Following a disjointed offseason marked by various changes in the routine of getting a team ready for an upcoming year, the 2020 FIU Panthers entered the season with hopes of putting a disappointing 2019 season behind them. In more ways than one — Butch Davis’ club never got off the ground.
“We’re heading down the runway for takeoff and then all of a sudden you hear all of these alarms and the plane comes to a screeching halt,” said Davis. “The pilot said another plane cut in front of us, so we sit on the runway for 45 minutes. Once we’re in the air and circling around to land, the pilot comes on and says I can’t see the runway.”
The Panthers’ flight to Virginia for their season-opener at Liberty — unbeknownst to them — served as a premonition of the journey they would embark on.
An eight-day training camp that saw the team have their first 11-on-11 practice four days before the season-opener at Liberty, set the table for a 2020 season where the team was riddled by injuries and multiple coaches were forced to miss time due to COVID. However, the winless campaign sets the Panthers with a 2021 trajectory that can only lead upward.
Entering the start of spring, FIU has more questions than solidified answers, but they have the benefit of spring practice and a healthy roster — something that the team has not been able to claim since 2019. We begin UDD’s offseason coverage of the Panthers with a preview of names to keep an eye on and storylines to watch during the spring session.
Full positional previews will begin starting in May.
Note: Players’ class year reflects 2020 eligibility that will carry over to the 2021 season.
After four seasons under the direction of veteran coordinator Rich Skrosky, the offense is set for a change in philosophy next season. Exactly who will guide that change — is still left to be decided. Running backs coach Tim Harris Jr. was promoted in January to replace Skrosky.
However, the longest-tenured member of FIU’s staff departed for UCF in late February, opting to join Gus Malzahn’s staff with the Knights. While Davis still has to put an offensive coordinator and running backs coach in place, of equal importance is bringing last year’s revolving door at quarterback to a stop.
Veterans Max Bortenschlager and Kaylan Wiggins will benefit from a full spring session that they were robbed of the previous offseason.
“Of any position, our quarterbacks were the most severely affected by the lack of Spring practice,” said Davis. “Max almost didn’t have a chance from the start and Kaylan was hampered as well.”
Davis has been uncharacteristically effusive in his praise of freshman Haden Carlson, who will look to have a breakout spring in contending for the starting job.
“You hate to make comparisons but Haden reminds me a bit of the kid (Patrick Mahomes) in Kansas City,” said Davis.
Running back is unquestionably the deepest position on the team, starting with senior D’Vonte Price, who’s arguably the second-best returning back in C-USA. Spring’s 15 practices will serve as an opportunity for younger backs such as Kejon Owens, Eric Wilson Jr. and early enrollee Ketravis Geter to gain valuable experience while Flex Joseph and Shaun Peterson Jr. recover from season-ending injuries suffered last year.
Former FCS All-American receiver Tyrese Chambers signed with FIU during the 2021 cycle and will look to establish himself in the spring, along with speedy redshirt freshman Nate Jefferson and fellow freshman Kris Mitchell, as veterans Bryce Singelton and Shemar Thornton are firmly established.
The spring will be important for the Panthers’ offensive line to establish the much-needed depth that Davis has been looking for since 2018. Four of last season’s primary lineman return, but the hope is to play between 7-8 across the line per contest. Freshmen Miles Frazier, Shamar Hobdy-Lee, Julius Pierce, Jose Mirabal and Jahmari Sylvester, along with Temple transfer JD Gomez will be looked upon to fill out the offensive line.
The tight end spot may very well be the offense’s second deepest position. Junior Sterling Palmer is looking for a return the type of numbers he achieved as a freshman, but is still one of the top tight end talents in C-USA.
The spring session will be especially important for Rivaldo Fairweather and Joe Hocker, a pair of raw talents, who are still developing on the gridiron. Hocker missed all of his freshman season in 2019 due to injury and wasn’t able to start doing light work in pads till the week of the Camellia Bowl. 2020 was Fairweather’s first full season at the position and is well-regarded by the coaching staff for his dedication to improving each practice.
Davis has finally secured his defensive coordinator of choice as former Texas State head coach Everett Withers takes over for Jeff Copp, whose contract wasn’t renewed following the season. His first order of business will be improving an FIU run defense that has allowed over 170 yards rushing in 15 of their last 31 games.
Defensive tackle Davon Strickland emerged to have a solid 2020 season and his development will be key with the team lacking experience and bodies across the interior.
The spring will be key for a slew of young linebackers. Behind veterans Jamal Gates and Daniel Jackson are five freshmen linebackers who were three-star recruits entering college. Their development in the spring will play a significant factor in whether they’ll see time in the fall, especially given the transfers of former UCF standout Eric Mitchell and Texas State two-year starter Hal Vinson, who will arrive following the spring.
FIU’s secondary should remain one of the tops in C-USA with the return of cornerback Josh Turner and safety Richard Dames, who both chose to take advantage of the additional year. Highly-touted Nebraska transfer Henry Gray will have the benefit of his first spring practice along with fellow freshmen Jamal Potts, Andrew Volmar and early-enrollee Jakovi Bryant.
FIU’s special teams unit was among the best in C-USA in 2020 under former coordinator Harrison Green, who chose to depart the program in early February. The good news is a majority of last year’s contributors are back in 2021, including senior punter Tommy Heatherly, who possesses an NFL leg and is arguably the top returning punter in the league.