays, a Manziel 16-yard scramble and a Lewis 12-yard run, when Cleveland got a big gain through where Hickman had been. The scramble came after a stunt all the way around the right tackle took Hickman out of the contain position you'd want a defensive tackle in against a mobile quarterback like Manziel. If that stunt wasn't an improvisation, but ordered in the defensive call, somebody in the polo shirts gets a demerit. Bad concept. On the Lewis run, Hickman zipped up inside at the snap, leaving a gap that perhaps a linebacker should've filled.
Overall, Hickman helped himself by doing his job. But that low on the roster, you need to make a jump out play or two to keep The Turk from your door.
Friday night's Minnesota preseason opener against Oakland continued former FIU defensive tackle Isame Faciane's attempt to make the Vikings as an undrafted rookie. A plus for him is that the Vikes plan to rotate defensive linemen, Seattle style, so they'll need several. The minus is obvious -- when you enter the first preseason game with 8:46 remaining, there's no few in the queue ahead of you.
In two Oakland possessions, Faciane blocked a pass, drew a holding penalty and generally showed good hustle in getting around the ball when the play went away from him. It does look like he needs to work on his conditioning as he seemed to lose his top two gears near the end.
On the block, the 6-5 Faciane got a little penetraion on the pass rush against Raiders guard Emmett Cleary, then did what d-linemen are supposed to do once progress is stopped: get your hands up.
Later, on a third down, he drew a holding penalty on Cleary, No. 62, for which officials indicted left tackle Erle Ladson, No. 68. In the official game book, Cleary benefits from mistaken identity begat by scrunched up jerseys. Video, as Floyd Gondoli told Jack Horner, tells the truth. Ladson took care of his assignment with minimal contact, a classic legal punch-thrust. Meanwhile, Faciane powered inside Cleary, who held on for quarterback Matt McGloin's life. The pulled jersey was obvious to all as Faciane spun away from Cleary. Flag.
I noticed two other plays that might work in Faciane's favor. He plugged the hole and took on the fullback block in the backfield, mucking up what turned into a 2-yard loss on a left side run. On a third and 10, Faciane bull rushed center Jerrod Shaw to Wisconsin and planted Shaw like a time capsule. Problem was, they wound up well past McGloin. Either Faciane forgot to grab McGloin as he rumbled past with Shaw, couldn't get his hands free or was getting his momentum subtly used against him by Shaw.
Tonight, defensive tackle Greg Hickman tries to make his way up the Detroit depth chart in a preseason game against Cleveland.
After two years being broadcast via Internet over smartphones, FIU football rejoins almost everybody else in FBS with an over-the-air radio deal for this season with 1210AM ESPNDeportes Miami, the station and school announced today.
In addition to the game broadcast, there will be the usual pre and post-game analysis. Expect Pete Pelegrin to remain as play-by-play guy. Here's hoping Pelegrin gets color help, especially on the road. Filling the air for a three or four-hour college football game solo is like blowing up a giant balloon without a helium tank.
OK, it's a Spanish language station (yes, the game broadcasts will be in English, for you smart alecky gringos), but it's still a sports station. Better that than the last station that carried FIU, which sold the slot before FIU games to some show discussing law and lawyers. I wish that had been in Spanish. It would've sounded more exciting. I don't have the instinctive hatred of lawyers some do -- I'm married to a fantastic, Harvard-trained corporate lawyer -- but you could've put a microphone in a Port-O-Let and gotten something that fired you up for a football game more than that.
Followers of this blog know I love to watch the setting and movement of odds, spreads and over/unders. No line's up yet on the Aug. 30 season opener vs. Bethune-Cookman. But I've searched up some win over/unders.
Covers.com has FIU's win over/under at two. Sportbet.com goes 2.5 wins. Chris Andrews of Againstthenumber.com gives FIU one of the lowest power ratings in the country, but still the most improved team in the country and a sleeper that's a good bet. He puts their win over/under at 5.5.
For what it's worth, I've done my game-by-game for The Herald's football preview section. It comes out 3-9, but not the three that everyone anticipates.
Tymell Murphy, FIU's best player over the last two seasons, will get a shot in the NBA Developmental League this year. Good for him. Where Murphy plays is to be determined.
Anyway, told ya so -- for the next three years, it'll be Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium, the athletic department announced today.
