With two months till the season opener at Tulane, let’s take a position-by-position look at the Panthers’ heading into Fall camp.
Today’s position preview will be the most maligned group from 2018 - the defensive line.
All stats listed are for the 2018 season. Projected starter(s) in bold.
Returning: Noah Curtis: (Jr.) 6-5, 248, 49 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks
Kevin Oliver: (Jr.) 6-4, 243, 27 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and 2 sacks
Teair Tart: (Sr.) 6-3, 290, 19 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks
Jordan Woods: (R-Jr.) 6-4, 275, 10 tackles and two tackles for loss
Jason Mercier: (Soph.) 6-3, 262, 31 tackles and one tackle for loss
Kaliq Jacas: (R-Sr.) 6-2, 225, zero statistics
Rashad Colson: (R-Soph) 6-5, 310, zero statistics, appeared in three games on special teams
Andrew Tarver: (R-Jr.) 6-1, 295, four tackles
Kam Burns: (R-Fr.) 6-4, 270, redshirted
Davon Strickland: (Soph.) 6-1, 263, two tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss
Newcomers: Alexy Jean-Baptiste: (R-Jr.) 6-3, 245, one tackle (w/Arkansas)
Nate White: (Fr.) 6-4, 220, Three-star recruit
Nazahr Higgins: (Fr.) 6-4, 285, Three-star recruit
Ty Danzy: (Fr.) 6-5, 235, Three-star recruit
David Reynolds: (Fr) 6-4, 245, Three-star recruit
Damon Moore: (Grad.) 6-4, 270, 18 tackles and one sack (w/San Diego State)
Heading into Fall: There are no two ways about it. This unit will make or break the Panthers’ chances of competing for a conference title in 2019.
FIU finished 12th out of 14 C-USA teams in run defense last season, giving up an average of 192.2 yards per contest.
Their inadequacy was most evident during the annual Shula Bowl game against FAU. The Owls’ rushed for over 430 yards in their 49-14 victory at Riccardo Silva Stadium.
In addition to their struggles against the run, they accounted for only 18 sacks (four more came from LB’s or DB’s.) That number lands them dead last among C-USA teams last season.
Fast forward to the Fall and the unit has been revamped. Anthony Johnson and Jermaine Sheriff have graduated, while Tayland Humphrey and Josh Little are no longer with the program. All four saw significant playing time as part of the defensive line rotation in 2018.
Summary: In addition to the players on the field being different, defensive line coach Kenny Holmes wasn’t retained. Another former Butch Davis player in Kenard Lang takes his place and he’ll be tasked with fixing the mistakes that plagued the unit last season.
The positive is that the unit still returns a ton of talented players - on paper at least.
Defensive end Noah Curtis is poised for a breakout season.
The junior had 49 tackles last season, and while some of those were a byproduct of teams not being afraid to run the football, Curtis’ motor is evident and has the potential to be one of the best ends in C-USA by seasons’ end.
Defensive tackle Teair Tart arguably may be the most important player on the line.
The former four-star recruit can provide interior pressure and be a force against the run. If he and Curtis can play at their best consistently, it would go a long way to fixing last year’s woes.
The defensive line was on a 7-8 player rotation in 2018 and it shouldn’t be any different in 2019.
Ends Kevin Oliver and Jason Mercier are formidable players who will see plenty of time. Both are solid against the run but need to perform better as pass rushers.
The second defensive tackle spot is up for grabs with the dismissals of Humphrey and Little. I expect Jordan Woods to be the starter, however, former San Diego State DT Damon Moore brings 24 games worth of experience to FIU and should see significant time at the position as well.
The last two spots are anyone’s guess. I anticipate that Andrew Tarver and Davon Strickland will see more substantive roles this season, and Rashad Colson spent some time with the first-string during the spring game.
An X-Factor is Arkansas transfer Alexy Jean-Baptiste. The 6-3, 245-pound end is a tremendous athlete, being clocked at a 4.49 40-yard-dash. He has tremendous potential as a pass rusher. However, he struggled to see playing time in the SEC, due to issues with injuries and consistency.
Should he receive the somewhat elusive NCAA waiver, he will be on the field a lot for the Panthers.
Position Grade: C+ - This grade has nothing to do with talent. The defensive line room is full of former three and four-star prospects.
It has everything to do with atoning for last season.
Humphrey and Little were massive disappointments during their time at FIU, and their no longer being with the team may be addition by subtraction.
Butch Davis said this to me following the FAU loss, “We’ll have to take a long look at the way we’re defending the run in the offseason. Effort is one thing, but guys not being in the right gaps or having proper technique is another.”
They don’t have to be the best in the conference. If they can just tighten up the things Davis listed above, the C-USA title may run through Miami.