With under 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 preview is of the defensive backs. This unit was one of the best in Conference USA in 2018 and is returning the majority of last year’s group.
All stats listed are for the 2018 season. Projected starter(s) are in bold.
Returning: Isaiah Brown: (Sr.) 6-1, 185, 32 tackles, 5 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions
Richard Dames: (Jr.) 5-11, 190, 46 tackles, five passes defensed, and 3 interceptions
Rishard Dames: (Jr.) 5-11, 165, 19 tackles, one pass defensed, and 2 interceptions
Olin Cushion III: (Sr.) 5-8, 176, 65 tackles, two passes defensed, and 1 interception
Dorian Hall: (R-Soph.) 6-4, 195, 46 tackles, three interceptions, and one sack
Malik Tyson: (R-Jr) 6-2, 195, zero statistics, appeared in six contests
Daniel Jackson: (Jr) 6-1, 200, seven tackles, appeared in 13 contests
Jamal Anderson: (R-Fr.) 6-2, 180, redshirted
Jesson Walker: (R-Fr.) 6-1, 170, redshirted
Quentin Bessent Jr.: (R-Sr.) 5-10, 155, zero statistics, appeared in two contests
Aris Duffey: (R-Jr.) 5-11, 178, one tackle, appeared in five contests
Christian Irving: (R-Sr.) 5-11, 197, one tackle, appeared in eight contests
Benny McCray: (R-Soph.) 6-2, 185, 7 tackles, appeared in 12 contests
Stantley Thomas-Oliver III: (Sr.) 6-2, 190, 40 tackles, 10 passes defensed and 1 interception
Newcomers: Josh Tuner: (R-Soph.) 6-0, 190, 5 tackles, appeared in 11 contests (w/Iowa)
Brian Dillard: (Fr.) 6-2, 190, three-star recruit
Kendre’ Gant: (Fr.) 6-3, 205, three-star recruit
Deshaun Davis: (Fr.) 6-1, 190, three-star recruit
Nikholi Jaghai (R-Jr.) 5-7, 185, transfer from Northern Iowa
Heading into Fall: After getting off to a rocky start, the FIU secondary rounded into form and became one of the best defensive backfields in the nation.
The unit finished 30th in opponents passing yards per game, giving up a stingy 194.1 a contest.
Lost from last year’s group is the late Emmanuel Lubin, who started in every game last season at cornerback.
However, first-year cornerbacks coach Bryn Renner has more than enough returning talent who are capable at the position.
Stantley Thomas-Oliver III had a phenomenal first season as a full-time cornerback. The former all-freshman performer at receiver started the final 11 games of the season and was in the top-10 in pass breakups in C-USA.
He was the third-highest graded cornerback in the conference last season according to Pro Football Focus. At 6-2, he provides size at the position that hurt the smaller DB’s last year.
Isaiah Brown has been one of the most talented corners in conference for the past three seasons now.
After an excellent true freshman season, the Tampa native battled injuries and hasn’t quite regained his 2016 form.
"It took a few games for me to get used to being back out on the field. But coming from where I'm from, I'm never lacking confidence and you need that as a DB," said Brown after the first day of Fall camp.
When Brown is healthy, he's capable of being an excellent player.
At the safeties, the Panthers’ have arguably one of the best tandems in the conference in Richard Dames and Dorian Hall. Dames has been a consistent playmaker on the field since arriving at FIU, drawing comparisons to one of Butch Davis’ former players.
“I don’t like to compare players, but Richard Dames is starting to remind me of Edward Reed when I had him at Miami,” said Davis.
Hall had an excellent freshman season in 2018. He burst onto the scene with an interception and six tackles on opening day against Indiana and never looked back.
Both he and Dames were graded among the top safeties in C-USA by Pro Football Reference.
Now, the interesting dilemma that FIU faces, is that Dames wasn’t even a full-time starter last year. Returning starter Olin Cushion III started 11 games at the strong safety spot.
Pound-for-pound, the diminutive Cushion is a talented defensive back in his own right. He had 65 tackles and a game-sealing interception against MTSU.
They’ll be coached by former Cleveland Browns assistant Jerod Kruse, taking over for Jeff Copp, who moved to coach the linebackers along with sharing the defensive coordinator duties with Kruse.
“He (Kruse) came highly recommended from from Cleveland and he brings a lot of experience back there with the safeties,” said Copp.
Behind those five, the next two defensive backs should be Richard’s twin brother Rishard, who has rounded into a talented player in his own right, and safety, Daniel Jackson who’s spent some time in the spring as a linebacker in addition to safety.
Benny McCray played in 12 contests appearing on special teams and dime package situations.
Jesson Walker and Jamal Anderson are talented prospects, who redshirted last season and have had strong showings during spring practice.
Summary: Bryn Renner and Jerod Kruse have an embarrassment of riches in the secondary.
In addition to returning players, they’ve added a trio of three-star freshmen in the 2019 recruiting class.
As for the players who will be on the field this season, opposing C-USA passing attacks will be looking to avoid the FIU secondary.
Whether Dames or Cushion III is the starter at strong safety is a matter of semantics, as both will see plenty of time on the field, especially with Dames’ ability to play the nickel corner.
Iowa transfer Josh Turner was a three-star prospect coming out of high school and appeared in 11 games for the Hawkeyes last year. Should he be deemed eligible by the NCAA, that would make the secondary even stronger.
Position Grade: A - You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better secondary in Conference USA. Thomas-Oliver III will only get better in his second full season at the position, along with Richard Dames and Hall.
Brown early in camp looks be back to his 2016 form and should be able to hold his own against most WR2’s in-conference.
“Last year, we were one of the best secondaries in conference. This year, we’re trying to be one of the best in the nation,” said Brown.