I don't know yet how much money Ocean Bank will pump into FIU, but expect it to be generous -- there's enormous cross-pollination between the bank and the school.
What happened to Alfonso Field, named after David Alfonso, who ponied up money to the FIU Foundation in 2011 for five years of Alfonso Field? He hasn't returned our calls. But here's a truism -- money-starved schools don't tend to end five-year deals with major donors after three years unless the money flow gets constipation. And that might have nothing to do with the school.
The next athletic department structure to get a revenue-bringing name will be Formerly Sunblazer Arena or What Once Was U.S. Century Bank Arena.
Football practice is still closed to the media. Though I can't give you the full meal served of past years because I wasn't there, here's a few pizza roll appetizers of info I heard about from today at La Cage...
Sophomore middle linebacker Treyvon Williams took first team snaps late in practice. Also, junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon took snaps at first team corner in a defense against a three-wide set. McKinnon's switched from No. 31 to No. 7, the number of NFL-bound FIU defensive backs Anthony Gaitor and Johnathan Cyprien. Sophomore De'Shawn Hazziez, a walk-on last year who played in 11 games, might be moving up the depth chart also.
On offense, quarterback EJ Hilliard continued with the first team. Joining Hilliard on some of the snaps were speedy redshirt junior running back Shane Coleman and freshman wide receiver Dennis Turner, probably the best big play guy in the 2014 recruiting class. What was it I wrote in the training camp preview about looking for explosiveness?
The preseason Conference USA coaches poll puts FIU at No. 7 in the nine-team league and New Mexico as the overwhelming favorite (seven of nine first place votes). Senior forward Quentin Albrecht, Second Team All-C-USA last season, was voted to the preseason all-conference team.
Fall's best hope for bringing FIU a conference title, women's soccer, was picked to finish fourth in Conference USA. Charlotte, from the soccer power state of North Carolina, is the favorite followed by North Texas and Rice.
Last year's leading FIU scorer, senior Ashleigh Shim, was picked for the preseason all-conference team after being Second Team All-C-USA in 2013. The women open the FIU athletic season Aug. 22 at home against Arizona.
Just received an e-mail that all football training camp practices will be closed to the media. No mention of post-practice media sessions. I'm sure they'll come up with something.
This mostly curtails the usual detailed daily training camp reports here on the blog. It cuts the daily rail tidbits that run in the print Herald, as well as the occasional training camp feature. On the other hand, I get more time to work on preseason section stuff, take my daughter to summer camp in the mornings and cram in a few more Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes before the summer ends.
The signage outside La Cage still calls the fake grass inside "Alfonso Field." Alas, that will be changing.
FIU needs the money that comes from slapping a name on the field. You've got the NCAA saying Division I schools can stuff their athletes like Sunday at Big Mama's, and Conference USA claiming all scholarships will be full scholarships as of the 2015-16 school year. Time to go find a different source of Other People's Cash.
Might FIU go with a corporate entity? Banks and energy companies seem popular to woo for naming, with their gushers of cash. South Florida comes a little light on energy industries. Ocean Bank loves the College of Business Administration and already have the Ocean Bank Auditorium in the College of Business. Might Ocean Bank love them some Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium?
Lime named the basketball court. Might they want some fake grass under their logo?
What a Vikings beat reporter sees from former FIU defensive tackle and cook Isame Faciane in training camp so far...
Tania Tare put up on Instagram a picture of her just-arrived 2013 graduation ring and Sun Belt Conference championship rings.
The media horde -- Herald photographer Walt Michot and I -- were shown out at 9:30. I was told the people still in the stands were "invited." They were player family members so of course they were invited.
While we were there, I saw nothing surprising.
Afterwards, no players were made available to The Herald. Coach Ron Turner declined to speak with The Herald at that time. I was told to call him later. He and I did speak later Monday evening.
So, what was to be a sports front story likely will be a brief in the print Herald tomorrow. Oh, well, more time to work on preseason section stuff...
Football training camp begins today with FIU searching for playmakers instead of being a collegiate version of ESPN’s Playmakers as the Panthers were a year ago.
