The 2018 season brought a program record for wins in a season (9), a Bahamas Bowl victory over Toledo, and an injection of confidence for FIU football.
Entering 2019, there’s an unprecedented level of optimism around a team that returns 17 starters, including C-USA preseason Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Sage Lewis and 2018 conference Newcomer of the Year, quarterback James Morgan.
There’s no denying the talent that’s on Butch Davis’ roster. Last year, they may have been a year early in terms of their success.
This season, the spotlight is on the Panthers, as anything less than a C-USA title game appearance could be considered a failure.
The FIU offense will be spearheaded by quarterback James Morgan.
The 6-5, 225-pound signal-caller is coming off a season that saw him put up excellent numbers (2727, 26-7, 65.3%) in his first season with the Panthers.
What makes those numbers noteworthy is that he had only 17 practices with the team after transferring from Bowling Green.
With an entire offseason in the system, the strong-armed quarterback has the ability to flourish in offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky’s system.
The run game for FIU was extremely successful in 2018.
Returning backs Anthony Jones, D’Vonte Price, and Napoleon Maxwell are all capable of starting for any Group of Five team in the nation and each provides something different.
Price gives Skrosky excellent versatility as a receiver in the slot, Maxwell is a no-nonsense tough runner, and Jones has breakaway speed despite missing an entire season with an ACL injury.
Each of the above players rushed over 300 yards and that’s with Jones missing seven contests in ‘18.
Redshirt freshmen Shaun Peterson Jr. and Demarcus Townsend will be competing for the remaining reps.
An area that the rushing attack could improve in is efficiency.
While the top three backs all averaged over five yards per carry last season, the FIU run game was very much boom or bust. Part of the reasoning for this is Skrosky’s offensive philosophy that prioritizes short gains to stay ahead of the first down chains.
The receiving corps boast veterans who are looking to prove that they’re capable of being major contributors.
Senior Austin Maloney averaged 20.3 yards per catch last season, which lands him first among returning C-USA receivers. He’s an excellent vertical threat who will provide the offense a legit speedster.
Tony Gaiter IV and Shemar Thornton will play on the outside, while dynamic receiver/returner Maurice Alexander starts as the slot receiver.
Bryce Singleton has battled injuries throughout his FIU career, but if healthy, he provides another talented target.
Sterling Palmer is one of the top young tight ends in the nation.
The 6-6, 240-pound Palmer won the starting job out of camp last season and put up solid numbers (26-279-2) and creates matchup issues against opposing linebackers.
The offensive line unquestionably paved the way for FIU to have the top offense in C-USA last season.
They’ll be tasked with replacing four key players from last year’s group, but they have more than enough players with experience, as the Panthers routinely use 8-9 offensive linemen per game.
Left tackle D’Antne Demery and center Dallas Connell will lead the group, with both being capable of performing at an all-conference level.
Guard Shane McGough and tackle Devontay Taylor have been praised by the staff for making major strides.
The rest of the rotation will be filled by unproven players.
JUCO transfers Danny Corbett and Logan Gunderson will see time, along with Mershawn Miller.
The FIU defense staff has undergone significant changes during the 2018 off-season.
Safeties coach Jeff Copp takes over as co-defensive coordinator along with former Cleveland Browns’ assistant Jerod Kruse.
Bryn Renner takes over as the cornerbacks’ coach and Kenard Lang assumes the responsibilities at defensive line coach.
The defensive coaching staff will be tasked with two things - improve the line play and keep one of the best secondaries in C-USA at that level.
FIU struggled mightily against the run in 2018, giving up 100-plus yards on the ground 10 times.
Additionally, they accounted for only 18 of FIU’s 22 sacks last season.
The positive is that the D-Line isn’t lacking talented players.
Noah Curtis has the potential to be one of the top defensive ends in C-USA. The junior led the line in tackles (49) and has a consistent motor for four quarters.
Next in line is senior defensive tackle Teair Tart.
The JUCO product was one of the highest-rated players ever to sign with FIU and found consistency towards the end of the season. If Tart and Curtis can play up to their endless potential, the unit will be in solid shape.
FIU is in great shape at linebacker because they have one of the top players in the conference, Sage Lewis.
He set a program record for tackles in a season (132) and was excellent in pass coverage with nine pass breakups.
Alongside Lewis should be Rocky Jacques-Louis and Jamal Gates.
There are no two ways about it as far as the Panthers’ secondary. They can be one of the best in FBS football.
The unit goes five deep with corners Stantley Thomas-Oliver and Isaiah Brown, along with safeties Dorian Hall, Olin Cushion III, and Richard Dames.
Thomas-Oliver and Hall’s measurements (6-2, 195/6-4, 195,) help the Panthers against bigger receivers.
Dames was rated as one of the top safeties in Conference USA according to Pro Football Focus, and Cushion III is praised by both his fellow teammates and the coaching staff as one of the toughest players on the team.
Additionally, Iowa transfer Josh Turner was granted immediate eligibility and will provide extra depth.
Butch Davis’ teams are known for having strong special teams. His tenure at FIU has been no different.
Kicker Jose Borregales is one of the top young talents in the nation. He has legitimate range from 55+ yards out and went 14-18 on field goals last season.
Tommy Zozus is arguably the best long snapper in C-USA and Alexander was one of the most dangerous punt return men in the nation last season.
JUCO transfer Tommy Heatherly is expected to take over the punting duties with the graduation of Stone Wilson.
The kick return spots were held by various players last season including Price, Brown, Maxwell. While they may see time, true freshmen Nate Jefferson and Lexington Joseph may have opportunities to boost the unit that finished 13th in yards per return last year.
Davis is known for his ability to turn programs around quickly.
Entering his third season, he’s managed not only to win immediately, but he’s also vastly improved the talent level at FIU.
The first two seasons may have caught some by surprise, however, the Panthers won’t sneak up on any teams in 2019.
They’re a trendy pick to win Conference USA’s East division and they have a target on their backs.
The sentiment coming from everyone with the program is that they’re not only up for the challenge, they’re embracing it.
The fact of the matter is outside of the Miami game, there isn’t a team on the schedule that talent-wise, they aren’t equal to, if not better than.
Now, it’s show and prove time for FIU.