Less than two weeks remain until the FIU Panthers open their 2020 campaign against Liberty University. For Butch Davis, one of the top tasks will be replacing the production of last season’s leading passer, top-two rushers, top-four receivers and top tackler. Here’s a look at five Panthers who will play a major factor in whether the program can make its fourth consecutive bowl appearance.
While much of the attention has been given to defensive end Alexy Jean-Baptiste for his team-leading 5.5 sacks in nine games, Chris Whittaker is primed for a breakout season.
The redshirt junior led the team with 14 quarterback hurries, after having his transfer waiver approved following week two. Expect to see Whittaker as a rush-end coming off the defensive line and as a pass-rush linebacker. For the Panthers, an increase in sack total is sorely needed. FIU has finished among the bottom third in sacks among Conference USA teams for the past two seasons.
With the duo of Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell no longer in Miami, the FIU rushing attack will feature a new one-two punch. D’Vonte Price is firmly entrenched as the RB1, but keep an eye on former Arkansas Razorback Maleek Williams to see time.
Ironically, during their time together at Charlotte High School, Williams was the starter and Price was the RB2. The 5-11, 225-pound Williams provides size, along with being clocked at a 4.45 40-yard-dash time. An area that the FIU rushing game struggled in last season was explosive plays.
If you take away Maxwell’s 75-yard-run in the blowout loss to FAU and a 65-yard lateral to Anthony Jones against UTEP, the longest run was 29 yards by Price. Williams’ big-play potential can bring immediate dividends in this department. If the SEC transfer can harness his potential coming out of high school, the Panthers’ run game will be in good shape.
Dorian Hall has the potential to be one of the top defensive backs in Conference USA. An all-around safety with the ability to play in coverage and defend the run, Hall was graded by Pro Football Focus as the Panthers’ highest-rated defensive back and second-best defensive player overall last season, behind Teair Tart. Although he wasn’t considered a starter at safety, he played 654 total snaps last season on defense - the same number as starting safety Olin Cushion III.
Christmas-Giles comes to FIU after an injury-plagued four seasons as a Texas Longhorn. The former four-star recruit played in 19 games in Austin, but he’ll be asked to fill the shoes left behind by current Tennessee Titans’ defensive tackle Teair Tart.
At 6-3, 320-pounds, Christmas-Giles fits the part of a sizable run-stopper, similar to Tart’s role over the past two seasons. If FIU has any chance of improving a run defense that’s allowed over 150 yards rushing 16 times in the past two seasons, the Texas transfer will play a vital role.
Jose Borregales’ FIU career can be summed up as equal parts exhilarating and exasperating. The high - a 3-for-3 performance against Miami to help seal the program’s biggest victory. The low - missing a 29-yard kick that would have given FIU a two-point lead in last year’s Camellia Bowl loss.
True freshman kicker Chase Gabriel has the tall task of following the program’s all-time leading scorer. The three-star kicker was rated as the 13th best kicker in the nation and possesses a strong leg. However, given all of the offensive production that FIU has to replace, Gabriel will need to get off to a quick start to his collegiate career.