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FIU Football: 2020 Preview - Defensive Backs

The Panthers have had one of the top secondaries in FBS football over the past two years. Now, they’re tasked with replacing two NFL cornerbacks.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Florida International vs Arkansas State Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

With under a month until the season opener against Jacksonville State, here’s our look at the secondary in our position-by-position series on the 2020 FIU Panthers.

For the past two seasons, not only has FIU been one of the top defensive back units in Conference USA, they’ve been among the best in the nation.

In 2018, the group allowed 194.1 yards per game through the air, landing them 30th among FBS teams. They followed that up with a 195.1 per game average, this time slotting them 17th out of 130 programs.

Both seasons saw the Panthers finish at least third or better in C-USA.

Entering 2020, they are faced with replacing two NFL cornerbacks in Stantley Thomas-Oliver and Isaiah Brown, in addition to well-respected safety Olin Cushion III.

Let’s take a look at a group led by cornerbacks coach Bryn Renner and safeties coach Jerod Kruse.

All stats listed are for the 2019 season. Projected starter(s) are listed in bold.

Returning:

Richard Dames: (Sr.) 5-11, 190, 58 tackles, four interceptions, four passes defensed

Rishard Dames: (R-Jr.) 5-11, 165, 56 tackles, five passes defensed

Dorian Hall: (R-Jr.) 6-4, 195, 43 tackles, one interception, five passes defensed

Jamal Anderson: (R-Soph.) 6-2, 180, three tackles, one pass defensed

Jesson Walker: (R-Soph.) 6-1, 170, one tackle, .5 sacks

Benny McCray: (R-Jr.) 6-2, 185, three tackles

Josh Turner: (R-Jr.) 6-0, 190, 16 tackles, two pass breakups

Nikholi Jaghai: (R-Sr.) 5-7, 185, zero statistics, appeared in 3 games

Newcomers:

Henry Gray: (Fr.) 6-0, 175, four-star recruit, signed with Nebraska and transferred to FIU, Miami Central HS

Jamal Potts: (Fr.) 6-2, 185, three-star recruit, American Heritage HS (Delray Beach, Fla)

Joe Perkins: (Fr.) 6-0, 196, three-star recruit, Madison-Ridgeland Academy

Andrew Volmar: (Fr.) three-star recruit, 6-1, 170, American Heritage HS (Plantation, Fla)

Heading into Fall: The foursome of the Dames’ twins, Dorian Hall and Josh Turner are a group that every team among the Group of Five ranks would desire to have. According to Pro Football Focus, FIU has the forth-highest grade of all returning secondaries among G5 teams, behind only San Diego State, Appalachian State and UAB.

Rishard stepped out of his “big” brother’s shadow to have one of the top all-around seasons of any DB in the conference. After seeing spot duty during his first two seasons, he broke out in a significant way, while rounding into one of the most versatile players in C-USA.

Richard had an excellent season in his hybrid nickel/safety role, recording 56 stops.

Camellia Bowl - FIU v Arkansas State
Richard Dames has been one of the better DBs in C-USA since arriving in 2017.
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

After gaining immediate eligibility following his transfer from Iowa, Turner saw time primarily in multiple defensive back packages but can play on the outside.

Dorian Hall will have the opportunity to be a full-time starter in 2020 after being in a platoon role during his first two seasons. The 6-4 safety has excellent range and is considered one of the most gifted DBs in terms of his coverage ability and as a tackler.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Miami at FIU
Hall’s ball-skills make him a threat to force turnovers at any time.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Behind them is a litany of talented players who will be looking to earn their first significant playing time as Panthers.

Jamal Anderson, Jesson Walker and Benny McCray are the likely candidates to fill in as nickel and dime defensive backs.

“What I’m most impressed about this group is how eager they are to push each other and grow as a group,” said cornerbacks coach Bryn Renner. “I’ve never been around a whole room that’s ready to play football and prove how good they are.”

Four-star recruit Henry Gray will also be in the mix to fill one of those roles - should he earn immediate eligibility from the NCAA.

Summary: Yes, the Panthers’ numbers against the pass are slightly inflated because opposing teams had greater success running the football. With that being said, FIU’s secondary has undoubtedly lived up to its billing over the past two seasons.

Rishard Dames and Josh Turner are capable of filling the shoes left behind by Thomas-Oliver and Brown, while Richard Dames and Dorian Hall are arguably the best safety tandem in C-USA.

“Coach [Jerod] Kruse has helped me a lot, in terms of showing me film and we watch a lot of Denzel Ward’s tape from when he [Kruse] was in Cleveland,” said Richard Dames.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Cleveland Browns
Jerod Kruse brings NFL coaching experience with him to FIU.

With nine out of 13 Conference USA teams employing some form of the spread offense, FIU spends a bulk of their time on defense in 4-2-5 look.

What will be crucial for the secondary is their ability to play in man coverage and get excellent play from the nickel/slot corner - both of which they’ve done well over the past two seasons.

While FIU’s 30-24 victory over Miami saw the Panthers stifle the Hurricanes through the air for the better part of three quarters, forcing a top-10 passing attack in Arkansas State to go 27-of-53 may have been their best performance.

Both of those games saw FIU get excellent play in man coverage.

Position Grade: A - It’s hard to replace one NFL-level cornerback, let alone two. How Dames and Turner will fare as full-time starters on the outside, as opposed to playing in different spaces, remains to be seen.

However, there’s no doubt that FIU has done a superb job of stockpiling talent in the secondary.

Renner, a former quarterback at North Carolina, is credited by Thomas-Oliver and Brown as helping them see the game through the eyes of a QB, boosting their game tremendously.

Bryn Renner is entering his second season with the FIU DB’s.
David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

Considered a rising young assistant among the coaching ranks, he should have a better feel for his group in year two.

Kruse’s experience at various levels is one that has been emphasized by defensive coordinator Jeff Copp.

With the defensive line still being a work in progress, Kruse and Renner will need to get the best out of the returning veterans while bringing in players like Gray, Anderson, Walker and McCray into more prominent roles.

Expect the Panthers’ secondary to again be among the best in C-USA.