Indeed, a new day has arrived for FIU football.
February 8 marks the first practice of the 2022 season and the first of the Mike MacIntyre era in Miami, as the Panthers open the spring session Tuesday morning. While the obvious cloud of a 1-16 record in the program’s last 17 outings still hovers, the excitement of a new staff and seemingly, a new athletic direction takes flight as Panthers’ fans will get their first look at a revamped FIU team.
The 15 spring sessions will serve incredibly crucial for a roster that returns over 70 underclassmen, 47 players who have played in 13 games or less and arguably the most crucial figure — 58 players who haven’t experienced a win over an FBS opponent in an FIU uniform.
Here’s a look at seven storylines to watch during spring practice.
Since the departure of James Morgan in 2019, the quarterback spot has been a revolving door, followed by a year of seesaw play at the position. 2022 will bring in a new starting signal-caller, but the question is will it be a veteran — or a first-time college starter?
Duke transfer Gunnar Holmberg was the primary starter for the Blue Devils last year, throwing for 2,358 yards with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. Haden Carlson will enter his second quarterback competition with the Panthers and “would have started several games” in 2020, had the season not been cut short due to COVID, as stated by former head coach Butch Davis. Grayson James served as the primary QB2 last year, appearing in six contests last year.
Offensive coordinator David Yost has spent two decades working with quarterbacks and is on the record as saying that he won’t need long to know whether the starting quarterback is on the roster or not. While Yost and MacIntyre could theoretically take another swing through the transfer portal between now and the start of fall camp, with the team’s scholarship situation being as sensitive as it is, they likely can’t afford to use another spot on a quarterback.
Pounding the rock
For all of the excitement around the arrival of Yost and his offensive philosophy, there are no two ways about it — any success that the offense will have starts with the running game. Despite featuring fast-rising draft prospect D’Vonte Price and talented a slew of former three-star recruits behind Price, the Panthers averaged only 3.3 yards per attempt last season — ranking them 119th in FBS football and last in Conference USA.
The FIU offense has to do a better job of staying on schedule in order for the quarterbacks to have a fighting chance at success. In 2021, the offensive average for yards to gain for a first down was 7.8 on second down and 6.5 on third down. That starts with being able to establish a consistent rushing attack and this year’s group will feature a first-time starting running back.
Going hand-in-hand with quarterback play and establishing the run, offensive line coach Greg Austin will be tasked with shaping a revamped offensive line in 2022. Arguably one of the most bewildering statistics of 2021 wasn’t the fact that the FIU offense fell victim to 41 sacks last year — ranking them 13th out of 14 teams in Conference USA.
Why is that number hard to process?
Two of the primary five offensive linemen (Miles Frazier, Sione Finau) transferred to Power Five programs in the offseason, Frazier landing at LSU and Finau at Purdue. A third in Dontae Keys made his way to one of the premier Group of Five programs in Colorado State.
That figure makes it abundantly clear last year’s group didn’t lack talent. Austin will have tackle Lyndell Hudson Jr. and several former three-star recruits, along with JUCO transfer Deyavie Hammond to work with. The FIU offense has to produce better results in the run game and keeping quarterbacks upright — and while it’s not solely a byproduct of offensive line play — it starts with the five up-front.
Bringing In New Faces
14 players from last year’s team chose to enter the transfer portal and MacIntyre chose to replace those players with a litany of transfers who range in experience levels. Of the 14 transfers signed so far, five have at least 10 games of FBS experience and a sixth was a three-season starter at the FCS level.
Of most importance, every transfer player is on campus at FIU and will take part in spring practices.
“We’ve got all 14 here and that’s huge for us, because it really gives us a lot of momentum in putting together our roster,” said MacIntyre.
“Extra” Special Teams
After having the “luxury” of boasting standout specialists such as Stone Wilson, Tommy Heatherly, Jose Borregales and Tommy Zozus, the Panthers enter the spring with unproven commodities at kicker, punter and long snapper.
Chase Gabriel went three-of-four on field-goal attempts as a true freshman in 2020 and went a respectable 8-of-13 last year. However, he did miss three kicks of less than 35 yards, including a pressure kick at Central Michigan. The strong-legged kicker could use a strong spring to end any talk of another kicker taking over the role.
Aussie Jordan Doelling arrives with an opportunity to lock down the punter job, but should face competition from Marshall transfer Daton Montiel. MacIntyre used a scholarship on a long-snapper in Arizona native Jackson Lee, but he won’t arrive till the fall. Former walk-on Jackson McDonald earned time as a tight end in 2021 and should have the spring to insert himself in the long-snapping race.
The return game will also be worth watching as several players should have opportunities to earn time as return-men.
One year ago, Tyrese Chambers was a little-known FCS transfer arriving at FIU via Sacred Heart University and Baltimore’s Poly Tech High. Fast forward to today and the 6-1, 190-pound wideout is undeniably the most high-profile player on the team and one of the top pass-catchers in the nation. His 1,074 yards and nine receiving touchdowns set a program record last year and after entertaining offers from Power Five programs, chose to return to FIU.
“This is a great school and I love it here, I want to be part of turning this thing around,” said Chambers following the season finale last year.
No longer an unproven commodity, Chambers will undoubtedly be in the spotlight and the focus of opposing defenses — however, he’ll also enter the spring in a leadership role — one that will be sorely needed as MacIntyre tries to change the culture.
A New Day
Athletic Director Scott Carr’s tagline has been “A New Day” since his arrival in December. The athletic department is going through a rebrand and a full-court press has been made to engage alumni and students alike.
Arguably the most notable difference in terms of spring has been the decision to make all 15 sessions open to the media and public — a departure from previous years. As fan support has clearly dwindled during the program’s rough two-year stretch, the decision to provide an up-close look is the first step in rejuvenating the Panthers’ fan base.