With under two months till the season opener at Tulane, let’s take a position-by-position look at the Panthers’ as they’re underway with Fall camp.
Our final preview will spotlight the special teams’ unit.
All stats listed are for the 2018 season. Projected starter(s) are in bold.
Returning: Jose Borregales: (Jr.) 5-10, 210, 14-18 FG’s, 54-55 PAT’s
Tommy Zozus: (R-Soph.) 6-0, 240, appeared in 13 games at long snapper
Thomas Leo: (R-Fr.) 6-4, 225, redshirted
Estin Thiele: (R-Fr.) 6-1, 175, redshirted
Alec Hallman: (R-Soph.) 6-1, 215, zero statistics
Maurice Alexander: (R-Sr.) 5-11, 180, 15 punt returns for 219 yards and one touchdown
Austin Maloney: (R-Sr.) 5-11, 190, 9 kick returns for 166 yards
Bryce Singleton: (Jr.) 5-10, 193, 5 kick returns for 61 yards
Isaiah Brown: (Sr.) 6-1, 185, 4 kick returns for 75 yards
D’Vonte Price: (Jr.) 6-2, 195, 3 kick returns for 67 yards
Newcomers: Tommy Heatherly: (Jr.) 5-11, 210, JUCO transfer (NE Oklahoma A&M)
Ruben Ramirez: 5-11, 215, walk-on, made the team during Spring tryouts
Nate Jefferson: 5-11, 170, three-star recruit
Heading into Fall: With the departure of four-year starting punter Stone Wilson, the FIU punting duties will be held by incoming JUCO transfer Tommy Heatherly.
The strong-legged junior was rated as a two-star recruit by 247 Sports and handled both kicking and punting duties at NE Oklahoma A&M.
Kicker Jose Borregales is one of the top kicking talents in the nation. The junior was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list for the upcoming season, coming off a season where he went 14 for 18 on field-goal attempts.
The only point of his game that he’ll have to improve on is consistency.
Having watched Borregales in warm-ups, there’s no doubt that he has legitimate range from 60+ yards.
The MTSU game is all the evidence needed as to his kicking talents, connecting from 44, 53 and 45 yards with ease. However, those makes don’t erase the three misses from inside of 35 yards (33, 32, 28) that he had last year.
That aside, he’s arguably the best kicker in C-USA, along with Charlotte’s Jonathan Cruz.
Long-snappers go virtually unnoticed unless they have a bad snap. This makes the anonymity of FIU’s snapper a good thing.
However, Tommy Zozus was excellent handling the long-snapping duties in 2018 and deserves the recognition he earned of being named to the C-USA preseason watch list for 2019.
Maurice Alexander was one of the most dangerous punt returners in FBS football last season. His 14.9-yard average per return topped Conference USA and propelled him to being named the first-team returner at the position.
The kick return game was pedestrian at best last year. The Panthers’ finished 13th among C-USA teams in kick return average in 2018.
FIU was solid on kickoffs and kick return defense, with Sean Young recording 54 touchbacks and the coverage ranked 36th in the nation in average yards allowed per return.
Coverage against punt returns was a sore spot. FIU ranked 113th, giving up an average of 11.5 yards per punt return.
Expect players like Dimitry Prophete, Josh Powell, Daniel Jackson and others who saw time on special teams to again be there in ‘19, should they not crack the rotation at their respective positions.
Summary: James Vollono’s special teams’ unit performed well overall in 2018.
The biggest unknowns that the group faces in 2019, will be who will handle kickoffs with the departure of Sean Young, and how will Heatherly fare in his first season at punter.
While the FIU offense was the best in C-USA last season and should be excellent again in 2019, Stone Wilson’s worth was very valuable.
In my opinion, no game showed off his skill moreso than the contest against Miami.
The game saw FIU down multiple scores heading into the fourth quarter. Wilson’s nine punts for a program-record 423 yards and 47 yards per punt average prevented that game from being even more lopsided.
Heatherly won’t be asked to fill Wilson’s shoes on day one, but it will be worth noting how he starts out of the gate.
Additionally, Wilson also handled the holding duties. Presumably, those will be Heatherly’s as well.
The trio of Borregales, Alexander and Zozus are enough to put the special teams’ unit in good standing on their own.
Yes, the kick return game could have been better. But it wasn’t a detriment and that is a plus. I expect to see Maloney and Price handle the kickoffs, but a name to watch is true freshman Nate Jefferson.
While it may not be worth burning a redshirt, Jefferson was a dynamic returner in high school and has legit 4.4 speed.
Overall Grade: B+ - The only thing holding the group back from an A grade are the unknowns. I expect Heatherly to handle the kickoffs, however, Borregales did handle the duties when Young was inactive last season.
Butch Davis’ teams are known for having strong special teams, and under the direction of Vollono, expect this year’s unit to be no different.