As currently scheduled, there’s less than four weeks until FIU’s 2020 season-opener at Liberty on September 26th.
Late last week, Butch Davis’ team practiced in full pads for the first time since last season’s Camellia Bowl game week.
Plenty has changed with the Panthers between then and now with several key questions needing answering after the departure of the most successful senior class in program history.
Let’s examine four questions outside of the quarterback competition that will need to be resolved before the team opens the season in Lynchburg.
New Faces at Wide Receiver
With the graduations of Austin Maloney, Tony Gaiter IV, Maurice Alexander and Darrius Scott — along with Shemar Thornton’s injury and Cadarius Gaskin’s transfer, the Panthers have precisely zero returning production at receiver from last year’s team.
Yes, Georgia transfer Jeremiah Holloman is eligible, and injury-plagued wideout Bryce Singleton is healthy.
However, FIU routinely uses three and four-receiver sets on offense.
Can talented redshirt freshmen Nate Jefferson and Kris Mitchell step into more prominent roles and will true freshman Xavier McGriff be caught up to speed in time to make an immediate contribution?
The receivers who see the field will need to shake off last season’s case of the drops. James Morgan had the most passes dropped (36) of any quarterback among the Group of Five ranks, according to Pro Football Focus.
By the numbers, Alexy Jean-Baptiste and Chris Whittaker provided the most pressures (sacks, hits on quarterback and hurries) of any defensive lineman on the team, with 21 and 18, respectively.
That’s significant given the fact that both played at least 100 fewer plays than Noah Curtis and 200 fewer than Kevin Oliver.
With all of that being said, it will be worth watching to see if both Jean-Baptiste and Whittaker continue in a platoon role, that may keep them fresh to rush the passer or see an increased number of snaps.
At the interior of the defensive line, Rashad Colson, Kane Taylor, D’Andre Christmas-Giles and Andrew Tarver will look to fill the run-stopping role left behind by Teair Tart.
Offensive Line Rotation
2018’s 9-4 record was engineered largely due to the play of the offensive line, a unit that finished third among FBS teams in fewest sacks allowed and paved the way for almost 2,500 rushing yards.
A key component of the offensive line’s success was their ability to play two-deep at each spot up front. 2018 saw eight FIU offensive linemen play at least 300 snaps on offense. Last season, that number shrunk to six, with two others (Sione Finau & Lyndell Hudson Jr.) not seeing consistent playing time till the halfway mark in the season.
For FIU to play with 8-9 linemen per game, players like Logan Gunderson, Julius Pierce and Jose Mirabal will need to be game-ready.
Special Teams/Return Game
The most publicized departure from the special teams unit was kicker Jose Borregales, who left for Miami in the offseason. True freshman Chase Gabriel is the heir apparent at the kicker spot, but the rest of the unit will undergo changes under first-year position coach DJ McCarthy.
Butch Davis routinely preaches the value in winning the field position battle, especially “hidden yardage.”
Alexander was one of the top punt return men in the country, regularly giving the Panthers excellent starting field position following a punt. With his departure, look for Jefferson, who had a stellar high school career as a return-man to get an opportunity to fill the role.
The kick return game has been abysmal for FIU since 2018. FIU’s longest kick return by a qualifying player has been 30 yards — done twice by Austin Maloney.
“I’m always looking for explosive plays in the return game, we won’t have too many guys looking to call for a fair catch,” said McCarthy.
With Maloney, Napoleon Maxwell and Isaiah Brown gone, the kick return duties are up for grabs.