Key returners: Grayson James (Jr., 6-3, 235 — 209-of-357 passing for 1,962 yards with 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions — 11 games), Haden Carlson (R-Soph, 6-3, 200 — 47-of-88 passing for 553 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions), Amari Jones (R-Fr., 6-2, 225 — redshirted)
Key losses: Gunnar Holmberg (retired from football)
Newcomers: Keyone Jenkins (True Freshman — Three-star recruit/Miami Central HS)
Biggest unanswered question: Is James the answer?
From a physical standpoint, Grayson James has looked like a capable FBS starter virtually since his arrival on campus in 2021. Both Butch Davis and Mike MacIntyre’s coaching staffs have raved about his size and capabilities — as the former three-star recruit is every bit of 6-3, 230-pounds.
After earning the QB2 duties as a true freshman, James was beaten out by former Duke starter Gunnar Holmberg entering 2022, but Holmberg suffered a concussion during the season opener and James remained entrenched as the starter for the next 10 contests.
Throwing for just under 2,000 yards with 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions is a serviceable output for a first-time starter, especially when considering the flashes of high-level play shown against Charlotte and Louisiana Tech.
The flipside of those numbers are when removing the four touchdowns against an FBS opponent (Bryant) and the pair of three-TD games (NM State & La Tech) — the passing output appears modest, at best.
Additionally, James’ yards per attempt (and adjusted yards per attempt) average were 5.5 and 4.7, respectively — ranking him second to last amongst FBS quarterbacks who qualified. How much of that falls on James — opposed to offensive coordinator David Yost can be speculated — however, the fact is that number needs to be closer to the FBS average.
It’s impossible to ignore the play of the offensive line in the assessment of James and the offense as a whole — FIU quarterbacks spent a majority of the season under duress.
Why 2023 production could be better: There are a few legitimate reasons to believe that production from the quarterback position will be better than it was in 2022.
For starters, this is the first time in James’ and Carlson’s collegiate careers that they will have the same offensive coordinator (Yost) for consecutive seasons. Having a measure of continuity with the coaching staff should help with some of the changing pieces around the quarterbacks on offense.
Secondly, the play of the FIU offensive line was admirable throughout last season. When MacIntyre took over in December 2021, the program had only six scholarship offensive linemen.
The dearth of bodies resulted in the staff searching high and low for capable linemen and at times they were able to rise to the occasion — but mostly they were overmatched due to inexperience and injury. This offseason should serve as an opportunity for last year’s bunch to develop into FBS-level talents.
Lastly, both James and Carlson have shown in moments that they’re able to live up to their three-star billing coming out of high school. At his best last season, James was a capable dual-threat who protected the football, while showing some of the sheer physical talent that earned him praise.
Carlson’s sample size is much smaller. However, his emergency start against Middle Tennessee State in the season-finale showed a quarterback who is willing to push the ball downfield (8.0 YPA) and more than enough elusiveness keep plays alive if the line fails.
The wildcard is Jenkins.
After a decorated prep career, Jenkins chose FIU after being committed to Auburn and the staff was very high on his talents during the recruiting process.
Why 2023 production could be worse: If the development of James and Carlson stalls, that would almost certainly result in a level of regression offensively.
Patience may very well be a virtue as it’s been several years — not since the early days of Alex McGough — since the Panthers have entrusted the offense on opening day to a quarterback with less than three years of collegiate experience and at least one year as a starter.
With redshirt freshman Amari Jones and the true freshman in Jenkins behind James and Carlson, there isn’t a veteran to turn to if neither QB is the answer.
The offensive line performed admirably in 2022 — especially given the dearth of bodies that MacIntyre encountered when he took over at FIU. With that being said, their development will be equally as crucial as James’ and Carlson’s.
Overall outlook: The expectation is both James and Haden Carlson will develop this offseason. As mentioned above, both will have a level of familiarity and continuity that they haven’t been afforded in their careers prior.
It’s also a very real question as to how the pieces around them will fare.
With Tyrese Chambers’ and Rivaldo Fairweather’s departures, just under 40% of last season’s receiving output will need to be replaced by a cast of players who are talented — but still inexperienced.
James’ performance last year is enough to earn him the undisputed QB1 distinction entering spring camp — that doesn’t mean that the job should not be up for competition. However, if James does enough — or neither of the challengers are able to unseat him — this spring needs to be the last quarterback competition of 2023 for the Panthers.