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.
In order for FIU to take the next step, they have to take a major step forward defensively.
The unit finished 12th in rushing yards against among C-USA teams and was 92nd in FBS football. Since the bowl victory, defensive coordinator Brent Guy unexpectedly resigned to spend more time with his family.
Additionally, defensive line coach Kenny Holmes was replaced by another former player under Davis at Miami in Kenard Lang. Cornerbacks coach Eric Thatcher was replaced by Davis’ former quarterback at North Carolina in Bryn Renner.
The positive is there’s no shortage of talent on the defensive side of the ball. The special teams unit will look to replace punter Stone Wilson, who was arguably the best performer in school history at the position.
In part two of my spring outlook, I’ll take a look at the returning defensive and special team players who contributed last season and where they may fall on the depth chart.
Note: Number of career games are in parenthesis
Starters: Noah Curtis (23), Teair Tart (12), Tayland Humphrey (12), Kevin Oliver (19)
Reserves: Jason Mercier (13), Josh Little (18), Jordan Woods (12), Andrew Tarver (18), Kaliq Jacas (0)
Overview: The defensive line is an extremely talented group. However, they’re still a long way from self-actualization.
Their play against the run has to improve. While sacks aren’t solely indicative of pressure on the quarterback, the unit is capable of being higher than ninth in C-USA.
The positive is, there’s room for the entire group to grow, as they spent much of last season learning to play together.
I expect Curtis and Oliver to once again be the starting defensive ends.
However, Jason Mercier had a nice freshman season and could push for one of those spots. Either way, FIU routinely plays seven and eight players across the line, so there will be no shortage of playing time.
Where it could get interesting is at defensive tackle.
Last season, Teair Tart and Tayland Humphrey usually spelled each other, unless it was a run down.
I think if both are in their best shape, they could play together as the two DT’s.
Josh Little and Jordan Woods will be the next two up, and Andrew Tarver can easily slide into the rotational three-technique DT.
Starters: Rocky Jacques-Louis (13), Sage Lewis (37), Jamal Gates (13)
Reserves: Josh Powell (15), Dimitry Prophete (15), Romelo Brooks (11), Donovan Georges (9), Tevin Jones (5)
Overview: If part one of the improving the run defense lies with the defensive line, part two rests with the linebacking corps.
The Panthers have arguably C-USA’s top MIKE linebacker in Sage Lewis, who will captain the defense.
The weak and strong-side spots are up for grabs.
Rocky Jacques-Louis showed flashes of his potential and ability to cover in space last season, while Jamal Gates spent time in the starting lineup.
The key to figuring out the starters, will be seeing how FIU defends the run. Ed Freeman and Lewis were mainstays on the field at weak-side and MIKE linebackers, respectively.
However, the strong-side spot was filled by Gates, as well as hybrid DB/LB’s Tyree Johnson and Josh Powell, and safety Richard Dames.
With C-USA teams choosing to spread the field, this necessitated the strong-side spot to be able to play both 4-3 LB and/or nickel corner.
Butch Davis rotated Gates in run situations and Powell on pass downs, with Johnson and Dames having the ability to play both, while on the field.
Below, is an example of Johnson staying on the field in both the 4-3 and nickel packages.
Above, Johnson lines up as a 4-3 linebacker. On the next offensive play, he lines up as a nickel corner. Having that versatility will decide who gets the other LB spot.
Starters: Stantley Thomas-Oliver III (13 at CB, 31 overall), Ike Brown (28), Olin Cushion III (23), Dorian Hall (14)
Reserves: Richard Dames (25), Rishard Dames (13), Benny McCray (12), Shamar Munroe (10), Josh Powell (15), Daniel Jackson (18)
Overview: The defensive backs were the strongest part of FIU’s defense in 2018, and should once again be so next season.
Stantley Thomas-Oliver III and Isaiah Brown will enter spring as the starting corners.
While I have Richard Dames listed as a reserve, the amount of nickel played means that Dames will be a de facto starter and can play safety.
Hall and Cushion III are an excellent tandem as the last line of defense.
Two players who have a chance to earn playing time with strong spring performances are Benny McCray and Shamar Munroe. Both players saw spot duty in the secondary last year.
Starters: Jose Borregales (26), Tommy Heatherly (0), Tommy Zozus (13), Maurice Alexander (29), Austin Maloney (29)
Reserves: Thomas Leo (0), Estin Thiele (1) D’Vonte Price (23), Ike Brown (28)
Overview: James Vollono’s special teams unit was outstanding last season.
The unit returns intact, outside of Stone Wilson’s graduation. I expect Tommy Heatherly to get the nod in filling Wilson’s large void.
The JUCO transfer showed a strong leg at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M last season. Tommy Zosus will handle the long snapping duties and had an excellent year in 2018.
Keep an eye on the kickoff specialist spot. With Sean Young gone, it will be between Borregales and Heatherly.
The bonafide stars of the group are Borregales and Alexander.
My only gripe with Borregales, is as good as he’s been, he undoubtedly has the talent to not only be the best kicker in C-USA, but among the best in FBS football.
Alexander was named to the C-USA all-conference team as a punt returner, and is one of the most dangerous weapons in the nation with the ball in his hands.
The kick return spot was pedestrian, at best, last season. Maloney and Price handled the bulk of the returns, which, overall landed FIU 13th in C-USA in kick return average (17.4).
I expect Maloney to get the first shot, but expect Price to get touches as well. Also, there could be room for an explosive freshman, such as Nate Jefferson, to make an impact as well.
10 names to watch
- Shaun Peterson Jr.: Peterson was a highly-regarded three-star prospect last season. However, he battled ankle injuries and only saw limited time last season.
- Logan Gunderson: With the graduation of four linemen, the JUCO product has a chance to earn starting job a guard right away.
- Tommy Heatherly: Stone Wilson is off to prepare for a pro career. Which means that Heatherly will have large shoes to fill. It’ll be worth watching to see how he handles the punting and kickoff duties.
- Alexy Jean-Baptiste: If Jean-Baptiste is granted immediate eligibility after transferring from Arkansas, he has the athletic ability to provide a much-needed pass rush for FIU.
- Jamal Gates: Sage Lewis is the only known commodity at the linebacker position. Gates saw the most playing time of any returner and has the chance to lockdown a starting spot in the Spring.
- Shawndarrius Phillips: It appears that Phillips’ legal troubles are behind. Now, he’ll need to play catch-up to secure some of his reps that faded towards the end of last season. After having 45 carries in the first three games last season, he had 49 in the final eight, while also battling injuries.
- Kaylan Wiggins: Butch Davis promised after the 2017 Gasparilla Bowl that he would always have two quarterbacks capable of leading the team at any time. With the gradution of Christian Alexander, FIU doesn’t have a QB who’s thrown a pass in a college game. The QB2 spot will be contested between Wiggins and Caleb Lynum.
- Caleb Lynum: See above.
- Mershawn Miller: Miller was injured along with Anthony Jones in a drive-by shooting early last season. While Jones regained his starting spot, Miller was a younger player, just earning his first playing time. It’s worth watching how can perform, fully recovered from the incident.
- Cadarius Gaskin: The three-star recruit out of Delray Beach-Atlantic saw action in a handful of games last season. Where he can make an immediate impact among a loaded wide receiver room is with his size. He’s the tallest listed wideout standing 6-3 and has good size at 225 pounds.