While there’s no shortage of questions surrounding the 2022 FIU football team, one thing was made abundantly clear at the start and throughout the first practice of the fall — there will be no walking on the field as long as Mike MacIntyre has a say in it.
Promptly at 8 AM, the sound of a whistles bellowed throughout the practice fields so loudly that they could be heard throughout the entire southwest corner of campus by passersby.
Equally as booming was the sound of MacIntyre and his staff directing traffic as the first fall camp under the direction of he and athletic director Scott Carr began — affectionately known as the start of a “A New Day” for a Panthers’ program that are looking to put last year’s 1-11 season and a combined 1-17 record since an 2019’s upset victory over Miami behind them.
Midway through the 105 minute session, MacIntyre, standing near the 50-yard-line, locked eyes with an offensive unit who were still gathering themselves as they walked onto the field. In a pitch that could be heard throughout the area, MacIntyre rhetorically asked if he said to walk — then sent the players back to the sidelines and instructed them to take the field with more urgency. On the adjacent practice field, true freshman quarterback Amari Jones was given the same “request” from offensive coordinator David Yost.
During his post-practice media availability, MacIntyre provided specifics as to the importance on moving quickly.
“In today’s football, if you sprint out there and get set, you can snap the football because they don’t hold it like they used to,” said MacIntyre. “When you sprint out, you have to look for the signal (from the sidelines) you can’t just ask another player what the signal was and lastly it’s conditioning.”
If the need for sprinting on the field didn’t make it apparent that the Panthers want to move quickly — the five minute intervals for each session during 11-on-11 did.
“Each group had five-minutes because we’re trying to run a certain amount of plays within that time, sometimes they have 30 seconds rest, sometimes they moved to the next play and that’s how we’re doing it,” said MacIntyre.
Over 30 additional bodies have been added to the team since the conclusion of spring ball, leaving many players in competitions up and down the roster. Here’s a look at five storylines to watch as FIU’s season-opener looms just a month away.
1. Quarterback Competition
You can say that no two quarterback competitions are the same. However, especially in today’s college football landscape, that’s more cliché than it is actual fact. The last three QB battles for FIU have seen a transfer with starting experience compete against a returning signal-caller and each time the player with the most experience has won the job.
Duke transfer Gunnar Holmberg has two years of eligibility left after spending his first four seasons in Durham and while only has one year of starting experience, the 6-3, 205-pounder did compete against ACC-level talent last year. For the first time as a Panther, Holmberg was made available to the media.
“Coach Mac and Coach (David) Cutcliffe have a relationship from when they coached together and (Strength) Coach (Noel) Durfey as well, so that made it an easy decision to come to FIU,” said Holmberg. “Coach Yost’s system is a lot of spread stuff with inside zone and an overall emphasis to getting the ball to your playmakers and we have the guys here for me to do that.”
He’ll have every chance to win the job, but this year’s competition does provide the highest number of talented players pursuing the veteran.
Grayson James and Haden Carlson both saw time with several projected starters and both look noticeably bigger and more in command of the players on the field than last year.
Carlson’s athleticism was on display during 11-on-11’s as he used his legs as a rusher and to extend plays, while James delivered several passes to players, making quick decisions to get the ball out of his hands.
Between 40-45% of transfer quarterbacks have a chance to start this season, per data by Mike Huguenin of On3.com — and that number increases when talking about Power Five to Group of Five transfers.
When asked how much time would be needed to make it clear internally who the starter is, MacIntyre provided the following.
“I coached David Fales at San Jose State and that competition went all the way up to the Monday of game week, so it could easily be that way here.”
2. Can the new defense fix ongoing woes?
Defensive coordinator Jovan Dewitt is tasked with taking a defense that has steadily been in decline over the past three seasons and making them at least respectable in Conference USA. Easily the biggest transition is the change from a 4-3/4-2-5 base defense to a 3-4 look that was run by MacIntyre during his time as Memphis’ DC.
Dewitt spoke about the switch during his post-practice availability.
“There’s a better understanding of what we’re trying to do out there and how I know this is the players are realizing when they’re not in the right spots and places, that’s huge for us on day one because it shows that they’re processing it during film,” said Dewitt. “They have a fundamental understanding and don’t have to be told if a mistake is made, they’re realizing it which makes it much easier for us to teach.”
Defensive tackle Davon Strickland is arguably the defensive player with the biggest responsibility as gap responsibility and techniques are vastly different as a 3-4 defensive tackle opposed to a 4-3.
“I’m going to be taking on a lot of double and triple-team blocks, really the goal there is to allow for the backers and ends to make plays, one of my main jobs is to be stout and allow those guys to do their thing,” said Strickland.
In two seasons as a starter, Strickland has become one of the top defensive linemen in C-USA, being ranked among the top-30 players in the league by several publications. Strickland was unaware of the honors, but equally humbled.
“I wasn’t even aware of that until you just mentioned it, but it’s really awesome to have that hard work recognized and it would be even better for us to take that next step as a team.”
While the offense and defense are finding their way, of equal importance will be the work of the specialists, where FIU has to replace to the Conference USA’s best in punter Tommy Heatherly and long snapper Tommy Zozus.
Aussie Jordan Doeling, Indiana native Nick Easters and Marshall transfer Daton Montiel are all in competition for the punting duties. Montiel is the only player with college experience, having punted twice in his lone season with the Herd.
Reserve tight end Jackson McDonald returns in his role as the backup long snapper and will be competing with true freshman Jackson Lee for those duties.
Entering his third season with the program, kicker Chase Gabriel will look to fend off competition from several competitors during the fall. After going 3-of-4 in his first season, Gabriel was 8-of-13 last year but had multiple timely misses.
4. Front Seven
As stated, the switch to a 3-4 defense will require the entire front seven to adopt and learn new roles in the defense. However, Dewitt spoke wanting to make changes from a procedural standpoint so that the players aren’t having to re-learn certain assignments.
“Whether it’s a three-man front or a four-man front, we try to give over-arching principles so that it’s not just a bunch of different assignments, that allows us to be more multiple as a defense without confusing our guys as much,” said Dewitt.
Strickland spoke about how athletic players off the edge should benefit in the system.
“Guys like Alex Nobles, Shaun P (Peterson) is really fast of the edge and can bring some havoc and we have so many so I’m really excited to see how those guys eat.”
5. Offensive Line
The FIU offense allowed the second-most sacks in Conference USA last season, as Panther quarterbacks were sacked 41 times and the rushing attack ranked among the bottom third in the league.
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.
During Monday’s opening session, newcomers Jacob Peace and Deyavie Hammond saw several first-team reps along with returners Jahmari Sylvester, Shamar Hobdy-Lee, Julius Pierce and Hudson Jr.