Of all of the position groups for the 2021 FIU Panthers, arguably no unit harder to assess than the offensive line. Entering last year, it was clear that the group would need some time to come together as they welcomed several players expected to contribute immediately.
Unfortunately, in a season marked by turmoil, the offensive line were never able to find their stride — struggling to open up holes in the run game and being affected by offensive inefficiency as a whole that resulted in FIU quarterbacks being sacked 41 times — second most in Conference USA.
The start of the Mike MacIntyre era sees the Panthers welcome nine newcomers on an offensive line that had only seven bodies available when MacIntyre took the job. Former UCF and Nebraska offensive line coach Greg Austin is tasked with bringing along this year’s group that features eight freshmen, four players who haven’t played at the FBS level and only 23 FBS starts — 17 of which are from one player, Lyndell Hudson Jr.
The Brooksville native is returning for his third year as a starting tackle and will undoubtedly be the leader on the unit.
“It’s been a long five years, but I’m ready for this moment to step up and be a leader in the room,” said Hudson Jr. “We have a group of guys that are hungry and going 1-11 is something I never want to go through again, we’re going straight from the practice field to the meeting room to get on the board and get better there.”
With the season-opener less than six weeks away, let’s take a look at the offensive line.
All stats listed are for the 2021 season. Projected starter(s) are listed in bold. Class year reflects NCAA eligibility rules (COVID) for the 2022 season.
Lyndell Hudson Jr.: (R-Jr.) 6-6, 300, Appeared and started in 12 games in 2021
Shamar Hobdy-Lee: (Soph.) 6-5, 290, Appeared in eight games in 2021
Julius Pierce: (R-Soph.) 6-5, 295, Appeared in 10 games in 2021
Jahmari Sylvester: (Soph.) 6-4, 300, Appeared in eight games with two starts in 2021
Wyatt Lawson: (R-Fr.) 6-3, 290 - Appeared in one game in 2021
Rey Burnett: (Jr.) 6-5, 290 - Appeared in seven games with three starts in 2021
Ming Tjon: (R-Fr.) 6-3, 325, Zero appearances in 2021
Kristoff Pollas: (R-Fr.) 5-10, 260, Zero appearances in 2021
Naeer Jackson: (Fr.) 6-6, 320, Three-star recruit (Miami, Fla/Miami Killian HS)
John Bock II: (Fr.) 6-5, 305, Three-star recruit (Fort Lauderdale, Fla/Cardinal Gibbons HS)
Robert Blanchard: (Fr.) 6-4, 320, (Fort Myers, Fla/Fort Myers HS)
Sam Hill: (Soph.) 6-4, 345, Appeared in 16 games in two seasons (At Reinhardt University)
Deyavie Hammond: (Jr.) 6-4, 325, Three-star recruit (Lakeland, FL/Lakeland HS & Independence CC)
Jacob Peace: (Jr.) 6-5, 305, Appeared in 18 games in three seasons (At VMI)
Ashton Rivera: (Fr.) 6-3, 290, (Cape Coral, Fla/Cape Coral HS)
Jadarious Lee: (Fr.) 6-2, 275, (Nashville, TN/Pearl-Cohn HS)
Phillip Houston: (Soph.) 6-5, 260, (McKinney, TX/Navarro College)
Heading into Fall: In a little over a decade as coach, Greg Austin has amassed an impressive resume that made his hire one of the more crucial for MacIntyre as the Panthers begin their rebuild. Following his playing career at Nebraska, Austin spent time at Oregon and with the Philadelphia Eagles before getting his first OL coaching job at UCF in 2016. His units performed well, especially during the Knights’ undefeated 2017 season and he followed then-UCF head coach Scott Frost back to his alma mater. The FIU job offers a return to the Sunshine State and an opportunity to shape a unit that has several former three-star recruits.
“There’s a lot of desire in this room and that makes my job easier when I have a group of guys who want work, study and are bought in to the mental side of the game,” said Austin. “The athletic competency of the guys is good and the cupboard wasn’t bare, so I’m coming in here with guys who generally speaking can do the things that we’re asking of them.”
While the cupboard may not have been bare, as stated above, calling this group inexperienced is an understatement.
Hobdy-Lee, Pierce and Sylvester are all former three-star recruits who after biding their time as understudies will be depended on to play significant roles across the line. Pierce, a former high school tight end was moved to center by the previous staff and has spent three years working his way into a collegiate offensive lineman, who earned his first real time last season.
Hobdy-Lee was also viewed as somewhat of a project by the prior staff, needing some time to shape his frame into an FBS o-lineman, while Sylvester stepped up late last season once Sione Finau entered the transfer portal.
Houston Baptist transfer Rey Burnett was in the rotation before suffering a leg injury at Marshall, but returned late in the year to start a pair of games and should be in the mix for a starting role in 2022.
The rest of the group is where Austin will have his work cut out.
Naeer Jackson, John Bock II and Deyavie Hammond signed with FIU during the recruiting cycle and there’s a possibility that all three will need to play immediately. Jackson was a late bloomer, whose recruitment picked up down the stretch but held firm to his FIU commitment. Bock, the son of former Miami Dolphin John Bock comes from a local powerhouse in Cardinal Gibbons High, while Hammond had interest from several SEC programs coming out of Lakeland High but had to go the JUCO route and will make his FBS debut with the Panthers.
As MacIntyre emphasized the need for more bodies across the line, Hill and Peace were added in the offseason from the DI Football Subdivision.
Summary: The spotlight (rightfully so) has been on the quarterback battle. While that competition is important, last year, especially in comparison to the success of the program from 2017-2019 should have shown that the play up front is going to be crucial to any level of immediate success for Macintyre's club.
Hudson Jr. has all of the physical tools to be an excellent tackle and has earned the distinction of “as good as he wants to be” from opposing C-USA coaches. Austin believes that Hudson has that talent, but will go as far as the group goes.
“He’s a guy who wants to do it, he wants to be great and I believe that what’s going to help him and ultimately help this unit is he’s not just one guy, this is an entire unit and how well we’re able to work together is going to be a reflection not just Lyndell, but the group as a whole,” said Austin.
During the spring, Hudson Jr., Sylvester, Pierce, Hobdy-Lee and Burnett all worked with the first team at various times and all five will be in the rotation or starters. How quickly the newcomers, along with 2021 signee Wyatt Lawson can come together will tell the story of this year’s unit.
Austin’s matter-of-fact coaching style may serve especially well given the youth in the offensive line room.
“I’m an objective coach, things are black and white and I’m going to tell guys if their hands are in the right spot or they’re not, if you step the right way or if you didn’t,” said Austin. “And when it’s time to put the ball in the endzone and punch the defense in the mouth, we’re going to be able to do that.
Final Grade: C - If MacIntyre and Austin can find an eight-player rotation that can be depended upon to play well consistently, that could make the difference between the 2022 Panthers being a team hovering around 2-3 wins or one that could play teams tough, especially in the early part of their schedule.
With that said, there are too many untested talents to give the room a grade higher than a C — but that doesn’t mean that they can’t exceed this mark come season’s end.