Following FIU’s 34-26 loss to Arkansas State in the 2019 Camellia Bowl, head coach Butch Davis was resolute in his commitment that the program would rebound from a disappointing 6-7 season.
“There’s got to be a whole hell of a lot of changes and things that we’re going to do significantly different - with a major one being the discipline with which we play,” said Davis as he walked off the press conference podium following the game.
Off-season changes started four days later when offensive line coach Allen Mogridge departed for the University of South Florida, and special teams coach James Vollono was relieved of his duties.
Two weeks later, DJ McCarthy was brought in from rival Florida Atlantic to replace Vollono and former University of Miami offensive analyst Joel Rodriguez replaced Mogridge with the offensive line.
The Panthers’ recruiting class was again among the top in Conference USA, signing 19 three-star players and the highest-rated recruit in program-history in four-star Henry Gray.
Then, four days before FIU was set to open spring practice, C-USA brought all practices to a halt due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
With the conference and FIU’s annual media days postponed until further notice, I sat down with Davis for the first time since May to get his thoughts on how the team is handling COVID, new additions to the program, and how he’s getting the players ready for Jacksonville State.
Eric Henry: It’s been an offseason without precedent, what’s been the approach to handling COVID with the staff and players, and where do you feel you’re at with preparation for the regular season, whenever that is?
Butch Davis: First and foremost, there’s nothing like this. You can’t prepare for anything like this. The only thing I’ve ever experienced in my coaching career that’s been similar was the period following 9/11 - only in the sense that there was some uncertainty when you were going to play football. The horrible thing is in both situations; there’s been the loss of life.
As to your question regarding football, it’s nationwide, so we’re all in the same position. The first thing we did was test everyone and we’ve made an effort to repopulate our players into the offseason program slowly. The next step has been working in phases.
Our “phase one” started once the players were cleared and that was just physical activities and workouts. Now we’ve started phase two, which allows for our coaches to have individual meetings with their positions. That includes groups or one-on-one’s where the QBs, offensive line, or any position can meet together.
Additionally, we’ve been allotted six hours per week by the NCAA, which we’re doing roughly 75 minutes per day, to go on the field and do some installation [of plays]. It’s against air, so there’s no physical contact and it’s similar to a walk-through setting.
That at least gives us something on film that our coaches can take back to the meeting rooms and correct mistakes that we see and it gives us a replica of what we’re going to do in training camp.
Ideally, I want this time to be a miniature spring practice, so we can try to make up for the lost time.
EH: Programs across the country have used zoom meetings, but how crucial is the face-to-face element of teaching in coaching players?
BD: The face-to-face element is extremely valuable, to be honest. Zoom meetings are okay because it’s what we had to work with, but that’s sort of like teaching a large lecture class - you’re just spitting out information.
Coaching is about passion and enthusiasm. It’s about looking [players] in the eye and seeing if they’re actually comprehending and if so, let’s hand them the chalk and send them up to the board. That simply can’t be replicated in a zoom meeting. I learned a long time ago that each player has a different way of learning.
Look at it this way - it’s impossible to teach a group of elementary school kids in a zoom meeting. Our players are the same way, in the sense that we’re trying to start from scratch with installations.
That’s what makes phase two so critical because the players have multiple ways of learning. We can give them the playbook and they can take it with them; we can put them on the board, and we can go on the field to walk-through it.
For some kids, especially football players, they can see it on a zoom meeting, but they can’t process it until they replicate what we’re teaching on the field.
EH: Your quarterback room has changed since May. What does Max Bortenschlager bring?
BD: One of the things is that he has some playing experience. He got to play at Maryland as a true sophomore, so we have collegiate film to look at. He’s a super-smart kid, and I know you’ve heard me say this before - I’m a huge believer in competition.
I can’t think of anyone I’ve coached before where the starting role has just been laid out in front of them. We’re not giving players a job because they’ve been in the program. Whether it’s James Morgan as a grad transfer or a true freshman, I believe that brings out the best in everyone involved.
It was good to get him involved because he was coming off an ankle surgery last year, but it’s fixed so he’s able to run and lift, and it’s good to have him here.
EH: How does a compressed schedule affect players in competition for starting spots, when eventually your have to get you first-string ready for Jacksonville State?
