The second installment of our series of FIU features, spotlights safety C.J. Christian, who is looking to regain a starting role after earning a spot as a day-one starter last season. The first installment of the series can be found here.
If you’ve ever been to Normal, IL, it doesn’t take long to see that it is, in fact, “normal.”
Located roughly two-and-a-half hours outside of Chicago, the town of Normal is situated halfway between Peoria and Bloomington and boasts a modest population of 52,000 people — with over 40% made up of Illinois State University’s 20,517 student enrollment.
All of this is to say that Normal is arguably the unlikeliest place for FIU to find a standout defensive back — yet, the Panthers were able to do so in the form of Normal native C.J. Christian.
The 6-1, 190-pound safety may have been the most surprising player to come out of fall camp with a spot in the starting lineup, but Christian was named an opening day starter in 2022.
He was starting to find his footing in the secondary, recording 15 tackles and his first career interception before a torn labrum in the third quarter of the New Mexico State game ended his first season as a Panther.
“As soon as the ball had snapped, the quarterback (Diego Pavia) dropped it so it was a busted play,” said Christian. “Once I seen him drop it and the running back was running the opposite way, I knew he was keeping it and as I was running towards him, Keegan (Davis), he came from the side as well. I didn’t know whether to move out the way and me being me, I just tried to hit (Frakes) with Keegan.”
Christian was a multi-sport athlete at Normal Community High, competing in football, basketball and track during his prep career. However, his college recruitment was modest due to a lack of playing time early in high school and encountering academic issues.
“I didn’t play as much as I thought I was going to until my senior year, when I played both ways and on special teams, but by then it was really late in the process,” said Christian.
What his recruitment yielded was interest from several Midwestern FCS programs, but his only full scholarship opportunities were at the Division II level.
“I had FCS schools like Illinois State and Indiana State and a few Division II offers,” Christian said. “So I committed and went to Augusta, but my first week there of that semester, they labeled me a non-qualifier.”
Christian landed smack-dab in America’s Heartland, playing two seasons at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa. While far from his FBS aspirations, the time spent at the JUCO level did provide him with more playing time, where Christian became a standout — primarily due to his FBS-level athleticism.
He recorded 54 tackles and three interceptions in 2021 as a full-time starter in the secondary, while also overcoming the GPA issues he had in high school — putting himself in position to be a full-qualifier at the next level.
Following the hire of Mike MacIntyre in December of 2021 and the additions of cornerbacks’ coach Corey Bell and safeties coach Nate Taye, Christian reached out to the staff seeking an FBS opportunity, specifically in Miami.
“He actually reached out to us, because he’s friends with Malik Adams (FIU linebacker) who signed with us earlier in the year,” said Taye. “So he came down to Miami and attended a spring practice and we got to know him, his recruitment started to pick up so we got him down here on an official visit and he liked the culture.”
Christian chose FIU offer late offers from East Carolina and Western Michigan, arriving in Miami in time to compete for a starting job at the start of fall camp.
While his natural athletic ability helped him excel the the junior college level, Christian noted that it was an adjustment in adapting to a Division I program and what’s asked of a defensive back at the FBS level.
“I was a competing job as soon as I came here, which was what I wanted and when I got to fall camp, it took me a minute to pick up on the plays and just how D1 football really works,” said Christian. “In JUCO, it’s like okay we got athletes and y’all got athletes, we’re just gonna go play and there’s not real strategy, we’re just running man or basic (coverages). When I got to FIU, it’s like okay, I can play three different defenses (based on the play), just whatever the offense gives me and I really have to understand how the offense works, not just our defense.”
Despite arriving in late-June, Christian was able to adjust to Division I life and show enough of a mastery of defensive coordinator Jovan Dewitt’s defensive concepts to earn the starting role — culminating in the aforementioned interception in his second career game, at Texas State.
“It was exciting when I saw the pass go up, because I just knew I was coming down with that one, it’s a feeling you just know as a DB,” Christian said emphatically. “One I got that one, I felt like there were more plays to be made all season, especially because I started feeling comfortable in the defense.”
Five months later, Christian’s sights are set squarely on being a participant in spring camp, his first as a Panther. While it’s likely he won’t be cleared for full contact, both he and Mike MacIntyre expect him to be full-go in every other aspect.
“The expectation is he’ll be back for spring practice,” said MacIntyre.
Christian spent the remainder of FIU’s 2022 season coming off of the shoulder surgery and rehab, but also has noted the stark contrasts between his hometown of Normal, IL and Miami.
“The culture and the big city feel of Miami is what I fell in love with when I got here,” said Christian. “There’s just so much culture and everyone coming from a different background, yes, it’s challenging but it’s also something I love — I don’t know how to describe it — I just had to make it my new normal.”