Following a disappointing 6-7 campaign, FIU will open spring practice on March 16th, marking the fourth spring under head coach Butch Davis since he took over in November of 2016.
Similarly to the offense, the defense loses several key starters from last year’s team. Four of the top six leading tacklers from 2019 are gone, along with three members of a secondary that was one of the top performing units in the nation.
Here are my storylines on the defensive side of the ball worth watching when the Panthers hit the field in 12 days.
Who becomes the leader of the defense
When Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams graduated after the 2017 season, Sage Lewis not only stepped into the starting middle linebacker role - he earned the duties of being the unquestioned leader on defense.
Now, with Lewis’ graduation, it remains to be seen who will become the new leader of the Panthers’ defense.
For what it’s worth, there’s no shortage of veterans who are capable of assuming the role.
Defensive ends Noah Curtis and Kevin Oliver have been starters for the majority of the past two seasons, while Richard and Rishard Dames aren’t known for being the most vocal players, they’ll have their opportunity with the departures of well-respected defensive backs Olin Cushion III and Isaiah Brown.
Speaking of Oliver and Curtis, it will be worth keeping an eye on as to how they’ll platoon with Chris Whittaker and Alexy Jean-Baptiste.
Oliver has started 24 games over the past two seasons and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t see significant playing time in 2020.
Curtis holds 20 starts over the same period, but was replaced for the final four games of last season by Whittaker.
FIU routinely uses 7-9 defensive linemen per contest, so there’s no doubt that all four defensive ends will see extended time, including together, as the Panthers’ third-down speed package utilizes Oliver and Curtis at defensive tackle with Whittaker and Jean-Baptiste on the outside.
On the inside, Andrew Tarver is the only defensive tackle returning with significant starting experience. Jordan Woods, Davon Strickland, Rashad Colson and Kane Taylor will be looking to break out in the spring for the other starting spot.
Also, players such as Jason Mercier, David Reynolds and redshirt freshmen Ty Danzy and Nate White are competing for playing time.
Defensive Backfield is Overflowing with Talent
For the second consecutive season, the Panthers had one of the top secondary units in Conference USA - this time leading the league in fewest passing yards allowed per game (178.5).
While part of that had to do with opposing teams choosing to run, there’s no doubt that when teams did try to attack FIU through the air, they had little success, as they had marks of allowing a stingy 55.1% of completions.
With the losses of Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, Olin Cushion and Isaiah Brown, the spring will serve as the first opportunity to see who will step into their starting roles.
Luckily for safeties coach Jerod Kruse and cornerbacks coach Bryn Renner, there’s no shortage of talent in the secondary.
Returning contributors Dorian Hall, the Dames’ twins, and Josh Turner are known commodities.
Three names to keep an eye on are Jesson Walker, Benny McCray and Jamal Anderson. All three have widely been considered as highly-talented defensive backs and should be more than ready to pick up where the veterans left off.
The aforementioned Lewis has been the heart and soul of the Panthers’ defense for two seasons.
He set program-records for tackles in a season (132), tackles in a game bowl game (13) and most pass breakups in a game (4) while being named C-USA First Team All-Conference in 2018.
While Lewis’ shoes will be impossible to fill overnight, defensive coordinator Jeff Copp has the luxury of a former standout in the Mountain West Conference ready to step in.
Tyson Maeva started 25 games for Boise State in his three seasons for the Broncos, racking up 176 tackles over that span.
He spent last season as a redshirt, giving him a full year in Copp’s system. The spring will give Maeva and opportunity to assert himself from day one as one of the leaders on an FIU defense that loses its share of long-time stalwarts.