Various national prognostications penciled in the 2018 FIU Panthers near the bottom of Conference USA.
However, the team had other ideas. They set a new program record for wins in a season (9) and were in the hunt for an East division crown till the final game of the season.
Let’s hand out some awards as we move into 2019.
Offensive Player of the Year: James Morgan
The Bowling Green transfer had a sensational first season in blue and gold. Morgan set a new program record for touchdown passes in a season (26) and was among the top-15 in passer rating (157.63) among FBS quarterbacks. He was named Conference USA’s Newcomer of the Year for his efforts.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Sterling Palmer
A lightly-recruited player coming out of high school, Palmer won the starting job out of Fall camp and never looked back. The 6’6, 235-pound tight end provided a safety blanket for Morgan in the shallow and intermediate parts of the field. He finished the season with 25 receptions for 272 yards and two scores.
Defensive Player of the Year: Sage Lewis
Lewis had large shoes to fill, as he slid in to the middle linebacker spot after the graduation of Treyvon Williams. All he did was break the single-season record for tackles (132) and was named to Conference USA’s all-conference first team.
The Opa-Locka native started the year with a 14-tackle performance against Indiana and had a timely fumble recovery to help propel the Panthers to victory on the road against Charlotte.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Stantley Thomas-Oliver III
As Stantley Thomas, he hauled in 35 passes for 485 yards and was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team. Fast forward two seasons and he’s arguably the better defensive backs in the conference.
Thomas-Oliver earned a starting corner spot following the Old Dominion game and would start the final 11 contests. He led the team in pass-breakups with 10 and is a very capable tackler in the secondary, recording 40 stops in 2018.
Special Teams Player of the Year: Maurice Alexander/Stone Wilson
This will be the first of two split winners for me. Alexander went from being the backup quarterback to one of the most dynamic players in the nation. He led the conference in punt return average (14.6) and was named to the conference first-team at the position.
Wilson was again a weapon for FIU. The senior had his best performance against Miami, where he program record for punting yards in a game (423) and had 32 kicks either fair-caught or land inside the opponents 20-yard line.
Team MVP: The Offensive Line
The unit had a remarkable turnaround in 2018 under offensive line coach Allen Mogridge. After giving up 23 sacks in 2017, they allowed only eight in 2018 and paved the way for an offense that set a school record with 450 points scored. Butch Davis routinely praised the group that often rotated nine players.
The primary starters were: D’Ante Demery, Jordan Budwig, Dallas Connell, Shane McGough and Kai Absheer. Daquane Wilkie, Neal Mars, Mershawn Miller and Shacquille Williams all saw significant playing time.
Rising Star: D’Vonte Price/Dorian Hall/Richard Dames
Here’s the second of the awards that I split between multiple players. Price began the season competing for carries with three other backs, but ended the year as arguably FIU’s top rushing threat. He finished the season second on the team with 578 yards on the ground. Hall and Dames shared the team-lead for interceptions (3) and both are excellent tacklers in the secondary. The duo provided timely key plays for a defensive backfield that created 13 turnovers in 2018.