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FIU: Five Storylines to Watch Heading into Spring Practice

With NSD behind them, let’s take a look at a few storylines for the Panthers heading into the Spring.

Marshall v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Florida International added 21 new players to the roster over the annual signing period and will begin Spring practices on March 19th.

The Panthers, in accordance with FBS rules, will have 15 practices, with the finale being the Spring game on April 12th at Riccardo Silva Stadium.

With four weeks till the Panthers hit the practice field, let’s take a look at a few storylines to keep an eye on during the Spring.

1. Who’s going to backup James Morgan?

Entering the 2018 season, head coach Butch Davis vowed to have a capable backup quarterback on the roster.

This proclamation was brought on after FIU lost their bowl game, when starting quarterback Alex McGough was knocked out the game in the first quarter and the team’s offense promptly fell apart when then backup Maurice Alexander entered the game.

Christian Alexander served as the number two last season, and Davis’ efforts paid off when Alexander won the 2019 Bahamas Bowl, in place of an injured James Morgan.

With C.A. no longer with the program, the backup job will come down to a pair of Central Florida prep products.

Kaylan Wiggins has the experience edge on Caleb Lynum for the QB2 spot.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Redshirt sophomore Kaylan Wiggins and redshirt freshman Caleb Lynum will compete for the position. Wiggins, a two-star prospect out of high school, made his way to FIU after having his scholarship offer rescinded by Tulane at the last minute, due to a coaching change.

Lynum was a three-star prospect out of Clermont, FL and chose the Panthers over Indiana and Ball State in 2018.

Both have solid athleticism and strong arms, but neither has seen action in their collegiate careers.

2. Running Back Rotation

Heading into last season, the running back spot was touted as the deepest position on the team.

The group more than lived up to their billing.

Now heading into 2019, they potentially return their top-four rushers, plus the addition of highly-touted recruit Lexington Joseph and a healthy Shaun Peterson Jr.

Napoleon Maxwell looks to have been granted a final year of eligibility, after missing all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with injuries, while Shawndarrius Phillips has returned after missing the Bahamas Bowl with legal issues.

Both players have been with the team in off-season workouts. How will the team manage to keep all of the players involved?

Here’s one of the unique ways they use the team’s second leading rusher in D’Vonte Price.

On the play above, Price is lined up at receiver in a bunch formation with the offense in “12” personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends). This allows both Price and Maxwell to share the field.

Price is also the FIU’s top receiving threat among the backs. Above, you’ll see how offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky gets him the ball in the same “12” look through the air.

3. Offensive Line: Replacing Budwig & Wilkie

The offensive line was by far the most improved unit for FIU in 2018.

They cut their sacks allowed by 65 percent (23 to 8), while paving the way for over 2,200 yards on the ground.

However, Panthers’ offensive line coach Allen Modgridge is tasked with replacing the team’s top lineman in four-year starter Jordan Budwig along with reliable veterans Daquane Wilkie, Kai Absheer and Neal Mars.

Look for players such as D’Antne Demery, Shane McGough and Devontay Taylor to make big strides in filling to departures of the graduating seniors.

4. Weak and Strong-side Linebackers

With the graduation of Edwin Freeman and departure of Fermin Silva, the weak-side linebacker position is up for grabs.

Look for a group of linebackers (Jamal Gates, Rocky Jacques-Louis, Josh Powell, Romelo Brooks, Dimitry Prophete, Donovan Georges) to be in contention for the spot.

Of that group, Gates and Jacques-Louis saw the most playing time last season on defense.

Whoever doesn’t win the battle for weak-side could just as easily secure the strong-side position.

However, it’s worth keeping an eye on how that spot is used in 2019.

Entering the season, the plan was to use Silva as a hybrid LB/DE. But with opposing teams running a fair amount of spread looks, the Panthers were forced to play Silva at defensive end and bring on an additional defensive back.

To combat this, the FIU employed a myriad of looks versus opposing offenses.

Much of the time, the strong-side linebacker was played by DB’s Tyree Johnson and Richard Dames, or LB Josh Powell, as all three players had the versatility to play a 4-3 LB or 4-2-5 nickel corner. Here’s an example below.

Notice number 31 (Tyree Johnson) is lined up alongside Mike linebacker Sage Lewis and in this case Weak-side linebacker Ed Freeman. The offense is in what’s commonly called “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers).

Below on the very next play, as the offensive personnel changes, Johnson is now lined up as the nickel corner in a 4-2-5 look. The offense is now in “10” personnel (one running back, no tight ends, four wide receivers).

Davis has been high on defensive back Richard Dames. “I’m not huge on comparisons, but he’s starting to remind me a little bit of Ed Reed when I had him at Miami,” said Davis.

While Johnson graduated last season, players like Dames and potentially incoming safety Kendre’ Gant, who played a lot of linebacker in high school, may be able to fill the rover position when it’s called upon.

With a new defensive coordinator coming in, it’ll be interesting to see how FIU chooses to employ their linebackers in 2019.

5. James Morgan: Year two in Rich Skrosky’s offense

Florida International v Western Kentucky
James Morgan’s first year in Miami resulted in him winning C-USA’s Newcomer of the Year award in 2018.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Coming off of two seasons at Bowling Green in which he threw 25 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, it was fair to wonder what James Morgan would produce at FIU.

He eliminated any doubts, by throwing for 26 touchdowns to only seven interceptions on over 65 percent completions in 2018. Then factor in that Morgan only had a dozen practices with the team before taking the opening snap versus Indiana in week one.

Anyone who’s dealt with Morgan knows that he’s one of the most high-character individuals you’ll come across. Good or bad, he’s there to answer questions and is effusive in his praise of his teammates.

He would never say this, so I will.

Morgan didn’t have a snowball’s chance in you know what at sustained success at BGSU.

It’s been documented that then-Bowling Green AD Chris Kingston Googled which team had top-ranked offense from the prior season, in an effort to replace Dino Babers (the coach who recruited Morgan), who departed to Syracuse.

That “extensive” effort led him to Mike Jinks, who Morgan played for in his two campaigns as a Falcon. To say he was a square peg in a round hole is an understatement. For more details on that, here’s my profile of his time at BGSU.

Fast forward to FIU and anyone can see, Rich Skrosky’s offense fits Morgan like a glove.

Members of the Panthers’ coaching staff rave about his ability to mentally diagnose defenses and make a majority of his decisions pre-snap, based on the coverages presented.

With an entire off-season at his disposal, expect an even better James Morgan in 2019.