Following a 2020 season that many would like to forget, the FIU Panthers held their 2021 media day on Tuesday and from virtually every player and coach alike, the mood was clear — a laser-like focus on the season ahead and securing the team’s first win since upsetting Miami in November of 2019.
The disclaimer of virtually everyone involved is necessary because Panthers’ head coach Butch Davis was a last-minute scratch. Roughly five minutes before the 11 AM scheduled start time, an FIU spokesman announced at the podium that Davis was “feeling under the weather” and his session will be rescheduled for later in the month. First-year coordinators Andrew Breiner, Everett Withers and Casey Horny headlined for the coaches and provided insight into a Fall camp that Davis has emphasized is of importance for FIU to get back into the win column.
“Obviously, I wasn’t here last year, but Coach (Butch) Davis mentioned it heavily in the spring and the first night of camp in the Fall that we’re looking to put that to bed,” said Breiner, who led the speakers today. “Overall, guys are excited and as a program, we feel like there’s a lot to prove given what happened last year and more importantly, the potential that we believe we have and the guys are extremely eager to get back to winning.”
One of the biggest reasons for excitement among the program is the return of running back D’Vonte Price, who chose to take advantage of the additional year of eligibility provided by the NCAA. The Punta Gorda, Fla native has garnered preseason recognition from various outlets as one of the top pro prospects following a standout campaign last year. Price spoke at length about his motivations for coming back — and how tough the decision was to turn down the NFL.
“I couldn’t leave FIU that way with a winless season, that was a huge part of me coming back and wanting to close things out the right way,” said Price. Following a 2020 that saw him rush for 116.4 yards per game and gain the attention of various NFL scouts, Price admitted that his decision changed multiple times throughout the offseason, before settling on a final go-around with the Panthers.
“That was a very stressful decision man, to be honest,” Price admitted. “One day I wake up, I said I’m leaving, the next, I said I’m staying and I was dealing with that during the season and a little bit into January. At the end of the day, I had to block out the outside noise, a lot of which was telling me NFL and just make the best decision for me.”
Withers comes to FIU with an extensive resume as a defensive coordinator, three of which were spent under Davis at North Carolina. The obvious question he faces is how will he help sure up a Panther run defense that’s allowed at least 175 yards rushing in 17 of their last 31 outings.
“From the beginning of spring practice to where we are now, I’ve been really pleased with the progression of our front-seven and the back end — because in my defense we count 11 guys in the run front,” said Withers. An early insight into Withers’ defense reveals the deploying of the “Star” position, a hybrid DB/OLB, that multiple players will contend for time at this season.
“That role in today’s game is really important because so much of offensive football is horizontal, so to have a guy who can play in space and still be a factor in the run defense is extremely important,” said Withers. “Rishard (Dames) will play some there, we’ll also have a bigger body there sometimes, guys like Benny McCray, Joe Perkins, Pierce Withers, so it’s key to have those bodies that can play the run and in coverage.”
After a five-game season that saw the Panthers rank 123rd in passing yards per game, the four-way quarterback competition is of importance for the entire program. While Breiner isn’t keen on showing his hand just yet in terms of a depth chart, he was crystal clear in laying out what he’s looking for from the signal-callers.
“Coach (Bryn) Renner is doing a great job with those guys. Max (Bortenschlager) obviously has experience and has shown a grasp of the offense. I’ve been impressed early on with the freshman Grayson James. But the number one thing I’m looking for is sound decision making and having the best grasp of what we’re doing and what the defense is doing,” said Breiner. “Haden Carlson is a good athlete and thrower and he can extend plays with his legs and we Kaylan Wiggins can do some of that as well, but I’m obviously not going to give a status update on where we’re at specifically.”