With less than 35 days until the Panthers begin their season at home against FCS Long Island, here’s our look at the defensive line room in our position-by-position preview of the 2021 FIU football team. This week’s edition features the linebackers, led by position coach Randall McCray who joined the team in the offseason.
The 30-year coaching veteran has had stops as defensive coordinator at Texas State under current FIU DC Everett Withers and held the same role in Conference USA at Middle Tennessee. He was most recently an assistant special teams coach with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018-2019.
Senior Jamal Gates is the most experienced returning linebacker from last year’s group and will be joined by fellow seniors Josh Powell and Daniel Jackson, along with UCF transfer and Miami native Eric Mitchell Jr. Let’s take a look at the linebacker room.
All stats listed are for the 2020 season unless noted. Projected starter(s) are listed in BOLD. Class year reflects NCAA eligibility rules for the 2021 season.
Returning: Josh Powell: (Sr.) 5-11, 195, 23 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss
Jamal Gates: (Sr.) 6-2, 225, 26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss
Rocky Jacques-Louis (Jr.) 6-3, 205, 10 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception
Daniel Jackson: (Sr.) 6-2, 228, 10 tackles, one tackle for loss
Donovan Georges: (R-So.) 6-1, 240, appeared in two games
Nasir Carter: (R-Fr.) 6-2, 225, did not appear in 2020
Joey Maya: (Fr.) 6-0, 215, did not appear in 2020
Chance Coleman: (Fr.) 6-1, 217, one tackle
AJ Mathis: (Fr.) 6-2, 200, one tackle
Reggie Peterson: (Fr.) 6-2, 225, did not appear in 2020
Tamarick Best: (Fr.) 6-1, 225, did not appear in 2020
Ah’Mari McCray: (Fr.) 6-0, 210, three-star recruit, (Miami, FL — Miami Northwestern HS)
Gaethan Bernadel: (Fr.) 6-1, 215, three-star recruit, (Hallendale, FL — Hallendale HS)
Eric Mitchell Jr. (R-Sr.) 6-2, 240, 178 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and five sacks (35 career games at Central Florida)
Heading Into Fall: Similarily to the defensive line, FIU’s linebacking unit has experience at the head of the room, but a litany of inexperienced players make up the majority of the group. Nine of the 14 linebackers listed on the roster haven’t started a game and eight have played in less than five contests in their collegiate careers. The positive is seven of the nine are former three-star recruits and several have shown promise either in spring or in spurts last season.
Tampa-area products AJ Mathis and Chance Coleman earned playing time on special teams last season and Coleman earned praise from Butch Davis during the spring session.
“Chance Coleman is really starting to show out and make some plays for us,” said Davis following FIU’s pro day in late March.
Broward County native Gaethan Bernadel chose FIU over interest from Power Five programs such as California, Duke and Kentucky. After enrolling early and taking part in the spring, Bernadel tallied three tackles in FIU’s spring game. They’ll battle for playing time along with Reggie Peterson, who also had Power Five interest coming out of high school, McCray, Carter and Georges.
Summary: The bulk of the linebacking duties will be held by the veterans of the group. Jamal Gates has been a constant contributor at the position since 2018 and will be depended on at middle linebacker. The Palm Beach Gardens was among the top-20 players in C-USA in tackles (85) in 2019. Jackson and Powell have earned spot duty at linebacker when the defense has deployed three linebackers, and both players are capable of covering backs and tight ends in coverage. Powell logged the second-most snaps at LB/nickel on the team last year and Jackson saw his most extended time on defense down the stretch of last year when Gates and former Panther Tyson Maeva weren’t available.
“Daniel Jackson has been an excellent player for us for four seasons now and we learned a lot about what he’s capable of (on defense) when we lost starters last year — he’s earned the opportunity to challenge for a starting spot,” said Davis during C-USA Media Days last week.
Rocky Jacques-Louis has seen time both as an outside linebacker and as a rush-end during his Panther career. Expect him to see time in both roles in 2021.
The wildcard of the group is former UCF Knight, Eric Mitchell Jr. The Miami native played in 38 games with 10 starts during his time in Orlando and has been an impact player during his collegiate career. At 6-2, 238-pounds, he gives the group a sizable presence at linebacker who is also capable of rushing the quarterback and making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Final Grade: B- Gates is a more than formidable Conference USA linebacker. In 2019, he showed his ability alongside former standout Sage Lewis. Last season, Gates was due to have another solid year next to Maeva, before the COVID-shortened season. Mitchell Jr. is a steady tackler and can line up as a rush end as well.
He and Gates give the Panthers a solid two backers in 2-LB packages, which the Panthers spend over half of their snaps in, against opposing offensive sets. Jackson and Powell can fill in well as outside linebackers/nickel linebackers. Where the group’s grade is affected is with the lack of experience behind the veterans. If the talented underclassmen can live up to their billing, there’s no reason to believe that this grade won’t be higher at the end of the year.