Our position-by-position outlook of the FIU football team entering spring practice continues with the running backs. For previous articles in the series, click here.
Key returners: Lexington Joseph (Sr., 5-8, 210 — 108 carries for 536 yards and five touchdowns), Kejon Owens (R-Soph, 5-10, 190 — 26 carries for 83 yards and one touchdown), Antonio Patterson (R-Fr., 6-0, 200 — nine carries for 40 yards)
Key losses: Eric Wilson Jr. (transfer — Temple)
Newcomers: Shomari Lawrence (transfer — South Dakota)
Biggest unanswered question: Who’s behind Flex?
With E.J. Wilson Jr.’s transfer to Temple, the FIU backfield features a fifth-year senior Lexington “Flex” Joseph, who should reclaim his starting role in 2023. Behind Joseph are a pair of former three-star recruits, an FCS transfer and a pair of 2022 walk-ons.
Miami native Kejon Owens was a highly-productive back at Central High, the same school that’s produced several FIU backs including Joseph and former Panther Anthony Jones. Owens appeared in seven contests last season as the third-string back and this spring will serve as his first real opportunity to compete for significant reps.
One of Mike MacIntyre’s earliest signees, Antonio Patterson rushed for almost 1,300 yards in his final prep season at Murfreesboro, TN’s Oakland High School. However, the three-star recruit was squarely in the shadows of five-star recruit and current Oregon Duck Jordan James, who Patterson backed up.
Like Owens, the spring session will be significant for Patterson to establish himself and carve out a role in the running back room. In practices, Patterson has shown an ability as a capable receiver — something that’s crucial in offensive coordinator David Yost’s system.
South Dakota transfer Shomari Lawrence provides size at 6-0, 225-pounds and a physical presence, as stated by MacIntyre. “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 rushed for just shy of 600 yards and the FCS level and is already on campus in time for spring football.
Walk-ons Cory Neering and Hosea Robinson round out the group.
Why 2023 production could be better: Two words — offensive line.
By no means were FIU running backs flawless last season. However, the Panthers’ offensive line’s growing pains didn’t help the efforts of Joseph and Wilson Jr. in 2022.
Almost as large of a factor was the offense’s struggles to stay on schedule in down and distance situations. That, along with a 33.1-point average margin of defeat caused FIU to have to abandon the run game earlier than they would have liked.
Pro Football Focus named Joseph to their Conference USA All-Conference First Team last year, despite the relatively modest rushing output. The reasoning is clear when see him on film.
Joseph has looked like a naturally gifted runner since arriving on campus in 2019 and when he is not met at the line of scrimmage, has the ability to gain consistent positive yardage in offensive coordinator David Yost’s zone-heavy rushing attack.
Between Lawrence, Owens and Patterson, they should at least make up for the production lost with Wilson’s transfer. At best, the quartet will resemble FIU backfields of years past, ones that routinely saw 3-4 backs spell each other during games.
Overall, the run game should be better than last season’s 1,260 yards — landing FIU last in Conference USA and the team’s 105 yards per game on the ground ranked 109th in the nation in 2022.
Why 2023 production could be worse: Aside from the aforementioned reasons for last year’s struggles, Joseph is the only back with significant FBS playing experience.
This makes the 15 spring practices all the more important for the trio of inexperienced backs as they look to carve out a role in position coach Eric Hickson’s rotation.
The former Miami assistant is known to prioritize consistency over flashy play, so the smart money is on whichever back can put together the most steady spring as the one who will earn RB2 rights in the fall.
As mentioned, the Panthers’ offense can’t afford for the rushing production to be worse than last year. Amongst C-USA teams, the Panthers finished last in 10+ yard rushes and second to last in yards per attempt (3.5).
Overall outlook: The inexperience in the backfield shouldn’t scare anyone off from getting their hopes up for an improved rushing attack in 2023. Under former position coach Tim Harris Jr. and now under Hickson, the Panthers have recruited the running back spot incredibly well — tapping into the vast rushing talents that South Florida has to offer.
Since Alex Gardner’s departure in 2017, FIU has continuously churned out high-level backs who are among the tops in Conference USA. Joseph is primed for a breakout season statistically in his second season as the lead back and is already considered one of the top all-purpose backs in the league.
Lawrence’s physical style could give him the edge in picking up the RB2 duties, especially if he’s able to flourish between the tackles — an area that Joseph excels in despite a diminutive frame.
Behind them, look for Owens and Patterson to earn time as home-run threats who also can play a role in the receiving game.