Entering the 2021 season, the FIU Panthers’ football program will look equal parts similar and different from last season.
As currently constituted entering the summer session, 22 players and six starters from last year’s team have departed the program via graduation or the transfer portal. While veteran stalwarts like D’Vonte Price, Kevin Oliver and the Dames’ twins are back for another season, next season’s team will feature multiple new faces and inexperienced players who will be tasked with contributing immediately.
Let’s take a look at five players who didn’t see significant playing time (or are new to the program) to keep an eye on as Butch Davis’ team enters summer conditioning.
After playing both tight end and offensive line in high school, Pierce has been a project player since arriving at FIU in 2019. Listed as a reserve center, his height (6’5) and weight (over 290 pounds) have allowed him to work at multiple positions across the line during spring practice. With Mershawn Miller’s entry to the transfer portal and former Kansas center Api Mane’s arrival, Pierce’s development as a guard or center will help provide much-needed depth up front. Expect the Sanford native to play a crucial role in 2021 on the offensive line.
When asked about position battles during spring camp, defensive coordinator Everett Withers was emphatic about all 11 positions on defense being up for grabs. Whether or not that results in new starters from last season remains to be seen, expect former UCF linebacker Eric Mitchell to make a strong case to open 2021 in the starting lineup. The Miami native racked up 175 tackles over four seasons, including two as a starter as a Knight. Mitchell, along with returner Jamal Gates and Texas State transfer Hal Vinson can provide FIU with one of the more formidable linebacker trios in Conference USA.
Like Pierce, Lynum is another project player who should benefit immensely from the return to normality this offseason. After spending two seasons as a backup quarterback, Lynum made the switch to receiver prior to the start of last season. The 6-2, 215-pound Central Florida native provides much-needed size for a wide receiver room whose top-two returning wideouts are under six feet tall. If Lynum can progress at the position under receivers’ coach DJ McCarthy, he has the athletic ability to be a factor.
Veteran tight end David O’Meara has been a proven commodity for the Panthers during his career, serving virtually exclusively as a blocker, opposite a more prolific receiving threat in Sterling Palmer. O’Meara appeared in 20 games with seven starts over his first two seasons but only played against Florida Atlantic last season. While Drew Davis’ tight end room is arguably one of the most talented positions on the team, by all accounts O’Meara’s development athletically and as a receiver may figure him into some of the multiple tight end looks that the new offense will feature in 2021.
It’s no secret that stopping the run has been a challenge for the Panthers over the past three seasons. While Withers is quick to point out that run defense relies on the ability of all 11 members of the defense to fulfill their assignment, FIU’s defensive line struggles have played a factor.
Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Davon Strickland emerged to be one of the few bright spots last season and junior Jason Mercier started four games alongside Strickland, with both expected to play inside in 2021. However, if true freshman Savion Collins can live up to his highly-touted status coming out of Miami Palmetto High, it will help the unit’s depth and efforts to stop the run next season.