Pick any two Road Runner cartoons and you’d see more explosive plays than FIU provided a year ago. Only 14 turnovers gained by the defense or special teams, 112th in the nation, and four of those came against Southern Mississippi, the nation’s most generous team with turnovers. Only 11 quarterback sacks, also 112th. Only one touchdown of any kind from a play longer than 20 yards. Only 41 plays of any kind longer than 20 yards, 3.41 per game. And those last two sentences count kick and punt returns.
For any football team, those facts drop a team off in One Win Country. For a college football team in this state, even one going through raze-rubble-raise as FIU did last year, it’s an abomination.
That also shows how much FIU missed cornerback/kick returner Richard Leonard and wide receiver Glenn Coleman last year. In 2012, Leonard had a 100-yard punt return touchdown and a 49-yard punt return touchdown. Coleman averaged over 20 yards per catch in two different games.
Without long plays, turnovers and sacks, FIU needed far more precision than a team of its maturity could muster. Everybody needs cheap points. Nobody needs them more than FIU.
Quarterback: Which happens first? Junior E.J. Hilliard gets the ball out of his hands faster with good decisions or freshman Alex McGough adjusts to the speed of the college game? Because that’ll determine if Hilliard stays at the top of the chart longer than “You Light Up My Life” or if McGough goes from freshman boy to The Man and brings the “End of the Road” to Hilliard.
Hopefully, the quarterback situation won’t split the team the way some of the departed tell me Jake Medlock vs. Hilliard did last year.
Bud Martin, Akil Dan-Fodio, Luke Medlock will take snaps in practice and have their moments. But if anybody besides McGough or Hilliard sees significant playing time this year, only EA Sports will let FIU score in the double digits.
Sort of digression: FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said at the announcement of Ron Turner’s hiring, “He is no doubt, in my opinion and a lot of people’s opinion, the best quarterbacks coach in the country….”
So why is Cam Turner, zero previous years as quarterbacks coach, the Turner that's been listed as FIU’s quarterbacks coach the last two seasons? Especially when Ron Turner seemed to be the one coaching the quarterbacks last year.
Running back: When a coach says it’ll be “running back by committee” and not “we’ll see who steps up and takes the job,” he’s not sold on any of his current runners and knows the unknown that are freshmen.
They needed Lamarq Caldwell’s big body to take the battering from waves of tacklers crashing through a leaky line. Still, FIU overused him. Now is when redshirt junior Shane Coleman runs himself into playing time or just runs through practices toward a degree (hopefully). You can tell by the carries he was given during spring practices the coaches want him to own a role.
A pair of nifty sophomores need to show they can come off knee injuries, Alphonso Randolph’s suffered last fall and Silas Spearman’s suffered in the spring scrimmage. That Bowling Green transfer Anthon Samuel, out with a concussion in the spring, will be a walk-on says what they’re expecting from him.
The door’s open for freshmen Alex Gardner, a three-star rated running back out of Jacksonville Raines, and Napoleon Maxwell out of St. Petersburg Admiral Farragut. After all, FIU got only one run longer than 20 yards from its running backs last year, Spearman’s 32-yarder against Southern Mississippi.
Wide receivers/tight ends: The 2012 offense exploded when FIU started getting the ball to big, fast Coleman and Willis Wright. Their academic failure left FIU with T.J. Lowder (Johnny Quick speed, inconsistent hands), Dominique Rhymes (height, speed, inconsistent hands), Clinton Taylor (speed, inconsistent hands), DeAndre Jasper (speed, inconsistent hands) and Fred Porter (height, hands, gets-there speed).
FIU pass catchers got open for a lot of big plays last year. The catching and running (without fumbling) part of big plays proved a problem. And that’s why the wideouts produced only 16 receptions over 20 yards.
If Coleman’s all that he was, FIU’s offense gets a needed jolt from jump street. All 6-5 of Michigan State transfer Juwan Ceasar should give whoever’s throwing the ball a big, long target downfield. He came out of Coral Park High as a three-to-four-star recruit. So did James Louis, who hasn’t seen the field after transferring to FIU in 2011, but Louis isn’t 6-5.
FIU’s sliver of light in last year’s offensive nuclear winter, leading receiver sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith, could be the best tight end in Conference USA. Cory White got a sixth year from the NCAA. Junior Ya’keem Griner also will get his share of plays unless Turner goes away from the two-tight end offense he loves.
