With less than 30 days until the Panthers open their season at home against FCS Long Island University, here’s the penultimate article in our position-by-position preview of the 2021 FIU football team. Since the 2018 season, FIU has fielded one of the top defensive back units in Conference USA.
Entering 2021, the secondary should still be considered one of the team’s strengths, returning four of the five primary DB’s from last year’s group. Let’s take a look at the secondary led by veterans Richard and Rishard Dames.
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.
Richard Dames: (Sr.) 5-11, 190, 35 tackles, two tackles for loss and 2 pass breakups
Rishard Dames: (R-Jr.) 5-11, 165, 26 tackles, one sack and one interception
Dorian Hall: (R-Jr.) 6-4, 195, 24 tackles and one pass breakup
Jamal Anderson: (R-Soph.) 6-2, 180, 11 tackles and six pass breakups
Jesson Walker: (R-Soph.) 6-1, 170, five tackles and one pass breakup
Benny McCray: (R-Jr.) 6-2, 185, six tackles
Josh Valentine-Turner: (R-Jr.) 6-0, 190, 25 tackles, one interception, three pass breakups
Deuce Dunbar: (Fr.) 6-2, 190, zero statistics — appeared in one game on special teams
Jecoryan Davis-Hamilton: (Fr.) 6-1, 185, zero appearances in 2020
Henry Gray: (Fr.) 6-0, 175, one tackle
Jamal Potts: (Fr.) 6-2, 185, zero statistics — appeared in four games on special teams
Joe Perkins: (Fr.) 6-0, 196, zero statistics — appeared in five games on special teams
Andrew Volmar: (Fr.) 6-1, 175, zero appearances in 2020
Alvin Mathis: (Fr.) 6-1, 200, one tackle
Pierce Withers: (R-Jr.) 5-11, 195, two tackles (at Texas State)
Brian Blades: (Fr.) 5-10, 165, Walk-on (Fort Lauderdale, FL — American Heritage HS)
Demetrius Hill: (Fr.) 6-2, 190, three-star recruit (Miami, FL — Miami Springs HS)
D’Mor Jean-Baptiste: (Fr.) 6-0. 172, two-star recruit (Miami, FL — North Miami Beach HS)
Jabril Muhammad: (R-Fr.) 5-11, 170, transfer (Western Carolina)
Jakovi Bryant: (Fr.) 6-0, 180, three-star recruit (Kississimee, FL — Gateway HS)
Gio Richardson: (Fr.) 6-1, 200, transfer (UT-Chattanooga)
Heading into Fall: For all of the question marks that the 2021 team has entering the season, the secondary is undoubtedly one of the most solidified position groups in the entire conference. Former four-star recruit Henry Gray is at the head of a stable of underclassmen who are competing for playing time behind the four starters.
Linebacker-turned-safety Alvin “AJ” Mathis joins the group after spending the spring with his former position group. Mathis played both positions as a high schooler in the Tampa Bay area. Freshman Joe Perkins earned praise from Butch Davis and saw time on special teams last season. Former three-star recruits Andrew Volmar and Jamal Potts should benefit from a full offseason and another year of seasoning. Behind that group are incoming three-stars Jakovi Bryant and Demetrius Hill, along with true freshman D’Mor Jean-Baptiste and former Texas State safety Pierce Withers, who was a three-star recruit in the class of 2018.
Summary: The core will be led by the Dames’ twins. Richard has been one of the top defensive backs in C-USA since arriving in 2017, and is capable of playing at his usual safety spot, as well as nickel corner/star.
“Coach (Withers) has been using me in a variety of different ways during the spring — I’ve been at safety but he’s also been using me at the Star as well,” said Dames following the spring game.
After a redshirt season in 2017, Rishard emerged as a full-time starter in 2019 and has earned honors from Phil Steele in consecutive years for his play at cornerback. His three pass breakups were good enough for second on the team last season, playing primarily at the slot corner spot. On the outside will be Iowa transfer Josh Valentine-Turner. The 6-0, 190-pound Delray Beach native served as the third corner in 2019, then moved into a full-time starting role last year and was named to the C-USA Honorable Mention Team. Valentine-Turner was the Panthers’ third-highest graded defensive player last season according to Pro Football Focus.
The other safety will be redshirt junior Dorian Hall. A 6-4, 200-pounder, Hall has shown solid tackling ability and excellent range in pass coverage, having been rated among the top-five safeties in Conference USA in pass coverage during his three years as a Panther. South Dade product Jamal Anderson led the team in pass breakups last year with six, primarily serving as the other corner on the outside. However, Anderson isn’t expected to play this season due to injury — leaving the spot open for the taking. Two names to watch are Jesson Walker and Benny McCray IV.
McCray earned playing time at both safety spots and cornerback last season, logging at least 20 snaps in the final four games of the season, including 35 against Western Kentucky. Walker, a cornerback by trade, played on both the left and right sides in 2020 and should log time in the slot and on the outside in 2021.
Final Grade: A Valentine-Turner rebounded from a tough season-opening outing at Liberty that saw him hit with several questionable penalties to have an excellent 2020. With the benefit from a full offseason, look for Turner to take the next step as one of the league’s top corners. The opportunity for Richard Dames to be used not only as a safety but as the star (hybrid nickel corner/outside linebacker) should put him in a position to make more plays.
If so, Dames is every bit as talented as UTSA’s Rashad Wisdom. Hall’s athleticism and range give defensive coordinator Everett Withers a unique weapon at his disposal. 2021 will give Rishard Dames an opportunity to return to his 2019 form, where he emerged as a top-10 cornerback in C-USA. McCray and Walker are both talented enough to perform well in the slot and if Henry Gray or Jamal Potts can log time as well, the Panthers may have the deepest secondary in the conference.