Only Butch Davis and his FIU program truly know how much their 2020 season was affected by COVID-19. However, as time has drawn out from the end of last year, Davis has let his guard down to reveal ways in which the Panthers were hindered.
“Nine days prior to the game against Liberty, we only had three offensive linemen,” said Davis. “In order to try and get some type of scrimmage, we moved defensive linemen over to O-line and then the week of the (Liberty) game after looking like we’re not going to have some guys, they cleared the protocol but it was an issue for us all year.”
This was most evident in the Panthers' final game of the season at Western Kentucky — one that saw the five starting offensive linemen play every snap — a first during Davis’ four seasons as head coach.
Despite the fluid availability of players, the unit performed well in springing D’Vonte Price to 116 yards per game and FIU backs as a whole to 161.4 per contest.
Let’s take a look at how the offensive line unit shapes up in 2021.
All stats listed are for the 2020 season. Projected starter(s) are listed in bold. Class year reflects NCAA eligibility rules for the 2021 season.
Lyndell Hudson Jr.: (R-Soph.)- 6-6, 300, Appeared and started in five games in 2020
Shamar Hobdy-Lee: (Fr.)- 6-5, 290, Appeared in one game in 2020
Sione Finau: (Soph.)- 6-3, 300, Appeared and started in five games in 2020
Dontae Keys: (R-Sr.)- 6-4, 310, Appeared in four games with two starts in 2020
Julius Pierce: (R-Fr.)- 6-5, 265, Zero appearances in 2020
Logan Gunderson: (R-Jr.)- 6-5, 318, Zero appearances in 2020
Kristoff Pollas: (Fr.)- 5-10, 260, Zero appearances in 2020
Trevor Arnett: (Fr.)- 6-6, 260, Zero appearances in 2020
Noah Quier: (R-Fr)- 6-4, 310, Zero appearances in 2020
Jahmari Sylvester: (Fr.)- 6-4, 300, Zero appearances in 2020
Miles Frazier: (Fr.)- 6-5, 304, Appeared in four games with one start
Wyatt Lawson: (Fr.)- 6-3, 290 - Three-star recruit (Plant City, Fla/ Durant HS)
JD Gomez: (R-Jr.)- 6-6, 300 - Did not play in 2020. Appeared in 10 games in 2019 (At Temple)
Rey Burnett: (Soph.)- 6-5, 290 - Appeared and started in three games in 2020 (At Houston Baptist)
Api Mane: (R-Sr.)- 6-3, 335 - Appeared in nine games with six starts (At Kansas)
Heading into Fall: The return to normal will benefit the entire team, but it will especially help an offensive line featuring eight players with virtually no playing experience. Rodriguez is tasked with developing a slew of underclassmen that includes five former three-star recruits — three of which lost valuable development time with the loss of spring practices last year.
Their progression will serve crucial in helping bolster a unit that is replacing four starters from 2020’s team. This year’s group also includes three transfers that will be asked to step in and help fill the rotation. Former Kansas center Api Mane and Temple guard JD Gomez bring a combined 34 games of experience to the group, while Houston Baptist transfer Rey Burnett Jr. was a two-year starter for the FBS program that saw five players join Conference USA this offseason.
Summary: The unit allowed 19 sacks in five games last year — the most they’ve allowed since 2017’s unit allowed 23 in a 13-game season. However, some of the struggles in keeping FIU quarterbacks clean were due to the signal callers holding onto the football. As a run-blocking group, they were able to produce a top-six rushing attack in C-USA. Hudson Jr., Finau, Keys and Frazier were starters/saw significant playing time and are back to lead the group.
Gomez, Mane and Burnett Jr. all figure to play a part in the rotation next season. This leaves the final few available spots open to younger players seeking their first true playing time.
From a sheer talent perspective, Pierce is considered among the top of the offensive line and spent time last year practicing at four out of the five positions. At 6-5 and possibly 25-35 pounds larger than his listed weight of 265, he has the size to play outside at tackle and the athleticism to play guard. Hobdy-Lee will look to continue his improvement in the fall, as he’s considered one of the players who has developed well from the time arriving on campus through the end of last year. Sylvester was one of many Panthers last season who was affected by COVID last year and will look to make up the missed time this fall.
Final Grade: B- The biggest variable affecting this group is experience — not potential. Hudson Jr. is rounding into one of the most dependable tackles in Conference USA and was among the top-10 highest-graded tackles in the league by Pro Football Focus last year.
Finau arrived at FIU as a polished and well-rounded offensive lineman, which has earned him early playing time. Keys was considered an NFL prospect after his steady play at FBS North Carolina A&T, where he allowed only two sacks in 720 snaps in 2019.
Frazier looked like he belonged in the season-finale against Western Kentucky that saw him play all 85 snaps at tackle against C-USA’s premier pass-rusher, DeAngelo Malone. The key will be how the unit this year’s unit fills out. If Gomez and Mane are able to come in and start immediately, that gives FIU a fairly experienced starting five — with a talented and versatile group behind them.