FIU closed out the 2018 season by defeating Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl and setting a new program standard for wins in a season (9).
The Panthers, who began last season projected to finish near the bottom of Conference USA, will enter the upcoming year as a favorite to win the East division.
Head coach Butch Davis fielded one of the youngest teams in FBS football last season.
28 Panthers made their college football debut in the season-opening game against Indiana.
Now, they’ve graduated 19 players, with only 12 being significant contributors to last year’s team.
On the flip-side, FIU returns C-USA’s reigning newcomer of the year in quarterback James Morgan, its top-four rushers, the majority of the receiving corps, along with eight starters on defense.
With spring practice on the horizon, let’s take a look at contributors from last year’s team, who will have their sights set on securing the programs’ first C-USA crown.
Note: Number of career games are in parenthesis
Starter: James Morgan (25)
Backup: Kaylan Wiggins (1)/Caleb Lynum (0)
Overview: Entering last season, it wasn’t known until 21 minutes before kickoff that James Morgan would be the Panthers’ starting signal-caller. In 2019, there’s no doubt that the offense will be orchestrated by number 12.
Now the question is - just how good can he be with a full off-season under his belt?
“James came in with only three weeks of practices before he got that start against a Big Ten opponent in Indiana. With a full off-season, we’re really excited about him. He’s going to throw on Sunday’s, because he can make all of the throws,” said Butch Davis on Underdog Dynasty Conference USA podcast.
With a full off-season with the team, I expect Morgan to be in the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year discussion, given the talent level of the weapons at his disposal.
However, there’s no two ways to put it.
Behind him, it’s a virtual unknown who will secure the backup job.
Redshirt freshman Caleb Lynum and redshirt sophomore Kaylan Wiggins will compete for the QB2 position. Lynum was the higher rated passer coming out of high school, but Wiggins has spent two years in Rich Skrosky’s offense.
It has to be viewed as a toss-up as to who wins that race.
Look for the winner to see as much playing time as games allow, as Butch Davis has made a point to make sure, his number two QB gets meaningful reps in game situations.
Starter: Anthony Jones (29)
Backups: Napoleon Maxwell (29), D’Vonte Price (20), Shawndarrius Phillips (24), Shaun Peterson Jr. (2)
Overview: The Panthers’ deepest position last season will be even deeper in 2019.
Anthony Jones missed seven games due to being injured in an off-campus drive-by shooting. In his absence Napoleon Maxwell and D’Vonte Price to shouldered the load for the FIU run game.
While the backs rushed for over 2,000 yards, there’s no denying that the group could be more effective, especially in the early downs.
The positive, is that the unit legitimately has four players who could start for any FBS program.
Maxwell appears to have been granted another season of eligibility after missing two with knee injuries, while Phillips’ legal issues seem to be behind him. Both have practiced in the spring.
Price rose from fourth on the depth chart last year and led the team in yards per carry, while also being the best receiver of the unit. Peterson Jr., was a highly touted prospect and battled ankle injuries during his initial campaign.
I expect Jones to be the RB1, while the next set of reps will be the most hotly contested. Price has impressed the coaching staff in his time in Miami and could easily continue his ascent up the rotation. However, expect all five to see carries in 2019.
Note: The fullback position, when utilized last season, was filled (very effectively) by blocking back Collin Olsen.
However, there isn’t another player on the roster, or signed in recruiting designated as such.
I’ll hold off on projecting the position until after spring, but keep an eye on David O’Meara to potentially fill the role, as he did see time last season in the H-back/fullback spot Olsen occupied.
Starters: Austin Maloney (29), Bryce Singleton (21)
Slot: Maurice Alexander (13 at WR, 13 at QB)
Backups: Tony Gaiter IV (30), Darrius Scott (22), Shemar Thornton (10), Cadarius Gaskin (2)
Overview: Depth is the name of the game for the receiving corps.
Of the 179 passes hauled in by FIU wideouts last season, no player caught more than 22 percent of those passes.
Meaning, if you’re an eligible receiver in Rich Skrosky’s offense, you better have your head on a swivel, because the ball could be heading your way.
In my opinion, Mo Alexander is the most dynamic player in FBS football, who most fans don’t know of. He was one of two players last season to score on as a receiver, rusher, and returner.
Alexander will be joined by the reliable Austin Maloney and talented Bryce Singleton, who battled injuries throughout last season, but is very capable.
Gaiter, Scott and Thornton are all solid players, while Gaskin heads up a group of talented wideouts signed by FIU in the past two recruiting classes.
I expect Maloney and Singleton to lock down the X and Z receiver spots, while Alexander is best served working out of the slot. Gaiter should be the primary backup in the slot, allowing Scott and Thornton to work on the outside.
Singleton may be the most intriguing of the bunch. Butch Davis has raved about his ability to run every route in the route tree and his catch radius.
Starter: Sterling Palmer (11)
Backups: Ivan Thomas (11), David O’Meara (7)
Overview: Anyone who’s followed Butch Davis’ career as a head coach knows that he loves tight ends.
He sent multiple players at the position to the NFL during his time at Miami. With that said, Davis is building the same depth at FIU.
Palmer is the unquestioned starter. The freshman burst onto the scene in ‘18 and was a reliable target for James Morgan, while having a large upside. Thomas and O’Meara both had growing pains as true freshmen last season.
Members of the coaching staff noted that both had to develop more consistency, but they also saw a significant amount of playing time. I expect all three players to make strides in the spring.
If FIU can have two legitimate threats from a “12” (one running back, two tight ends) package, that will open up Rich Skrosky’s playbook even moreso.
Starters: D’Antne Demery (11), Shacquille Williams (10), Dallas Connell (11), Shane McGough (13), Devontay Taylor (12)
Backups: Willa Pierre (0), Mershawn Miller (3), Jaylin Daphins (0), John Bolding (0), Tahj Brighthaupt (0), Jason Jean (0), Lyndell Hudson Jr. (0), Logan Gunderson (JUCO Transfer)
Overview: The offensive line took a major step forward last season.
Under position coach Allen Mogridge, the unit cut their sacks allowed by almost two-thirds (23 to 8) and paved the way for over 2,000 yards on the ground. The question heading into next season - can they repeat last year’s success?
The group routinely rotated up to nine different lineman during games.
This means, the graduation of four members of that unit will allow for new players to step in. I’m tentatively projecting Shaq Williams fill the left guard spot vacated by Jordan Budwig and Devontay Taylor to take over at right tackle.
The offensive line coaches are very high on Shane McGough and Taylor, with both expected to make major strides heading into next year. Connell’s toughness and leadership in the O-Line room is invaluable and Demery should also excel in his second year.
As for the rotation, keep an eye on Mershawn Miller and incoming JUCO transfer Logan Gunderson.
The same bullet that cost Jones seven games, also injured Miller, who was standing next to Jones at the time of the shooting. Miller would miss nine contests, before returning against Texas-San Antonio.
Gunderson is a highly regarded line prospect, who won four state titles in high school and played his JUCO ball at ASA College, 45 minutes from Riccardo Silva Stadium.