With under two months till the season opener against Jacksonville State, let’s continue our position-by-position look at the Panthers as they head into the abbreviated fall camp.
Today, we’ll look at the defensive line.
For better or worse, last season saw the defensive line’s struggles to pressure the quarterback and defend the run continue from the 2018 campaign.
During the Panthers’ Bahamas Bowl season two years ago, they finished 12th in Conference USA in rushing yards allowed per game (192.6) and ninth in sacks (22) with only 19 coming from the defensive line.
Those numbers dipped even further last season, as FIU allowed 198.6 yards per contest on the ground and had 21 sacks, with 17.5 from the front four.
Entering 2020, the unit loses defensive tackles Damon Moore and Teair Tart, the latter of which is now with the Carolina Panthers.
Let’s take a look at the returners who will look to put the struggles of the previous two years behind them.
All stats listed are for the 2019 season unless noted. Projected starter(s) are listed in BOLD.
Returning: Noah Curtis: (Sr.) 6-5, 248, 30 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss
Kevin Oliver: (Sr.) 6-4, 243, 41 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss
Jordan Woods: (R-Sr.) 6-4, 275, seven tackles
Jason Mercier: (Jr.) 6-3, 262, 15 tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss
Rashad Colson: (R-Jr.) 6-5, 310, seven tackles, two tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks
Andrew Tarver: (R-Sr.) 6-1, 295, 35 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack
Kameron Burns: (R-Soph.) 6-4, 270, three tackles
Davon Strickland: (Soph.) 6-1, 263, one tackle
Alexy Jean-Baptiste: (R-Sr.) 6-3, 245, 25 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss
Chris Whittaker: (R-Jr.) 6-3, 227, 22 tackles, 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss
Nate White: (R-Fr.) 6-4, 220, two tackles
Ty Danzy: (R-Fr.) 6-5, 235, redshirted last season
David Reynolds: (Soph.) 6-4, 245, seven tackles and one interception
Kane Taylor: (R-Jr.) 6-3, 285, two tackles
Newcomers: D’Andre Christmas-Giles: (Grad.) 6-3, 315, (Career - six tackles and one sack, w/Texas)
Shykieim Gloster: (Fr.) 6-4, 220, three-star recruit, Opa-Locka Monsignor Pace HS
Heading into Fall: There are no two ways about it - the Panthers’ defensive line has to improve this season.
A 13th place finish against the run, coupled with ranking 10th in total sacks in Conference USA, means there’s nowhere to go but up for Kenard Lang’s unit.
The group is heavy at the defensive end spot as Noah Curtis and Kevin Oliver are back for their final go-around in Miami. Joining them are explosive pass-rushers Alexy Jean-Baptiste and Chris Whittaker and rounding out the group are Jason Mercier, David Reynolds and Nate White.
Defensive tackle will be worth keeping an eye on, especially with the graduation of Teair Tart.
Andrew Tarver had a solid season in 2019, but behind him is a mystery. Kane Taylor got the emergency start in the Camellia Bowl when Tart and Damon Moore were both ineligible.
Jordan Woods has been a rotational player since coming in from Georgia Tech, while Kam Burns and Davon Strickland will look to grow into more significant roles.
D’Andre Christmas-Giles was a former four-star recruit at the University of Texas, but battled injuries his entire career. If he can be an instant starter, similar to how Edwin Freeman was in 2018, that can provide instant help.
As a whole, expect the Panthers to again play between 8-10 defensive linemen per contest.
Summary: The maddening part of watching the FIU defensive line over the past two seasons is they’ve shown the ability to perform against the run - at times.
In FIU’s win over Charlotte last season, the box score shows 217 yards rushing for the Niners with 144 coming at the hands of Benny Lemay. However, the defense held Lemay to just 45 yards in the second half and a quarter of his yards came on a 45-yard chunk play on the game’s opening drive.
Then, there are performances like opening night against Tulane, the complete disaster in Murfreesboro against the Middle Tennessee, and Malcolm Davidson having his way in the Shula Bowl last year.
In total, the Panthers have allowed over 170 rushing yards 13 times over the previous two seasons - with 10 of those being 200+ yards.
Tarver and Colson are players that Butch Davis has been high on and are capable of playing in the opposition’s backfield. Curtis and Oliver are dependable, high-energy players.
Mercier saw more playing time as a freshman but is capable of playing both inside and outside.
The unit saw its best success on pass-rush specific situations when Jean-Baptiste and Whittaker were able to line up at DE, while Curtis and Oliver slid inside to DT.
Athletically, Jean-Baptiste and Whittaker are instantaneous mismatches for C-USA offensive tackles and should increase FIU’s sack totals.
Kane Taylor was a late addition to FIU in Fall camp last year, but is a raw talent that played multiple positions in high school, while David Reynolds emerged as a true freshman to earn early playing time.
Additionally, Curtis could see extended time inside at DT, as his athleticism makes him a tough assignment for guards.
Position Grade: C - The most telling quote about the defensive line came from Teair Tart during FIU’s media day last season.
When I asked him about the unit’s struggles, he paused and gave the following, “My mentality when I first came in was if I’m not making every play, I’m messing up - coming to D-1, I learned that as long as you dominate your assignment - it’s a successful play.”
I’ve asked Davis and defensive coordinator Jeff Copp numerous times over the past two seasons what needs to change and they’ve pointed to “fundamentals and technique.”
This position grade comes down the group’s ability to execute on the field because it’s undeniable that as far as pure talent is concerned, they’re one of the best in C-USA.
If the Panthers’ defensive line can play together as a unit - opposed to four individuals all looking to make the play - the FIU defense could be lethal.