Offensive line: Everybody’s back in the same place – left tackle David Delsoin, left guard Jordan Budwig, center Donald Senat, right guard Jordan White and right tackle Aaron Nielsen.
The running game should benefit the most from the line slogging through 12 games together last season. Even subtracting the 52 sacks allowed, FIU averaged only 3.25 yards per carry. That hurt on first down. Be it player youth or coach stodginess, Ron Turner didn’t exactly feel comfortable doing much risky on first down last year. So, over and over again, it was here you go, Lamarq, good luck!
FIU’s inability to gain yards on first down led to the nation’s worst third down conversion percentage, 22.5 percent. That led to the defense being on the field too often. That led to the defense began breaking down with about four games left.
And that leads us to this year’s defense.
Defensive line: Imarjaye Albury, Marques Cheeks, Darrian Dyson each came out of high school with three-star ratings in 2012. And Leonard Washington, Dyson’s teammate at New Orleans Edna Karr, actually had a better 2011 than Dyson.
Training camp will be about finding who of the above will or won’t evolve into being proper replacements for defensive tackles Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman. On the ends, redshirt junior Wonderful Monds II should press seniors Denzell Perine and Giovanni Francois for playing time.
Linebackers: How long and how big?
How long will junior Luis Rosado hold off sophomore Treyvon Williams at middle linebacker? Rosado’s taller, older, more experienced, but Williams just keeps showing up in the middle of plays. Rosado needs a good enough camp to keep coaches from believing it’s worth keeping Williams’ advantages in time and upside on the bench.
Now that the NCAA says schools can feed Division I athletes unlimited meals to student-athletes – the rule went into effect Friday – maybe junior Patrick Jean puts more meat on those 6-3 bones. Unless FIU’s not up to feeding its student-athletes, that is, which would be a shame. A bigger Jean, with his range and Davison Colimon’s speed would give FIU linebackers that can create fumbles, sacks, interceptions.
Secondary: Leonard looked fantastic in the spring. So did his cousin, junior Jeremiah McKinnon.
McKinnon’s always around the ball on defense and special teams. On special teams, he makes the tackle. On defense, he makes the tackle after his positioning somehow wouldn’t result in a breakup or interception. Signs of change should come in training camp.
McKinnon might give Randy Harvey a run for the cornerback spot opposite Leonard. At times, teams ignored Sam Miller’s side of the field and picked on Harvey last year. They’ll be even less apt to try Leonard, so whoever’s over there will stay busy. Sophomore Wilkenson Myrtil also stood out in the spring. If guys like Myrtil, Leonard and McKinnon have game-turning speed. FIU picked off only seven passes last year and returned them only 48 yards.
Three of those interceptions came from fifth-year senior safety Justin Halley. Halley’s shoulder injury kept him out of spring practice. August will give him time to get sharp. Homicidal hitter Demarkus Perkins occupies the other safety spot. He’ll do well not to hurt somebody in training camp.
Special teams: No jobs are more open than kicker and punter, the most fungible positions on the team. After a bad day for the booters, I half expect to see the coaching staff pulling up at Panther Mover stops around Camp Mitch like contractors looking for day laborers. “Can any of you punt or kick a football? Want unlimited food or at least breakfast bars?”
Redshirt sophomore punter Chris Ayers lost his job midseason to quarterback Jake Medlock, who transferred to Valdosta State for his senior season. Now, Ayers will be challenged by freshman Luke Medlock, Jake’s younger brother and an All-State punter at Jacksonville Fletcher. And there’s also walk-on Jose Laphitzondo from Argentina.
The kicker contest will be between sophomores Austin Taylor, Serge Sroka, Karson Dietrich, Cody Hodgens and freshman Scott Wade. Taylor nailed a 52-yarder last season. But he was only eight of 12 overall and nobody kicked off well.
Among the returners, everybody’s practicing to be Leonard’s backup.
Training camp won’t be open to the public. When I told another college football writer that, a perplexed look preceded, “Are they kidding? With what they drew last year, they should be opening everything to everybody.”
I agree. We were watching a Miami Dolphins practice at that moment. An open practice with fans welcome to watch the team learn their new offense, practice various unique plays and try various personnel combinations. Day camps brought kids by for part of practice.
