Almost eight months to the day that the 2018 FIU Panthers coughed up their conference title hopes, the 2019 team made it clear about the goal for this season - it’s championship or bust.
“For the first 19 practices of training camp, it’s absolutely about us. It has nothing to do with any opponents or anything, it’s about how good can we make ourselves. We have to be the best team we can be, so that last season failures don’t repeat themselves,” said Butch Davis.
If there were any doubts as to whether the players weren’t on the same page as their head coach about the season’s goal, those were erased quickly.
“The whole team believes in themselves now, as opposed to playing for themselves, before Coach Davis. A lot of players know what they’re doing on day one, even the young guys. We have high expectations, anything less than a conference championship is a failure,” said linebacker Sage Lewis.
Some of the loudest voices that could be heard throughout the session were offensive line coach Allen Mogridge, along with quarterback James Morgan and various defensive players.
Senior cornerback Isaiah Brown feels that the bar for the defense should be set just as high as the offense, which led C-USA in total yards last season.
“You can expect nothing less than the best defense in the conference and maybe a top-five in the nation. We feel like we have that type of potential,” said Brown.
Last season was an enigma for the Panthers’ defense.
The secondary was one of the best in the nation, finishing 30th among FBS teams in passing yards per game allowed.
However, stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback was a different story. FIU was 12th out of 14 teams in C-USA, allowing 192.2 yards per game and had only 22 sacks in 2018.
Entering this season, there are three new coaches on the defensive staff and a fourth in a new role (co-Defensive Coordinator Jeff Copp).
Expect to see a defense rooted in fundamentals, technique, and a bit of Copp’s personality.
“We obviously have some tweaks and things that we’re going to do differently that’s my personality, but expect things that are Butch Davis staples,” said Copp.
While he won’t go into specifics about the scheme, Copp is a fiery personality, whose energetic personality is evident by the fact that he comes off of the field with just as much perspiration as his players.
“The biggest thing we saw on film is that we have to improve our fundamentals and techniques when we struggled to stop the run last year, it was because guys weren’t executing what we asked them to do. We’re going to spend a lot of time working on the things that make teams good against the run,” said Copp.
Copp, a 19-year coaching veteran, was named co-Defensive Coordinator in March after a deal in principle with former Texas State Head Coach Everett Withers fell through when Withers took a job with the New York Giants.
He, along with former Cleveland Browns assistant Jerod Kruse will be tasked with the coordinator responsibilities along with coaching the safeties and linebackers.
“Jerod is a guy who came highly recommended from Cleveland. His calmness and experience in the secondary are great, especially with me moving from the secondary to the linebackers,” said Copp.
As far as the players on the field, he feels that the secondary is extremely talented and that the linebackers and defensive line are coming along.
“Obviously, Sage is a given at linebacker and were blessed to have someone with his talent. Beyond that, it’s a matter of building depth at the linebacker position. With the nature of football today, you have to be able to play 8-9 guys across the line. Guys like Rashad Colson, Davon Strickland have had a great spring, it helps to get Josh Woods back and we’re waiting to hear if we’ll have some transfer guys (Alexy Jean-Baptiste, Chris Whittaker) eligible,” said Copp.
Davis also spent time raving about the work that the four coaches in total (Copp, Kruse, Bryn Renner, Kenard Lang) have spent in the offseason working to improve.
“I think they’ve done a really good job dissecting the things we can work on. There are some things, we’ve done excellent, but there’s issues we need to address. Now we’re on to the installation phase and I think we’re on the right track defensively,” said Davis.
Davis raved about the job that strength coach Chad Smith and team nutritionist Amanda Fernandez have done with the players to have them in shape for the season.
“Our kids showed up in the best shape I’ve seen them in the three seasons I’ve been here. Guys like Maurice Alexander, Sage Lewis, Noah Curtis, Dallas Connell were off the charts during our conditioning tests,” said Davis.
“That starts with Chad Smith, Amanda Fernandez, and their whole team,” said Davis.
Where that’s made a difference is the level of intensity during practice.
What was noticeable being out on the field, was the same enthusiasm and energy that the Panthers took the field with at 9 AM, was sustained throughout practice, till the time they walked off the field shortly before noon.
- The entire 2019 recruiting class was present for the first day of practice. Highly-touted freshman quarterback Stone Norton split the fourth-team reps with walk on Tanner Watson.
- Running back Shawndarrius Phillips is no longer part of the program. Phillips was third on the team in rushing last season with 393 yards.
- The team practiced at the Miami Dolphins domed facility on Friday. Expect more of the same, given the frequency for inclement weather in Miami.