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FIU Football: Size and Athleticism Headline the Panthers New Additions

After adding 20 players during December’s Early Signing Period, the Panthers pick up six veterans as transfers.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Kent State at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a December Early Signing Period that saw the bulk of FIU’s 20 signees coming from the high school ranks, it’s no surprise that the Panthers latest additions have come via the transfer portal.

In fact, Mike MacIntyre stated as much during his media availability following ESD.

“We’ll have an opportunity to look at the portal and the way we do the portal is we search kids from the state of Florida, South Florida, Tampa, Orlando and Miami first and then work our way up, because we want the kids to have a connection to here and want to be here,” said MacIntyre.

The program officially announced the addition of six transfers, including two former highly-rated recruits from Power Five programs and several highly productive players at the Group of Five and FCS ranks.

Headlining the group is former Miami linebacker Avery Huff, who was a four-star recruit coming out of Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High in 2019. Huff appeared in 26 games during his time in Coral Gables, primarily on special teams and as a reserve.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Southern Miss at Miami
Huff appeared in 26 games during his time in Coral Gables.
Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

MacIntyre spoke about the new additions as he was on the recruiting trail in Bradenton, starting to offer players from the class 2024.

“Avery can play inside or outside which gives us some versatility, he did some good things at Miami,” said MacIntyre. “We’re excited about his speed and athleticism and he’ll add some speed to our defense for sure.”

The 6-2, 215-pound linebacker will have an opportunity to replace standout linebacker Gaethan Bernadel, who led the team in tackles last season (103) before transferring to Stanford in the offseason.

However, he’ll have to compete with another linebacker addition who was one of the top defensive players at the FCS level in 2022.

Elijah Anderson-Taylor spent four seasons at FCS Northern Colorado where he was named an Sophomore All-American and earned Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2022.

“Elijah is a ballhawk, he forced the most fumbles in his league and had over 100 tackles in a really good league in the Big Sky,” said MacIntyre. “I actually remember his when he was a youngster playing and I was coaching in Colorado, so we’re excited to have him here playing inside backer for us.”

The 6-0, 235-pounder had 112 total tackles and five forced fumbles for Northern Colorado last season — and was sold on FIU despite only spending 14 hours on campus.

“I actually took three visits in the same weekend with FIU being the last,” said Anderson-Taylor. “I got off the plane in Miami, it was 80 degrees and then I saw palm trees on campus, it was a huge selling point coming from Colorado.”

MacIntyre noted that despite players having come from Power Five programs, no expectations have been given to them that they’ll come in immediately with a starting role.

“To be completely transparent with you, we would look at some guys from SEC or Big 12 schools, but you want to make sure they’re not looking down their noses at us and thinking they’re going walk in day one and start,” said MacIntyre.

The departure of Eric Wilson Jr. to Temple in the offseason left FIU with just three scholarship running backs (Antonio Patterson, Flex Joseph, Kejon Owens) — making the addition of South Florida native and former South Dakota running back Shomari Lawrence a much needed one.

“He’s a big young man, over 6-0, 200-pounds and did some really good things at South Dakota,” said MacIntyre. “We actually went back and watched his high school tape and we thought he was really good there,” said MacIntyre through an excited chuckle. “He’s a big guy and we really wanted to make sure we could get a big back on the roster.”

The Pompano Beach native was a two-star recruit coming out of Blanche Ely High and rushed for 767 yards and four touchdowns in 17 games at the FCS level.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 South Dakota at Kansas
Lawrence provides a big body in the FIU backfield.
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“The way I run, I want to make sure you feel me,” said Lawrence. “But I’m also an all-around back, I feel I can take the inside and outside runs, play in the receiving game and do whatever it takes.”

After finishing the season amongst the bottom third in Conference USA in sacks for the fifth consecutive season, trying to find ways to bolster the pass-rush was expected. The hope is former NC State defensive end Claude Larkins will aid in those efforts, along with providing more size across the defensive line.

“We’re really excited about Claude’s length and athletic ability at defensive end,” said MacIntyre. “He’s an excellent talent with tremendous pass-rush ability that we’re excited about getting.”

The 6-4, 275-pounder was a three-star recruit coming out of Hollywood’s Chaminade-Madonna High in 2020 and appeared in three contests over two seasons with the Wolfpack, but has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

While Huff and Larkins may garner the most headlines as former Power Five players, the most productive at the FBS level is undoubtedly Kent State transfer JoJo Evans.

After spending his first two seasons at Marshall, Evans was a starting safety for Kent State in 2022, finishing third on the team in tackles with 83 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and one interception.

“He’s a really excellent safety with good size and range,” said MacIntyre. “He’s kind of a player whose been in a situation that’s common in college football nowadays, he goes to Marshall and did well but the coach gets fired, then he goes to Kent State and plays well but that coach chooses to leave.”

The Palm Beach Gardens native indicated a desire to return to South Florida after two stops in the Midwest.

“This time he wanted to get closer to home and we’re really excited to have him here,” said MacIntyre.

Evans’ arrival comes at a crucial time, as the Panthers lost starting safety Dorian Hall to graduation and cornerback Andrew Volmar to the transfer portal. At 6-2, 200-pounds, Evans should join Demetrius Hill in giving FIU size and playmaking ability on the back end of the defense.

“He can play safety and nickelback and his playing experience makes a difference, especially on the back end. He has two years of eligibility left and we think he can really help us in the secondary and on special teams,” said MacIntyre.

Evans’ arrival holds additional importance with C.J. Christian still recovering from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the majority of last year after starting the first four contests.

JUCO transfer C.J. Christian earned a starting spot out of fall camp before suffering a season-ending injury.

“His recovery is coming along well, he had the labrum surgery and he’s on schedule starting to ramp up his rehab,” said MacIntyre. “The expectation is that he’ll be back for spring practice, maybe not doing everything but he’ll be doing a lot.”

The final addition announced is speedy JUCO transfer Ja’Coby Matthews, who arrives in Miami after two seasons at Southwest Mississippi Community College. Matthews hauled in 29 receptions for 556 yards and five touchdowns in his two years at the junior college level.

“Jacoby can really fly, he has track records that he holds from high school and we wanted to add some speed to the position,” said MacIntyre. “He was doing really well the first five games of last season but then hurt his foot, but he showed some good things on film, the ability to have speed on the outside, so we’re very excited about what he brings.”