Meanwhile, FIU closes practice despite running a basic 4-3 defense and what an opposing Conference USA assistant told Athlon is “pretty basic, a pro-style offense. They will huddle and do what Ron Turner did somewhere in the NFL.”
Word on the street and out of Camp Mitch is former FIU assistant and longtime club softball coaching ace Gator Rebhan will be named as FIU's new softball coach.
UPDATE: FIU announced this a half-hour after I posted the above.
Rebhan was an assistant under Jake Schumann, who left to be the associate head coach at Ole Miss after three years at FIU (and no raise from $59,000). He inherits arguably the most promising team in the athletic department. Almost everyone returns from a young team that went 33-20, 15-9 in Conference USA last season.
Single game tickets for the fall sports -- football, volleyball, both soccers -- go on sale at 5 p.m. at FIUSports.com.
If you're into spending mornings off watching football practice instead of splashing at a water park or helping the local economy by keeping a waterfront bar in business, here's the football practice schedule.
Tuesday-Aug. 9: 8:15-10:30
Aug. 11, 13, 15, 18, 20: 8:15-10:30 a.m. and 7:15-8:30 p.m.
Aug. 12, 14, 16, 19, 21-23: 8:15-10:30 a.m.
As far as the (potential) Class of 2015, FIU's killing it in Jacksonville. Jacksonville Trinity Christian's 6-3, 315-pound Deion Eakins became the fifth from the area to pledge FIU. Eakins is unrated by ESPN and 247sports.com and at two stars by Rivals.com and Scout.com.
Trinity ran for 266 yards per game last season on their way to a state title. According to an article in In The Game magazine, Easkins plays drums and is in the church band. If he comes to Camp Mitch, he'll combine with running back/singer Alex Gardner out of Jacksonville Raines to put FIU a lead guitar from a church trio.
St. Petersburg Admiral Farragut Academy sent running back Napoleon Maxwell to FIU this year. Jestin Green, a wide receiver and safety, says he's coming to FIU next year. Green's unrated by the four sites I usually site here.
The preseason Conference USA coaches poll put FIU ninth in the 13-team conference. Defending champion Texas-San Antonio was picked to repeat with Sun Belt immigrant Western Kentucky ranked second.
FIU put nobody on the preseason all-conference team, but Adrianna McLamb represents FIU on the conference's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee as its External Affairs Chair.
Monday's the first football practice. Aug. 22 is the first athletic event of the 2014-15 academic year, women's soccer hosting Arizona. Aug. 30, kickoff vs. Bethune-Cookman.
Who shrunk summer from back in the day, when it ran from Memorial Day to Jerry Lewis Telethon? Good golly, the week of no parking at Camp Mitch will be upon us soon.
Football coach Ron Turner said last week he was happy with recruiting for 2015 so far, especially coming off 1-11. He's certainly getting them out of Homestead, where he scored a committment from defensive back Ocie Rose. Rose transferred from Homestead to Booker T. Washington for his senior season, just as FIU commit Maurice Alexander did this year.
Ratings on Rose are all over the place. Rivals puts him at three stars. Scout.com puts him at two. ESPN.com and 247Sports.com don't have him rated themselves, but 247Sports has him at three stars on their composite rating. At 6-1, 185, Rose bloomed into a big safety who forced two fumbles last year in his 47 tackles.
Two-way interior lineman Richerd Desir-Jones, 6-4, 300, out of Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas gave his pledge to FIU. He's rated at three stars by Rivals and Scout.com, unrated by ESPN.com and 247Sports.com.
Orange Park Fleming Island center Neal Mars, 6-4, 275, also wears an FIU pledge pin for 2015. He's unrated by the four recruiting sites.
For what it's worth...247Sports has FIU's 2015 class rated 94th nationally, ninth in Conference USA. Scout.com has FIU rated 90th nationally, seventh in C-USA. Rivals puts FIU 91st overall, sixth in conference. Lot of months, a lot of games, a lot of standardized tests and a lot of grades between now and Signing Day. Plenty of time to move in either direction.
First baseman Gunnar McNeill was picked as the Valley Baseball League's Staunton Braves MVP after leading the league in hitting (.402) and RBI (50) with a team-high six home runs. In the playoffs, he went four for eight with a double and two RBI. For FIU, McNeill also pitches. He made three apperances for Staunton, once as a starter and had a 9.00 ERA in six innings pitched.
