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FIU Football: 2020 Preview - Special Teams

The FIU special teams unit will look different after the departure of familiar names in the offseason.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Miami at FIU Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Less than a week remains until FIU opens its 2020 season in Lynchburg against Liberty University. Here’s the final installment of our position-by-position preview of the Panthers entering the season.

The special teams’ unit will look drastically different under first-year position coach Harrison Green, who rejoins the Panthers after two seasons at Division III Johns Hopkins.

Let’s take a look at the FIU special teams entering the year.


Returning: Tommy Zozus: (R-Jr.) 6-0, 225, appeared in 13 games at long snapper

Tommy Heatherly: (Sr.) 5-11, 210, 54 punts for 2,321 yards and 43.1 yards per punt average with four touchbacks

Bryce Singleton: (R-Jr.) 5-11, 193, Missed last season to injury - 21 kick returns for 424 yards in his career

Nate Jefferson: (R-Fr.) 5-11, 170, Redshirted

Jackson McDonald: (R-Fr.) 6-5, 220, Redshirted

Daniel Jackson: (Sr.) 6-2, 228, 252 snaps on special teams - 6 special teams’ tackles

Josh Powell: (Sr.) 5-11, 195, 233 snaps on special teams - 4 special teams’ tackles

Rocky Jacques-Louis: (Jr.) 6-3, 210, 164 snaps on special teams

Dimitry Prophete: (Sr.) 6-1, 235, 142 snaps on special teams - 2 special teams’ tackles

Rishard Dames: (R-Jr.) 5-11, 175, 135 snaps on special teams - 2 special teams’ tackles

Richard Dames: (Sr.) 5-11, 185, 117 snaps on special teams - 4 special teams’ tackles

Newcomers: Chase Gabriel (Fr.) 5-11, 180, three-star recruit, Glynn Academy (Brunswick, Ga)

Matthew Enriquez (Fr.) 5-9, 220, walk-on, Coral Gables HS (Coral Gables, Fl)

Lucas Matias (Soph.) 5-11, 165, walk-on, Keiser University

Heading into Fall:

Three weeks after FIU’s bowl game, kicker Jose Borregales announced his intention to transfer to the University of Miami as a graduate transfer. Borregales, FIU’s all-time leading scorer will be remembered as much for his 3-for-3 efforts in the Panthers’ upset of Miami last season, as he will be for lack of consistency that didn’t match his tremendous talent.

His departure means true freshman Chase Gabriel will take over the kicking duties. Gabriel, a three-star recruit from Georgia, is considered to have a strong leg and will be pressed into duty immediately.

Punter Tommy Heatherly rebounded from a nightmarish debut against Tulane to become one of the top punters in Conference USA. His 43.1 yard per punt average was among the best in the conference and Heatherly should be in-line to make an all-conference team at the end of the season.

What’s unknown is who will take over the kickoff duties. Borregales handled the duties primarily last season and recorded 33 touchbacks.

Long snapper Tommy Zozus is one of the top deep snappers in C-USA and will handle the snapping duties.

The kick and punt return roles are up for grabs after being held by Austin Maloney and Maurice Alexander over the past two seasons. Look for a myriad of players to get opportunities such as Nate Jefferson, Lexington Joseph, Maleek Williams and Bryce Singleton.

Summary:

Last season, Heatherly picked up where four-year starting punter Stone Wilson left off in giving FIU one of the top punters in Conference USA. His leg will be a valuable weapon in flipping field position and of his 55 punts last year, 43 were either fair caught or landed inside the 20-yard-line.

How quickly Gabriel can get adjusted to the collegiate level will be significant for the special teams unit. The coaching staff has said that his range extends beyond 50 yards, but he’ll need to make the kicks inside 40 yards that Borregales struggled with last year.

As is the standard for a Butch Davis coached team, expect to see several starters also contribute on special teams. The Dames’ twins, Napoleon Maxwell and Stantley Thomas-Oliver all played over 100 snaps on special teams last year, mostly on punt and kick coverage. Last season’s most valuable special teamers were outside linebacker Daniel Jackson and Josh Powell, who played over 200 snaps on the unit and led the team in special teams’ tackles.

Miami v Florida International
Daniel Jackson is a valuable performer on special teams.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Where FIU has to improve is in the kick return game. The Panthers have been among the bottom third in FBS football in kick return average for the past two seasons.

“We’re looking to have the guys be dynamic and go hit home runs, we’re looking to make big plays and I’ll expect that from the returners,” said then-special teams coach DJ McCarthy in February after FIU’s National Signing Day. McCarthy is now with the receivers full-time and Harrison Green has taken over as the special teams’ coordinator.

Position Grade: B- The grade isn’t necessarily reflective of how good the group can be, as much as the team will bring in new players as the returners and kicker. Heatherly, Zozus and Jackson will lead the group and are excellent players. If FIU can add to that trio with explosive plays in the return game, Davis’ special teams will be in great shape.