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FIU Football: Five Questions Entering Spring Practice

The Panthers are scheduled to open spring practice in less than a month.

In what’s become a signature mantra for FIU football, the Panthers enter their second spring session in the Mike MacIntyre era looking to “Elevate” the program’s standard after 2022’s 4-8 season.

MacIntytre’s debut season as FIU head coach saw the Panthers end several dubious streaks including: days without a Conference USA victory (1,436) — days without a road win — (1,400), days without an FBS win (1,029).

With the departure of six programs from C-USA, which include the winners of the last six conference titles (UAB, Florida Atlantic and UTSA), the league is more wide open than ever before — providing hope for the Panthers as they look to make a leap in MacIntyre’s second season.

Here’s a look at five storylines to keep an eye on as spring camp is slated to open on March 21.

QB Competition

Last season was a departure from the last half-decade at the quarterback position for Panthers’ fans, albeit, likely unintentionally.

After five seasons of seeing a veteran signal-caller (Alex McGough, James Morgan, Max Bortenshclager) line up behind center, true sophomore Grayson James started 10 of 12 contests last season after graduate transfer Gunnar Holmberg was knocked out of his season-opening start.

The former three-star recruit came off the bench to lead FIU to a come-from-behind overtime victory in his first significant collegiate action, throwing for 207 yards and four touchdowns in the win over FCS Bryant.

As a whole, he passed for 1,969 yards and 11 touchdowns with 11 interceptions — but the majority of his touchdown passes came in chunks (four vs Bryant, three vs New Mexico State, three vs Louisiana Tech). Despite the inconsistencies, James has shown enough to enter spring at the top of the depth chart — but that doesn’t mean he should not — and will not be challenged.

Michael Berlfein/FIU Athletics

Haden Carlson’s 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in a last-minute start against Middle Tennessee provided the first glimpse of the promise that he entered college with as part of the 2020 class. After his first two shots at winning the quarterback job were affected by COVID and minor injuries, Carlson should be considered the primary contender to James’ QB1 spot.

The wildcard of the group is another highly-touted three-star quarterback signee in Keyone Jenkins. After winning three state championships as a starter at Miami Central, Jenkins signed with FIU and will also factor into the race.

Surely, MacIntyre will publicly state that all positions are open for competition during spring camp.

If Carlson or Jenkins can do enough to unseat James during the spring — then the quarterback competition should continue into fall camp. However, if James for all intents and purposes is still the first-teamer coming out of spring — he deserves to take that role into the season-opener at Louisiana Tech.

Three competitions should be enough to know what you have in James. If he isn’t sufficient during the season, the conversation can turn towards the other two quarterbacks.

Offensive Line

Much has been made about the dearth of offensive linemen on the roster when Mike MacIntyre took the FIU job in December 2021.

After arriving to only six scholarship offensive linemen, MacIntyre and his staff searched high and low for capable bodies at the position — adding players from the NAIA, FCS and JUCO ranks — all of whom saw extended playing time last season.

Entering spring, the Panthers return virtually the entire unit from last year’s group outside of starting center Julius Pierce. However, a major question will be the development of the players coming back.

Left tackle Shamar Hobdy-Lee played the most snaps (808) of any FIU offensive lineman last year and is joined by veteran right tackle Lyndell Hudson Jr., who was the team’s highest-graded linemen, per Pro Football Focus — but struggled with a back injury for the majority of the season — which limited him to just over 400 snaps.

True freshman John Bock, redshirt freshman Wyatt Lawson, FCS transfer Jacob Peace, NAIA transfer Sam Hill, JUCO transfer Philip Houston and former walk-on Ming Tjon rounded out last year’s group and performed admirably, but the spring will serve as an opportunity for them to round into FBS-level players.

Joshua Eargle will slide over to offensive line with Greg Austin’s departure.
Michael Berlfein/FIU Athletics

Additionally, with last year’s position coach in Greg Austin leaving for the NFL, tight ends coach Joshua Eargle will slide into Austin’s role, as first reported by UDD.

Pass Catchers

FIU’s passing attack ranked 85th in the nation in yards per game (218.8) and second-to-last among Conference USA teams in total passing yards (2,625).

With Tyrese Chambers’ and Rivaldo Fairweather’s departures, just under 40% of last season’s receiving output will need to be replaced — meaning the spring should provide a significant opportunity for new names to emerge.

Wideout Kris Mitchell is a speedy player who showed flashes of being a capable target and is the team’s leading returner. Mitchell, along with fellow wideouts Jalen Bracey and Dean Patterson will look to lock down their roles with a solid spring, especially with the additions of three-star freshmen Luby Maurice Jr. and Kyle McNeal along with JUCO transfer Jacoby Matthews.

Fairweather’s departures leaves an opening at the tight end spot where both he and returner Josiah Miamen were factors in the passing attack. Former three-star Louisville transfer Christian Pedersen should be first in-line to challenge for that role and in Miami for spring.

Special Teams

The spring will also serve as a chance to evaluate the Panthers’ special teams, who will be lead by a new coach after Ricky Brumfield’s departure for Georgia Tech earlier in the offseason.

Undoubtedly, the most glaring question outside of who will head the unit is the kicker position.

Junior Chase Gabriel has a strong leg, sharing the program-record for longest field goal made with former Panther Jose Borregales (53 yards) — but has connected on just 60% of his attempts (15-of-25) over the past two seasons — including last year’s 58.3%.

New Additions

February’s signing class featured several players who are already on campus and should contend for significant playing time, if not starting roles in 2023.

Safety JoJo Evans, linebacker Elijah Anderson-Taylor, running back Shomari Lawrence and Pedersen have opportunities to fill roles vacated by players who were either starters or played at least 50% of snaps last year.

Former four-star recruit Avery Huff arrives looking to earn his first extended playing time of his collegiate career and NC State transfer Claude Larkins will also be looking to use the spring as a launching pad to an established role in the fall.