We do like our academic achievement around here. So belated big ups to the women's basketball team for their 3.37 grade point average being Conference USA's best in women's hoop.
The story on FIU is here. What follows supplements that.
When asked about the change that gives the "offensive coordinator" title to offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler, last year's "run game coordinator," head coach Ron Turner said:
“There were times last year when I was in with the defense and those guys were kind of waiting to give direction. Steve Shankweiler can take it and give direction for meetings and all that. The structure of how we do it is not going to change at all. I’m still going to call the plays.
"Steve will still be involved in it, the run game aspects of it. He’ll be able to take some of the offrensive team meetings and do some motivational stuff that he was a little reluctant to do last year when I was doing something else. He’ll head up the offensive team meetings, staff meetings and give it a little direction when I’m focused on other areas.”
I asked Turner about sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith.
“To me, it’s amazing what he did last year as a true freshman, all the things we asked him to do – dplaying tight end, playing fullback, splitting him out as a receiver, going in motion, all the things we asked him to do in the running game and the passing game. It’s amazing how he handled it, emotionally and mentally. He’s a great young man.”
“The good news is, hopefully, he’ll have a little more help around him. We won’t have to put so much on his shoulders.”
Turner said he was happy with the depth on the offensive line, wide receivers and secondary and most concerned about the lack of depth on the defensive line.
The running back position will be by committee. Last year's transfer from Bowling Green, Anthon Samuel, will be a walk-on. That hit to the knee sophomore Silas Spearman took in the spring game looked worse than just a "tweak." Indeed, Spearman's knee remains ouchy. “I think he’ll be OK,” Turner said. "Shane Coleman had a great spring. Hopefully, he can continue.”
“We’re not going to have one feature guy. It’ll be a lot of guys playing. Whoever’s hot, keeps going.”
Most players came in slacks and a polo shirt in school colors with logo. The preseason Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and defensive lineman James Rouse, wore suits.
The players decided their attire on their own. Rouse said he saw players at other conference's Media Days in suits and thought it looked nice. But, also, he said, it symbolizes the "all business mentality" Marshall wants to adopt once official practices start.
The Thundering Herd, upset losers to Rice 41-24 in last year's conference title game, rank not just as the overwhelming conference favorite, but are considered a possible undefeated BCS buster.
"We see ourselves as a good team," Rouse said. "We're working hard to prepare ourselves for each game. Right now, we're just worried about Miami of Ohio, the first game. We have to take care of business there before we (start thinking about the season)."
Cato said, "I think we have a good chance to have a great season. I love our team right now. I think we have a good shot to win it all."
If FIU's receivers didn't dribble more passes against FAU than former Owls point guard Ray Taylor dribbled basketballs for FIU last year, the Owls wouldn't have beaten FIU to become bowl eligible. And they didn't go to a bowl. Neither besmirches FAU's remarkable achievement in refusing to let its season get dragged into the Death Star trash compactor muck after head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis resigned amid illegal drug use allegations, Pelini always has denied he used illegal drugs. When Pelini tried to withdraw his resignation, he was fired. He later accused athletic director Pat Chun of dishonesty and desiring his own choice of football coach.
Whatever the truth of that mess, it could've been the final torpedo in a season that stood at 2-6 after Pelini's last game. Instead, helped by closing against Southern Mississippi, New Mexico State and FIU, the Owls won their last four games. Senior tight end Alex DeLeon said he never stopped during the season to think about the wackienss surrounding the coaching situation.
“I can’t control that," DeLeon said. "The only thing I can control is being a leader for our team.”
Oh, and, much like FIU, FAU doesn't like Western Kentucky. When I asked DeLeon and senior linebacker Andrae Kirk for a conference rival aside from their obvious geographic rival, both pointed to Western. The Hilltoppers beat FAU in FAU Stadium's first game. Also, Kirk said, Western's ground bound offense under previous coach Willie Taggart made for physical games against another team with more than a few Florida players.
Both players politely declined to mention that Western under Taggart could be cocky, yappy and a wee bit nasty, especially in victory. Maybe they forgot after a year separated from the Hilltoppers.
Besides, this is a very different Western than the one FIU and FAU left back in the Sun Belt for a season.
