The 2020 season is dead and buried for FIU football. Figuratively speaking, of course. For all of those involved, it’s best that way.
However, from the purview of the rest of the college football landscape, the Panthers can’t run from a season that leaves the team with a litany of questions to answer entering this season. The good news is Butch Davis’ track record as a head coach has proven that his team is due for a bounceback campaign in 2021.
The Panthers return the majority of last year’s contributors and are led by standout running back D’Vonte Price, who enters the season as one of the top NFL draft prospects in Conference USA. In addition to Price, the FIU defensive secondary as a unit should be considered among the tops in Group of Five football, led by veterans Richard and Rishard Dames, Dorian Hall and Josh Valentine-Turner.
The number one question from last year that is still yet to be answered is the quarterback position. After what essentially amounted to a five-game audition for 2021’s job, the two remaining signal-callers from last year’s trio make up FIU’s veteran presence at the position.
Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager earned the “start” in 2020’s season-opener, leading the team in passing yards (284) on the year. The Indiana native is entering his sixth season of college football and has the most experience, having drawn 11 career starting assignments. After struggling with an ankle injury throughout last year, entering fall camp at 100% should make for better play in 2021.
Redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins is the other veteran at the position. The Sanford, Florida native holds more career rushing attempts (65) than passing attempts (57). While he doesn’t have a tremendous body of work as a passer to draw any conclusions, the time he has seen shows that he’ll need to develop further with his arm to earn the starting nod. The final two contenders are freshman Haden Carlson and true freshman Grayson James.
Carlson has drawn praise from Davis, even going as far as to say that he would have earned starts last year as a true freshman, had the season not been cut short. At 6-3, 205 pounds, he has the size and physical gifts to be a starter at this level. James, the highly-touted three-star recruit, also has great promise and was among the best in a state known for producing excellent quarterbacks.
The aforementioned Price will be called upon to shoulder the offensive load while the quarterback position sorts itself out. At 6-2, 225-pounds and running a 4.4 40-yard-dash, Price is a rare mix of athletic ability and intangibles that make him arguably the league’s best back.
FIU’s pass catchers have the ability to be among the highest-rising group in C-USA this year. The return of 2019’s leading receiver in Shemar Thornton will undoubtedly help the group, which also boasts South Florida transfer Randall St. Felix, redshirt senior Bryce Singleton and former FCS standout Tyrese Chambers. Talented freshman tight end Rivaldo Fairweather showed signs of promise as a true freshman last year and junior Sterling Palmer will be a four-year starter at the position.
Across the offensive line, the year’s group has the potential to go eight-deep, despite losing Mershawn Miller, D’Antne Demery and Shane McGough from last year’s unit. Redshirt senior Dontae Keys, redshirt sophomore Lyndell Hudson Jr. and sophomore Sione Finau will lead the group, while transfers JD Gomez, Api Mane and Rey Burnett Jr. help offset the losses from last year.
Butch Davis finally gets his man in Everett Withers to lead the FIU defense. After formally agreeing to take the role following the 2018 season before a last-minute opportunity with the New York Giants, Withers takes over with one glaring task at hand — solve FIU’s run defense woes. Over the last 31 games, the Panthers have allowed over 170 yards rushing 16 times. Withers has stated that stopping the run is an “11-man” issue, but there’s no denying that the play at defensive line will be key.
The front four are led by three-year starter Kevin Oliver and emerging redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Davon Strickland. After seeing rotational time in his first two seasons, Strickland led the team in sacks and tackles for loss last year and earned numerous preseason honors entering ‘21.
Senior Jamal Gates is back for another season and will head the linebacking corps. UCF transfer Eric Mitchell Jr. provides a playmaking presence and Texas State transfer Hal Vinson has dynamic pass-rushing ability off the edge, but also has played linebacker in the past. Daniel Jackson earned playing time at linebacker last season and both Davis and Withers have stated that he’ll again see time in addition to his special teams duties.
As mentioned, FIU’s secondary boasts multiple players who will be in the discussion for all-conference honors at the end of the season. The Dames’ twins are equally excellent in coverage as they are open-field tacklers. Dorian Hall has been one of the highest-graded defensive backs in Conference USA for three consecutive years by Pro Football Focus and Josh Valentine-Turner is a capable lockdown corner.
Casey Horny becomes the third special teams coordinator in as many years for the Panthers, but he has the luxury of an excellent punter in senior Tommy Heatherly. The Oklahoma native set the program record for yards per punt (44.3) and has all of the tools to kick at the next level. Long snapper Tommy Zozus is among the best in C-USA and will handle the duties for the third consecutive year.
Freshman Chase Gabriel had a solid true freshman year in 2020, connecting on 11-of-12 PAT’s and 3-of-4 field-goal attempts. However, Horny stated earlier this month that Keiser University transfer Lucas Matias and Gabriel are “neck and neck” in competition for the kicking duties.
Davis’ is coming off a first in his coaching career — back-to-back losing seasons. His track record shows that the Panthers are due for an upswing. Quite frankly, his history at FIU shows the same.
For better or worse, FIU has fared well in the Butch Davis era when expectations have been low. Entering 2021, they may be at their lowest. Injuries and COVID didn’t allow the Panthers to get out of first gear last season. If they can get adequate quarterback play and find a way to level up the run defense to a respectable level, the rest of the pieces are in place for an improvement.
In my opinion, the first four games and final four games will tell the story for the 2021 FIU football team. If they can start 3-1, that gives them a tremendous boost entering C-USA play — which begins at rival Florida Atlantic — a team they haven’t defeated since 2016. The final four games are against teams who went a combined 10-19 last year and includes Old Dominion who didn’t play at all. If they can get three out of those four, Davis will have FIU bowl-eligible for the fourth time.