Following the announcement that veteran offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky would not be retained for the 2021 season, all eyes were focused on who Butch Davis would select to rejuvenate an FIU offense that ranked 122nd among FBS teams in total offense last season.
The answer comes in the form of the longest-tenured member of the Panthers’ coaching staff. Running backs coach Tim Harris Jr. has been promoted to offensive coordinator announced by FIU on Tuesday morning while players were notified of the move in a team meeting on Sunday.
“I am very excited about the new roles for Coach Harris and Coach Renner,” Davis said. “Both are tremendous coaches who our players love and fight for. We are very excited about the new direction our offense will take this season.”
Harris will also remain as the running backs coach and cornerbacks coach Bryn Renner will move to quarterbacks coach, taking over the role that was also filled by Skrosky.
While he’s keeping the exact details of his offensive scheme to himself, he defines his style in three words — fast, physical and aggressive.
“Here’s what I’ll tell you, we’re going to be fast and aggressive,” said Harris through a chuckle when asked whether his offense will be pro-style or spread. “We’re going to be physical and we’re going to be fun — and I’ll leave it at that.”
For FIU fans, they’ll welcome anything that can jumpstart an offense that averaged 22.4 points per game in 2020 — down almost two touchdowns per contest from the 34.6 point average that led Conference USA in 2018. Harris, a Miami native, who spent almost a decade as an offensive coordinator and then as a head coach at powerhouse Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown is grateful for the chance to be a coordinator at the collegiate level.
Since joining FIU, Harris’ running back units have included a litany of highly-productive players such as Alex Gardner, Anthony Jones, Napoleon Maxwell and current starter D’Vonte Price. Under his direction, the Panthers have ranked fourth or higher in rushing yards among C-USA teams since 2015.
“More than anything, I’m just appreciative and thankful for the opportunity that Coach (Butch) Davis has given me,” said Harris. “You’ve been at a place for while and to work for a coach like him and he recognizes your work – it means a lot to me and I’m excited to get with our staff and kids so we can produce one of the best offenses in the conference.”
In order for the Panthers’ offense to return to its 2018 form, shutting 2020’s revolving door at quarterback will be of the utmost importance. Following six seasons of relative stability with Alex McGough and James Morgan, FIU rotated signal-callers Stone Norton, Kaylan Wiggins and Max Bortenschlager throughout last season. The result was a passing attack that failed to reach the 150-yard mark in four of its five games and ranked 121st in the nation with an average of 123.4 yards per game.
Harris believes that whichever quarterback wins the job in 2021 will need to exhibit the traits that McGough and Morgan possessed during their team leading the program.
“The thing that stands out about both guys is the level of preparation — them coming into the building when it’s only coaches here late at night — going over the gameplan with Coach (Butch Davis) and then bringing that over to the practice field,” said Harris.
“Then the relationships they had with their teammates, the guys really loved both of them because of their leadership, ability to prepare and earning the respect of the team through their work – those are the qualities that we have to have from our quarterback.
While Norton transferred out of the program shortly after the season’s end, Bortenschlager, Wiggins and redshirt freshman Haden Carlson return. Harris believes that each signal-caller will benefit from a full offseason, which wasn’t afforded to them entering 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I get that every team around the country is different and we’re not making any excuses – but I can only speak to our team — not having spring ball is self-explanatory when you have guys who don’t have playing experience – not having those 15 practices is huge,” said Harris.
“Having to keep some guys out of meeting rooms and watch through Zoom – it’s not the same to those of us on the inside, on the outside, it’s looked at like it’s not a big deal – but it is when you’re trying to build a football team and I think it hurt us a ton when you combine that with the number of injuries we had.”
Bortenschlager, a graduate transfer from Maryland, joined the program in March shortly before the pandemic sent players home before spring camp. However, he wasn’t able to physically be with his teammates until after the resumption of workouts in the summer.
“With Max, I hate to sound as if I’m giving him an excuse but of any of the guys, it really was tough for him,” said Harris.
“You transfer to a school in the summer and he gets here when we’re already on lockdown – then when you get back all of the things that you normally would have to prepare as a starting quarterback aren’t available, however, I think he showed at times (during the season) what we saw when we recruited him. I’m really excited for him with all the time he’s going to get this offseason to slow things down and go step-by-step and have a good grasp of what we’re going to do on offense.”
Overall, Harris’ emphasized getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers on the offense and allowing them to take care of the rest. While the receiving unit is mostly inexperienced, Harris believes they’re a talented group and the return of D’Vonte Price, who led C-USA in yards per attempt, gives him more than enough at his disposal.
“I want to give our athletes a chance to get the ball out in space and be aggressive, but also making sure that we play to our players’ strengths,” said Harris. “When you have kids that can get in space and create plays of out simple plays, that’s what we're trying to do. Whether it’s getting it to them quickly or downfield, we’re going to be fun.”