“Coach Taggart, he’s the one who helped get the program on its feet and transition to Division I-A," junior defensive end Gavin Rocker said. "Coach Petrino came in and led us to our best record since we’ve been there. Coach Brohm, there hasn’t been too much of a difference between he and Coach Petrino because he was the coordinator under Coach Petrino so it’s been a smooth transition. He’s a players’ coach. You can tell he cares about us."
When Taggart headed back to his native area to coach South Florida, Western jumped on Bobby Petrino and he brought a staff that included offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm. Yes, he's the brother of Brian Brohm, quarterback of Petrino's best teams at Louisville, and was his brother's quarterback coach at Louisville.
Now, with Petrino back in Louisville after serving his penance for his Arkansas indiscretions, Jeff Brohm takes over. Instead of winning games 14-7 old school Big Ten style, Western won them 34-31 or 35-26. Brohm's offense set 18 single-season school records and averaged 458.5 yards per game.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
Conference USA's East Division could also be called C-USA Immigration & Naturalization. Four of the five teams that jumped from The Sun Belt to C-USA the last two academic years -- FIU, FAU, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky -- are in the East. They'll be joined by newbies Old Dominion and, next year, Charlotte.
“Conference USA is, top to bottom, more competitive," Middle coach Rick Stockstill said. "There’s a lot of great individual players in this conference. There’s a lot of great coaches in this conference. I think the facilities are at a higher level than the Sun Belt Conference schools. The professionalism and the organization of Conference USA is at a higher level than the Sun Belt.”
If everything's a step up, logic says program budgets must increase also. Or, should increase.
“I think we’ll see that this year," Stockstill said. "We had to pay an exit fee to leave the Sun Belt and we had to pay an entry fee for Conference USA, too. The money that we’ll receive from Conference USA I don’t think we’ll see the rewards of that until this year. With the bowl tie-ins, the TV packagres, the money you get is head and shoulders above the Sun Belt.”
Middle returns four running backs and one backup quarterback who had 100-yard rushing games in 2013 and eight starters on a defense that allowed 26.2 points per game. What they don't return quareterback Logan Kilgore. Sophomore Austin Grammer will get his shot at replacing Kilgore.
UAB beat one FBS team last year -- FIU. FIU beat only one FBS team -- Southern Mississippi. Southern Miss beat only one FBS team last year -- UAB. Change that. Southern Miss STOMPED UAB 62-27 in the season closer.
That finished the Garrick McGee era at UAB. Coming into a program that's gone 8-28 the last three seasons, new Blazers coach Bill Clark saw a scene reminiscent of what the incoming coaches saw at FIU in 2007.
"We started with the infrastructure," Clark said. "Do you have enough people training your guys in the strength program? Are they good at what they do? What's your nutrition look like? We needed a new locker room, so we built us a locker room. A video system...just some basics.
"Then, we went about the process of coming together. Were we working hard? Were we training correctly? Trying to make them into a family. Then, we had to go out and find some older guys to mix in with our guys because we were so young. Offensive line, we were down to eight players in spring (sound familiar FIU-philes?). Stuff that makes you say, "No wonder.""
Conference USA -- or Sun Belt 2010 Plus now that Western Kentucky joins this year -- put Commissioner Britt Banowsky and the West Division at the interview tables first at Wednesday football Media Day. The East Division, which includes your FIU Gilded Panthers, got sent to the live streaming interview room and take their seat at the tables later.
Barnowsky, who joked that Conference USA could be part of the group of mid-major conferences called The Second Five, said he thought conference realignment now would settle down: "There are better legal structures to hold conferences together. The idea that conference membership is like a country club membership, when you can leave when you want, is over."
Rivalries can develop. Athletes can know who's actually in their conference. None of the players I asked could name the Conference USA schools. North Texas' Derek Akunne came the closest, missing only Charlotte. After a handshake that left my right hand feeling like Fred Sanford's hand looked when he claimed his "ar-thur-itis" was acting up, Louisiana Tech's Tony Johnson got four schools then began looking around at the signs on the interview tables for hints.
None were ashamed -- nor should they be -- by that inability. They were amused, knowing it's more a commentary on the bed switching that's dominated college sports the last few years. The Rice players lamented they no longer play former Conference USA school Houston, 10 to 15 minutes down the road, and couldn't believe FIU didn't play the University of Miami ("You have to play that game.").
