Following a 34-26 loss to Arkansas State in the Camellia Bowl, Butch Davis’ FIU Panthers are faced with their first during his tenure as head coach - entering the offseason with a losing record.
After an upset of the crosstown Miami Hurricanes, the Panthers went 0-2 to finish the 2019 season with a 6-7 record.
In a season that began with great promise and hopes of a conference championship, FIU enters 2020 with more question marks than proven commodities.
Let’s take a look at 10 questions that face the team.
1. Who will be under center?
After a seesaw two seasons at Bowling Green, James Morgan had a career renaissance in Miami under offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky. In his two seasons at FIU, Morgan broke the single-season record for passing touchdowns in a season (26) and second all-time in career passing touchdowns (40).
With Morgan’s graduation - the question is who will take the reins as starting quarterback in 2020?
Redshirt sophomore Kaylan Wiggins showed that he’s a dynamic athlete in his lone start against New Hampshire, setting a program-record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback (187). However, he’s still an unproven commodity as a passer.
Freshman Stone Norton was the prize recruit of the 2019 class, coming in as the highest-rated quarterback prospect (by 247 rankings) to ever sign with the Panthers. Could there be a situation similar to 2018, where Davis rotated Morgan and Christian Alexander until Morgan separated himself?
2. Can the run defense improve?
After giving up an average of 171.3 yards per game on the ground in Davis’ first season at FIU, the defense’s play against the run has regressed vastly. In 2018, FIU finished 12th in Conference USA averaging 192.2 rushing yards allowed and this season that number has risen to 196.9.
Entering this season, players and coaches alike all said the right things about needing to play with better fundamentals and technique.
There are no two ways about it - FIU must play with more consistency and discipline on run defense. Otherwise, they have zero chance at competing for an East division championship.
3. Jeff Copp
It’s not a secret that FIU had an agreement in place to name Everett Withers as the defensive coordinator after Brent Guy’s sudden resignation. When Withers took a job with the New York Giants, veteran assistant Jeff Copp was tasked with the lion’s share of responsibilities.
There have been some rumblings among FIU fans for a change at the position following the struggles against the run.
My POV is this - there’s something to be said for continuity with a coaching staff. Changing coordinators (and position coaches) each season places a burden on players to adjust a new voice.
Additionally, Copp was a first-time DC in the role and is a respected voice among the players.
He deserves an entire offseason at the helm to make adjustments.
Down the stretch, the play of the defense as a whole was markedly better.
4. Rich Skrosky
The same frustration from fans over the play of the defense also boiled over to the offensive side of the ball at times this season.
This one is very simple - the same offensive coordinator (Skrosky) that led FIU to top scoring offense in Conference USA in 2018 - is the same offensive coordinator (Skrosky) who was at the helm this year.
Fans who were upset on social media about the play-calling this season didn’t have any qualms with the same play-calling the year prior.
Alex McGough and James Morgan’s careers flourished under Skrosky and FIU can directly tie the signings of Norton and 2020 commit Hayden Carlson to him. Quite frankly, any talk of a change at OC is ridiculous.
5. A new era at running back
For the first time in five years, the Panthers’ running back room won’t have Napoleon Maxwell and Anthony Jones as occupants. The veteran duo rushed for over 4,000 yards combined in their FIU careers.
Their graduations leave a hole at the position, but only in the name of experience. Davis (along with Tim Harris Jr.) have recruited a litany of talented backs.
Between Maleek Williams, Shaun Peterson Jr., Lexington Joseph and D’Vonte Price, FIU’s running game should be in fine shape.
6. The Jeremiah Holloman factor
Following the loss to Arkansas State, I asked both Davis and Sage Lewis how frustrating it is to face a player who can break the game open on any given play as Red Wolves’ receiver Omar Bayless did.
Next season, FIU gets to unleash their version of a game-breaker in receiver JJ Holloman.
The University of Georgia transfer has the potential to be the most dynamic talent in blue and gold since T.Y. Hilton and will be one of the top-five most explosive players in C-USA the instant he touches the field in 2020.
7. Jean Baptiste & Whittaker
When Alexy Jean-Baptiste and Chris Whittaker were granted their eligibility a quarter of the way into the season, they gave FIU pass-rush talents that they haven’t had in three seasons.
Butch Davis even noted as much following the Old Dominion game.
What can both players achieve in a full season of work together? Additionally, how lethal can a pass-down front four of Jean-Baptiste, Noah Curtis, Kevin Oliver and Whittaker be?
It should be fun to watch, as both Oliver and Curtis are both known for having a tremendous motor and should see more opportunities to get after the quarterback.
8. Playing with discipline
“There’s got to be a whole hell of a lot of changes and things that we’re going to do significantly different, with a major one being the discipline with which we play.”
Those are Davis’ words following the Camellia Bowl loss when I asked him about how he would summarize the season.
While the Panthers were one of the most penalized teams in C-USA (63.9 yards per game) Davis isn’t just referring to flags.
Nobody can argue the talent level of the 2019 FIU football team - there’s a reason they were picked by the media (including myself) to finish either first or second in their division this season.
However, they have to do a better job of doing the little things in order to actualize said talent.
9. Changes in the secondary
For the past two seasons, FIU has had a tremendous group of players in the defensive backfield. Heading into the offseason, they lose three key members from the unit that was in the top-10 among FBS teams in fewest passing yards allowed throughout the season.
With the run defense still being a work in progress, it will be key that the secondary can keep up their level of play.
How will talents like Richard and Rishard Dames, Dorian Hall and Josh Turner fare in newer roles, along with young players like Jamal Anderson, Jesson Walker and Benny McCray.
10. FIU Football as a program
There’s no need to overdramatize the failures of the 2019 team. However, it can’t be denied that rival Florida Atlantic and their two conference titles in three seasons loom over the Panthers.
Now, faced with the prospect of losing many key contributors, along with FAU appearing to be primed to make another run at C-USA, FIU can’t afford a return the mediocrity that plagued the program before Davis’ arrival in November 2016.
Conference USA has shown that it’s capable of unpredictability at any given time.
Davis and his staff have done an excellent job of increasing the talent level on the FIU roster. In 2020, they have to find a way to avoid another losing season, or else they run the risk of falling further behind their rivals to the north.