16 days stands between FIU and their season-opener at home against FCS Bryant University. Following a two-week hiatus, we continue our annual position-by-position preview of the Panthers with the linebackers, who will look vastly different under position coach Jovan Dewitt.
After recruiting well at the position for several seasons, the LB room underwent a transformation with the implementation of a 3-4 defense and the addition of several newcomers who fit the new scheme. As a whole, this year’s group enters the season as one of the more solidified groups via the additions and a handful of returners who saw valuable time in 2021.
Let’s take a look at the unit.
All stats listed are for the 2021 season unless noted. Projected starter(s) are listed in BOLD. Class year reflects NCAA eligibility (COVID) rules for the 2022 season.
Returning: Nasir Carter: (R-Soph.) 6-2, 225, one tackle and one tackle for loss in 2021
Chance Coleman: (Soph.) 6-1, 217, four tackles in 2021
AJ Mathis: (R-Fr.) 6-2, 200, eight tackles with one tackle for loss in 2021
Reggie Peterson: (Soph.) 6-2, 225, five tackles with .5 tackles for loss in 2021
Tamarick Best: (Fr.) 6-1, 225, appeared in two games in 2021
Gaethan Bernadel: (Soph.) 6-1, 215, 44 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack in 2021
Keegan Davis: (R-Fr) 6-3, 235, appeared in one game
Baba Conate: (Soph) 6-2, 230, appeared in two games
Newcomers: Alex Nobles: (Grad) 6-2, 245, two tackles in 2021 (At North Carolina)
Shaun Peterson Jr.: (R-Jr.) 6-3, 225, 58 carries for 217 yards and two touchdowns in 2021 (Switched from RB to LB)
Khaya Wright: (R-Fr) 6-3, 220, redshirted last season (At Georgia Tech)
Percy Courtney Jr.: (Fr.) 5-10, 195, three-star recruit, (Fort Lauderdale, FL/Western HS)
Malik Adams: (Soph.) 6-0, 225, transfer from Iowa Western CC
Donovan Manuel: (Jr.) 6-1, 230, 233 tackles in four seasons (At East Tennessee State)
Jake Howard: (Soph.) 6-1, 220, eight tackles in two seasons (At Alabama State)
Luke Knox: (Jr.) 6-4, 245, 11 tackles with two tackles for loss in four seasons (At Ole Miss)
Heading into Fall: Undoubtedly, the switch to a four-linebacker scheme under Dewitt was precipitated by the hiring of Mike MacIntyre, who ran the 3-4 defense during his time at Memphis. As a result, there was a need to add linebackers with both size and experience playing in the 3-4 defense. The most notable addition is FCS transfer Donovan Manuel, who racked up over 230 tackles and was one of the top defense players in the football subdivision while playing in a 3-4.
“I’ve learned a lot in the short period of time I’ve been with Coach Dewitt and obviously my experience having played in a 3-4 defense gives me some comfort but coach has helped expand my verbiage and my knowledge a lot,” said Manuel.
A trio of Power Five transfers were added following the spring session as former Ole Miss LB and tight end Luke Knox, Miami native Khaya Wright and grad transfer Alex Nobles joined the room in time for fall.
“Alex (Nobles) has stood out to me in the short time he’s been here, he’s a big and athletic dude who can really come off the edge,” said defensive tackle Davon Strickland.
The Panthers also added a Power Five talent from their own roster when running back-turned-linebacker Shaun Peterson Jr. made the switch to defense in the spring. Peterson Jr. wanted the opportunity to play offense coming out of high school and had flashes in the FIU backfield, but battled injuries and was behind several veteran backs during his first four years with the program.
However, Peterson Jr. was recruited and had offers from Power Five programs as an outside linebacker in 2018, but chose FIU primarily because of the commitment given to him that he could play offense. In short order, Peterson Jr. has made an impact in his return to the defensive side of the ball.
“Shaun (Peterson) has kept improving everyday, we made the right move in moving him to OLB,” said MacIntyre.
Alabama State transfer Jake Howard and JUCO transfer Malik Adams round out the additions with previous college experience and Percy Courtney Jr. was signed out of Western High in Broward County.
Sophomore Gaethan Bernadel is undoubtedly the top performing returner from last year’s group. The Miami native finished second among C-USA true freshmen with 44 tackles last year and is looking to build off last season.
“Last year helped me a lot, especially down the stretch in getting my feet wet and helping me adjust to the college game, it gave me a lot of confidence that I can play at this level,” said Bernadel.
Former three-star recruits A.J. Mathis and Chance Coleman return and will adjust to the new scheme. Reggie Peterson has been a presence during fall camp as he looks to fight for time in addition to his role on special teams.
Despite being listed as a linebacker, Keegan Davis has seen time primarily at defensive end, but from a physical perspective is more than capable of serving as a rush end in the 3-4 scheme.
Summary: How this group rounds out remains to be seen, but there’s reason to be encouraged with the new additions along with the development of returners. Manuel gives the group instant credibility as someone who was among the FCS’ best linebackers, while Bernadel is rounding into form at the other Mike linebacker. The Will and Sam spots are up for grabs and it will be interesting to see how MacIntyre and Dewitt chose to play the positions.
At Memphis, MacIntyre’s 3-4 was one that featured several different fronts — much different that than “traditional” 3-4 defense of eras past. Four-man fronts were routine, with a rusher coming off the end. Peterson Jr.’s natural athleticism could give him an inside track to one of the roles or defensive end Latarie Kinsler, who has seen time as a rush end could fill the role. What’s known is the pass-rush role in the MacIntyre’s defense is one that will be asked use ability to get to the quarterback, opposed to scheming that position to success.
Kinsler, Davis, Peterson Jr., Knox and Nobles are all players who are athletic enough to play as linebackers or as rush ends. Look for all of them to see time as 6-technique players in the 3-4 scheme, depending on the front.
Final Grade: B- This year’s group does feature several talented players and the additions with experience in the system give the linebacking room a solid foundation. How the unit rounds out in adjusting/fitting the scheme remains to be seen. However, Peterson Jr., Manuel and Nobles give the group substantial upside, especially against Conference USA offensive lines.