When it comes to the transfer portal, the apple of many programs eyes across the nation may be former four and five-star recruits from Power Five programs.
However, as the last few years have shown, there’s major benefit for Group of Five programs to look towards the FCS ranks to find the next impact players to add to their roster — and FIU has been no exception.
While Mike MacIntyre’s club have added former P5’ers, a look at the team’s two-deep from last season shows six significant contributors from the lower levels (Tyrese Chambers, Jacob Peace, Rey Burnett, Donovan Manuel and Dean Patterson).
With that, it’s no surprise that FIU has used the portal to find talents from the FCS who have an interest in playing in Florida or are Floridians who are looking to get back home.
“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.
Born in Jamaica, Shomari Lawrence moved to Broward County in middle school and didn’t pick up a football until his eighth-grade year, but quickly adapted to South Florida’s high school football-crazy culture.
“I was raised in Jamaica till I was I was 12 and then we moved to Pompano, which is an area that has a lot of Caribbeans,” said Lawrence. “From there, I lived in Broward and I took to football pretty fast.”
The 6-0, 210-pound Lawrence rushed for over 1,100 yards and posted impressive track numbers during his senior year at Blanche Ely, but his best opportunity to play at the next level came in the form of FCS University of South Dakota — nearly 1,800 miles from his adopted hometown of Pompano Beach.
“It was a good experience to get out of Florida after being there for six years and I got an opportunity to continue to learn the game and get playing time,” said Lawrence.
While not quite a fish out of water, Lawrence concedes that the time in South Dakota did come with a measure of culture shock.
“When it’s cold, it’s cold and you don’t even want to get out of bed,” said Lawrence. “And no there wasn’t much curry chicken, oxtail or rice and peas,” Lawrence said through a sheepish laugh.
After a COVID-shortened true freshman season, followed by a season-ending injury three games into his second campaign, Lawrence rushed for 597 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt in 2022. Seeking an opportunity to get closer to home, Lawrence entered the transfer portal and was committed to another FCS program until FIU running backs coach Eric Hickson was contacted by Lawrence’s coach at Blanche Ely.
“I was looking for a chance to see more playing time, so I entered the portal and was committed to Stony Brook in New York,” said Lawrence. “Then, I got a call from Coach Hickson who knew my high school coach and we hit it off, from there I visited FIU and it was the opportunity I was looking for, I fell in love with the campus immediately.”
Lawrence looks to help jumpstart an FIU rushing attack that ranked last in Conference USA last season in most major statistical categories. Additionally, with the departure of E.J. Wilson to Temple, Lawrence’s 215-pound frame provides much-needed size in the Panthers’ backfield.
“He’s a big young man, over 6-0, 200-pounds and did some really good things at South Dakota,” said MacIntyre. “He’s a big guy and we really wanted to make sure we could get a big back on the roster.”
Lawrence is cognizant of his size and power on the field, which he notes that it defines his running style.
“When I run, you’re gonna feel me, I’m going to make sure you’re going to feel me, my favorite back growing up was Marshawn Lynch and I try to run like him every play,” said Lawrence.
Linebacker Elijah Anderson-Taylor entered the transfer portal on November 22, three days after the conclusion of his redshirt sophomore season at Northern Colorado. After six weeks of being courted by multiple FBS programs, it took the 6-1, 235-pounder just over half a day on FIU’s campus to make Miami his next destination.
“I was here for about 15 hours and I fell in love it, I came in and went straight to the campus,” said Anderson-Taylor.
Like Lawrence, Anderson-Taylor’s arrival will help fill a major need for the Panthers. 2022’s leading tackler in Gaethan Bernadel transferred to Stanford early in the offseason, making the addition of the Big Sky Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year a major coup for FIU.
If his background sounds similar to linebacker-mate Donovan Manuel — that’s because the two players’ journey to FIU — and their football careers are almost mirror images of one another.
Manuel was a standout at FCS East Tennessee State before making the leap to FIU, both players played running back during their youth and high school careers before switching to linebacker shortly before college and both players pattern their games after Hall of Famers.
“My first three years I was a running back, then I switched over to linebacker and a couple other positions my senior year,” said Anderson-Taylor. “So my guy was Marshawn Lynch, that physicality and the swagger I bring that to the field — he had his own style and you had no choice to respect his style and then once I was a full-time linebacker it was Ray Lewis.”
The Colorado native held offers from Florida Atlantic, Colorado State and was on a three-day recruiting weekend that saw him visit Northern Arizona on Friday, Austin Peay on Saturday and FIU on the final day.
“Now I’m going to always have love for Northern Colorado, I got my degree from there, but driving onto a campus and seeing palm trees that was definitely a plus.”
After making it past the scenery, Anderson-Taylor excitedly emphasized the relationship he struck with Defensive Coordinator Jovan Dewitt and MacIntyre.
“Coach Mac is a cool dude, when he was at Colorado he was actually recruiting me for awhile, it’s nice to have a coach that you can talk to about life, spirituality, football, just whatever, said Anderson-Taylor. “Coach Dewitt was the first person to call me to get me out here and when my recruitment picked up, he called and wanted to get me on a visit right away.”
Like Manuel, Anderson-Taylor knows that the questions of whether his success at the FCS level can translate over to the FBS level and playing in a new defense. Not lacking confidence, he notes that players make plays — regardless of the system or level.
“I played in a 4-3 when I got to Northern Colorado, then we played a mix of 3-3-5 and four-down front. The fact is a lot of people try to overcomplicate football when it’s all the same thing, just in different formations, if you’re a baller, you’re a baller and you’ll make plays,” said Anderson-Taylor.
That level of confidence led to him having 112 total tackles and five forced fumbles for Northern Colorado last season, en route to being named an FCS All-American.
Coincidentally — or likely not coincidentally, Anderson-Taylor’s locker was placed right next to Manuel’s and the two have built a rapport.
“Donovan is a super cool dude and a really hard worker, he’s the last one to leave — besides me that is,” said Anderson-Taylor with a chuckle. “But that’s my dog, he’s smart and I think that’s what that FCS to FBS brings out of people, we’re looked at as the second option but in retrospect we can do a lot more.”