Barnowsky also said a new football helmet designed to redistribute a collision's impact so the brain doesn't take the full stress of the violence is in development at Alabama-Birmingham. He estimates a year at least before development's finished.
Instead of dropping a helmet from a height until it cracks, which Barnowsky described as the way current helmets were developed, are reaching for greater realism.
"(Dropping a helmet) doesn't in any way simulate what's happening on the field," Barnowsky said. "What the folks at UAB are doing is recreating what happens on the field through high technical video. Then, they're programming the dummies and sleds to reenact exact hits, such as the big hit in The Iron Bowl, Alabama-Auburn, where the kid got knocked out. Then, they measure the impact through sensors inside the dummies. We're excited to partner with them on that project. The person who's doing it, Dean Sicking, developed the crash wall for NASCAR after the (Dale) Earnhardt (fatal) crash."
Pick your bigger Conference USA 2013 surprise: Rice winning the conference or Texas-San Antonio, in its third season of football, going 7-5 overall and 6-2 in the conference. I asked head coach Larry Coker what factors put the zoom in the Roadrunners program development.
"I think we have an excellent staff," Coker said. "Texas high school football, recruiting. No Division I football in San Antonio. The Alamodome is a great place to recruit to. Honestly, myself having won a national championship -- not that that gets anybody -- but I think it gets their attention. They say, 'Maybe if this guy believes in it, we can believe in it, too.'"
Coker also said this was the first time he was at a school with good facilities.
One of the Dallas Airport Marriott's -- which are about as far away from the DFW Airport as South Beach is from MIA -- will host a flurry of preseason football activity Wednesday when Conference USA hosts its Media Day.
Each school's head coach along with two players from each team get to spread the summer gospel of optimism. Two fifth-year seniors, center Donald Senat and safety Demarkus Perkins, will represent FIU along with Ron Turner.
What do you want asked of the FIU contingent or anyone else in Conference USA?
Palm Beach Gardens defensive end Milord Juste announced his commitment to FIU the usual way, via Twitter. Juste, 6-2, 240, had 21.5 sacks and two forced fumbles for Palm Beach Gardens last season and was on the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's First Team All-Palm Beach team. On the hudl video, check out the play about 2:30 in, showing excellent hustle and pretty good speed.
Juste claimed offers from Army, Navy and Colgate. He's not rated yet by 247sports.com, ESPN.com, Rivals.com or Scout.com.
Friday means there's exactly one month until Miami-Dade County Public Schools -- and private schools that work off the MDCPS calendar -- fire up again. At the end of that week, we get the first playing-for-real FIU athletic event of the 2014-15 academic year, women's soccer hosting Arizona at 7 p.m.
Among the fall sports, FIU's best chance to win the school's first Conference USA title resides with the soccer women. FIU gets back fifth-year senior forward Chelsea Leiva and redshirt junior defender Nikki Rios -- best offensive and defensive players, both injury redshirts last year -- and have eight returning starters from last year's 7-12 injury-hampered team. So, this should look more like the team that won the Sun Belt in 2011 and got upset in the 2012 Sun Belt championship by North Texas.
Among the starters lost, two had eligibility left. Defender Jazmin Jones would've been heading into her junior season at FIU after starting 11 of 19 games last season. Alas, the Gig Harbor (Wash.) High graduate transferred a continental United States closer to home, to Washington State.
Goalie Paula Zuluaga started 13 games and had a 2.18 goals against average in 2013 as a redshirt junior with a year of eligibility left on the field. In the classroom, however, she was all senior, graduating magna cum laude with a Sports Management degree and a minor in Business. She's now an assistant coach at Johnson & Wales.
Jacksonville Atlantic Coast running back Terry Bennett, class of 2015, pledged his body and mind to FIU Thursday.
Bennett's a load, 6-0, 205, and seems to run like it. According to MaxPreps, Bennett ran for 639 yards and 5.1 yards per carry as a junior. He's got three yards and a cloud of dust written all over him at the college level, which means he's perfect for Ron Turner's offense. He's a good enough baseball player to be on Perfect Game's Honorable Mention list for preseason 2014 high school All-Americas.
None of the main sites -- Rivals, 247Sports, Scout.com, ESPN -- have rated Bennett yet.