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Grading the FIU defense: Clutch turnovers and room for improvement

The unit was among the best in C-USA forcing turnovers. However, they’re still a work in progress.

Indiana v Florida International
Junior linebacker Sage Lewis was undoubtedly a standout for FIU’s defense in 2018.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

While expectations from the FIU offense were a mystery heading into 2018, the defense was touted as potentially the most talented in program history.

However, talent doesn’t always translate into on the field success. The positive has to be the amount of turnovers, especially timely takeaways that they forced.

But the glaring negative is the way teams were able to run the ball at will.

Overall, a combination of youth and fundamentals led to a seesaw season for Brent Guy’s unit.

Defensive Line: The line was supposed to be far and away the strength of the Panther defense.

Anthony Johnson is one of the premier defensive tackles in C-USA. Teair Tart and Tayland Humphrey came in as four-star JUCO players.

On the ends, a claim could be made they went five-deep and that’s without star Fermin Silva as a hybrid DE/LB.

NCAA Football: Florida International at Miami
It’s unknown whether DE/LB Fermin Silva will be back with FIU in 2019. He’s eligible to return, but has pro potential.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

However, in the case numbers don’t lie.

The Panthers only had 21 sacks which tied them for 91st in the nation. While tackles for loss isn’t a statistic is that solely reflective of the line, FIU ranked 94th in that category.

The lack of success against the run is of most concern.

Once again, run defense is as much about 11 players playing fundamentally sound as it is one particular group of players.

But the Panthers ranked 100th against the run, giving up an average of 197.2 yards per game and they gave up 139 1st downs via the run, the most in Conference USA.

I asked Butch Davis about the run defense at various points throughout the season. Early on, Davis attributed it to youth and lack of time having played together.

After the FAU game which was the worst performance of the season, Davis harped on “fundamentals and technique and tackling.”

Following the season-finale against Marshall, Davis had what may have been his most telling quote.

“People are spreading you out and making you cover the entire field, there’s some things either scheme-wise or personnel-wise that we have to take a long look at in the off-season. When you get out in the perimeter and you’re trying to cover the run because they’re in four-receiver sets, it’s good to cover, but we need to get guys off the blocks because we’ve only got five guys in the box.”

For what it’s worth, Guy’s units during his final three seasons as Tulsa’s defensive coordinator ranked ninth in tackles for loss during that span.

Mid-season grade: C

End of regular season grade: C

Linebacker: Heading into the season much of the talk was surrounding how Fermin Silva would fare as a hybrid OLB/DE.

By the end, it was about how middle linebacker Sage Lewis seamlessly made the transition inside from his outside backer spot.

The junior was named to the C-USA all-conference first-team in his debut season at MIKE linebacker. Lewis broke the program’s single-season mark for tackles in a season (126) and entrenched himself as the leader of the defense.

Because of the aforementioned spreading out of the defense by opposing teams, Silva spent a majority of his snaps at defensive end. As he was finding his form coming off of a two-sack game versus Miami, Silva would have to miss the rest of the season due to injury.

Texas transfer Edwin Freeman arrived late in the off-season to secure the weak-side spot. Once he found his footing and rounded into football shape, Freeman performed well recording 89 tackles and led the team in TFL’s and run-stuffs.

NCAA Football: Florida International at Miami
Ed Freeman rounded into shape and played well during his season at Florida International.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Freshman Rocky Jacques-Louis is a talented player with a tremendous upside. His athleticism was on display immediately with his two interceptions and is very capable of playing sideline to sideline because of his speed and pursuit.

The unit does share in the responsibility of stopping the run.

While Freeman and Lewis racked up the tackles, far too many of those came with running backs reaching their second level of defense.

Mid-season grade: B

End of regular season grade: B+

Defensive Backs: At the start of the season, the FIU secondary was looked at as potentially the weakest part of their defense.

By the end, they were much improved and very much a strength.

Indiana was able to complete passes at will, Jonathan Duhart looked like he may a record day in the first-half of the Old Dominion game and Miami’s N’Kosi Perry had his best outing of the season against the Panthers.

The final two-thirds of the season saw the defensive backs shut down the opposition and create turnovers that helped FIU rank 12th in the nation in turnover margin.

Stantley Thomas-Oliver has all of the makings of an elite DB. The former all-freshman performer at receiver earned a starting spot after the Arkansas Pine-Bluff game and didn’t look back.

Central Florida v Florida International
Stantley Thomas-Oliver helped solidify the FIU secondary in 2018.
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Veteran Emmanuel Lubin was steady as the other starting corner. Isaiah Brown returned from missing most of ‘17 with an injury and is still looking to regain the form that saw his as the team’s best DB in 2016.

The Panthers are in great shape at the safety spot.

Redshirt freshman Dorian Hall provided size and playmaking ability tying the team lead in interceptions (3) with fellow free safety Richard Dames.

Davis who’s normally short on comparisons has likened Dames to former Miami safety Edward Reed. “Richard Dames is a ferocious tackler, he’s got some traits like Ed Reed,” said Davis.

At the strong safety spot, FIU has Olin Cushion III, who had the game-sealing interception against MTSU and Tyree Johnson who’s valuable in dime/quarter packages as well as on special teams.

The major hindrance of secondary has to be their size. Thomas-Oliver and Hall will be especially needed in that department.

Size match-ups severely hurt FIU in the opening contest versus Indiana’s Donovan Hale and the season-finale against Marshall’s Tyre Brady.

Mid-season grade: C

End of season grade: B+