BD: Here’s the thing, Eric. I’ve been preaching this since May, not only at the quarterback position - but every position. As coaches, we need to get not only the starters ready to play but second and third-string guys as well.
Because you don’t know with this virus, you could have the quarterback and the inside linebacker come down with the virus and all of a sudden, they have to miss two weeks.
Back to your question about the quarterbacks specifically, this, more than any other season I’ve been here, we need to have two QBs ready to go.
EH: Could it be a situation like 2018 where you went with James Morgan and Christian Alexander for the first few ballgames?
BD: The first game we could play more than one quarterback. Because we can not have our season go down the drain if the starter comes down with the Coronavirus and he misses 2-3 weeks. We learned that in 2017 when Alex McGough went down in the bowl game and were completely unprepared to have the backup ready to go.
We were significantly better in the 2018 season that you referenced because we got Christian into 5-6 games and low and behold he has to start the bowl game for us.
EH: Positions where guys are competing for playing time - how much of an advantage do the veteran players have given the lack of practice?
BD: Absolutely. We look at the defensive line, linebackers, the defense as a whole where we have a ton of returning guys. Having ten guys on the defensive line who have played in games for us, that’s huge. Over on the offensive line having D’Antne Demery and [Shane] Mcgough. Late in the season, we had Sione Finau, Mershawn Miller and Lyndell Hudson Jr. get in ballgames.
Now here’s what’s key about building the depth behind them. The veteran guys who have played, their on-field experience will be huge because we need them to pass that on the young players who haven’t played.
We’ve been talking to our leaders - the Jamal Gates’, Daniel Jackson’s, the two twins [Richard and Rishard], Dorian Hall, telling them to grab those guys and talk to them. Because we need all hands on deck ready to play in a game.
EH: Talk about what Jeremiah “JJ” Holloman and Tyson Maeva bring to the team having played in big-time ball games.
BD: No, they’re significant additions without a doubt. JJ’s been in [big] games and Tyson has played in them as well.
Those guys have been chomping at the bit. I’m going to say this - when C.J. Worton played for us and had to redshirt before to the 2018 season, he played on the scout team we had guys like Stantley Thomas [Oliver] coming back and saying, “Hey, this guy might be the best receiver on the team.”
Players like Stantley and Ike Brown got better because of the level of intensity he brought to practice. JJ and Tyson legitimately practiced like they were going to play in every game last year.
That’s what I’m looking for from every guy on this team. Don’t just punch the clock and say I’m not playing this year, so I can take it easy - continue to get better every day. That’s the best way to do it and I believe it’s going to pay huge dividends for them this fall.
EH: I spoke to Teair Tart about his FIU career and he mentioned difficulty in making the transition from junior college to FBS being that he had to learn that he didn’t have to make every tackle. Certain plays, it’s about playing the right assignment so another player can make the play. How common of a struggle is that for first-year players at the collegiate level, especially on the defensive line where you've had struggles the past two years?
BD: There’s no doubt about it, Eric. In a perfect world, you would like to have your JUCO kids be three-for-two, in that you can redshirt them for a year so they can learn what it is that we’re trying to do. This isn’t a slight on junior colleges, but there are certain colleges that they expect the players to just show up and make plays - they’re winging it to an extent. At that level, they’re not learning a ton of schemes and techniques.
That was Teair’s first season here, he was playing but also learning on the fly. His second year and he started to understand the importance of the scheme and his gap responsibility. It’s all about teaching. To be honest with you, it’s that way with JUCO kids, freshmen and to a certain extent, grad transfers who haven’t played a ton of football because they’ve been on the scout team.
EH: What are you expecting from the defense in year two under Jeff Copp as the defensive coordinator?
BD: There are several goals defensively. Obviously, creating turnovers is one.
Minimizing explosive plays is huge and we have to do a hell of a lot better job in run defense.
If you can’t stop the other team from running, there’s a significant chance that you’re going to lose the game. Hopefully, a lot of the guys on the defensive line like Noah Curtis, Kevin Oliver, Andrew Tarver have been playing for 2-3 years, onto the linebackers like Jamal Gates. We’re going to need all of those guys to step up and perform well.