MIAMI, FL — Saturday marked FIU’s first fully-padded spring practice, with the weekend session bringing the Panthers opening week of spring ball to a close.
Following the two-hour, 33-minute practice, Mike MacIntyre’s staff looks to assess their 2023 club after an eventful week that saw two veteran offensive linemen enter the transfer portal, but also several signs of young talent looking to emerge and the debut of two new position coaches.
Here’s the notebook as FIU has three days off before returning to the practice fields on Tuesday.
Offensive Line Shuffle
Last season’s offensive line struggles were largely a part of unit that featured multiple first-time starters and rotational pieces who were finding their footing at the FBS level.
Entering spring, the assumption was that with a season under their belt, last year’s returning contributors would be able to grow together as a unit. However, following Thursday’s practice, veterans Lyndell Hudson Jr. and Shamar Hobdy-Lee entered the transfer portal.
MacIntyre offered candid comments during Saturday’s media availability when asked about the departure of both players.
“One of our guys who quoted tweeted their tweet said go get paid — I think that tells you what’s going on in college football and that’s all that needs to be said,” said MacIntyre. “We’re going to miss them and we wish them well, we have some really good young players on our football team.”
The pair combined for 41 starts as Panthers, as both we’re the two most senior linemen on the team, beginning their careers under former head coach Butch Davis.
Hobdy-Lee has since received offers from Old Dominion, Appalachian State and Buffalo.
Saturday’s session saw position coach Joshua Eargle feature Gardner-Webb transfer Travis Burke and returning junior Philip Houston at left tackle and right tackle, respectively.
Burke, a 6-9, 295-pound South Florida native started every contest last year for the Bulldogs, splitting his time at both left and right tackle. Houston appeared in three games, earning a start against Louisiana Tech in Hudson Jr.’s absence in 2022.
“(Travis) Burke and (Philip) Houston look really good out there so far,” said MacIntyre. “Had Houston been here in the spring last year, he would have played a lot more last season, plus he’s put on 22 pounds, those guys will get more reps.”
Behind Burke and Houston, redshirt freshman J.D. Lee and true freshman Mykeal Rabess took reps at the tackle positions. Last year’s starters in Jacob Peace and John Bock II have been in place at the guard positions, with several players getting reps at center.
Yards Per Attempt
One look at Grayson James during practice or pregame warmups and it’s abundantly clear that the 6-3, 235-pounder doesn’t have an issue with arm strength. However, possessing a strong arm isn’t an automatic pre-requisite for deep passes downfield.
Out of 108 full-time (75% of team’s snaps or higher) starting quarterbacks last season, James ranked 106th in yards per pass attempt (5.5) and 107th in adjusted yards per pass attempt (4.7).
The importance of YPA lies in forcing the opposing defense to respect the offense’s ability to push the ball downfield — which ideally would prevent FIU from facing loaded boxes throughout the game — something that has an effect on the team’s rushing attack and pass protection.
During the week, I asked James, quarterback Haden Carlson and offensive coordinator David Yost about the low YPA and efforts to improve that number in 2023.
“No question, it’s important, protecting the football and explosive plays are the two things that we talk about every day with the offense,” said Yost. “Our yards per attempt were nowhere near it needs to be, I have to do a better job of designing it, calling it, getting everyone in position and then the guys have to execute it.”
Of James’ 358 passing attempts last season, 72 were beyond 10 yards or more in the air, according to Pro Football Focus.
“A lot of it came down to week-to-week play-calling and personnel-wise, where we were, we didn’t feel comfortable pushing the ball downfield,” said James. “It’s definitely a point of emphasis for us as an offense, I feel like I can push the ball downfield and be accurate and obviously those are the plays that put points on the board and excite the people in the stands.”
On 88 attempts, 21 of Carlson’s passes traveled 10 yards or more.
“We’ve been talking about as an offense, especially Coach Yost as far as pushing the ball downfield,” said Carlson. “It’s obviously fun as a quarterback, but we also think we have the tools for it to work.”
Yost’s offense is one that primarily features “11 Personnel,” which is a one running back and one tight end formation, with several players rotating in at either position, but the personnel grouping remaining the same.
In last season’s finale against Middle Tennessee, the Panthers were forced to use several two tight end looks “12 Personnel” against the Blue Raiders due to several injuries at the receiver position. The look allowed former Panther Rivaldo Fairweather to have his best outing of the season, along with fellow tight end Josiah Miamen being involved in the passing game.
With the 6-5 Miamen returning, joined by Louisville transfer Christian Pedersen listed at 6-3, Jackson McDonald at 6-5 and true freshmen Rowdy Beers and Braiden Staten both listed at north of 6-3, the Panthers have a clear size and athleticism advantage against opposing Conference USA linebackers and safeties.
During Saturday’s media availability, I asked Yost if in hindsight, he would have featured more 12 personnel and if there would be opportunity to use the look this season.
“Looking back, we were able to find some things to exploit against Middle Tennessee with two tight ends and I should have done a better job earlier in the season of finding those same ways to exploit,” said Yost. “Those guys can make plays, they made more plays in that game, made more plays on the outside and protected as well as any game last year, it was a great game to build upon what we’re capable of.”
The matchups that Yost is looking to exploit may be especially crucial for FIU in 2023, given the relative lack of height at the receiver position. Of primary returners last season, only Kris Mitchell and Dean Patterson are listed above 6-0 tall, opposed to the litany of sizable tight ends.
- Cornerback Adrian Cole was spotted in a red no-contact jersey during Tuesday’s opening session. Following practice, MacIntyre announced that Cole suffered a labrum injury and would miss all of spring practice, with the hope that he will be back for fall. Cole started six contests at corner last year.
- Memphis transfer Eric Rivers has been used in several ways early in camp. The 6-1, 170-pounder made a contested one-on-one catch during WR-DB individual drills on Tuesday and fielded punts during special teams’ drills on Saturday.
- For the second consecutive spring, MacIntyre has allowed spring practices to be open to the public. Last year, Saturday sessions were highly attended by local recruits. With local high schools on spring break during the week, each session saw dozens of high school players and coaches attend practices. MacIntyre and his staff made a point of emphasis to interact with the group before and during practices.
“It’s been awesome and very much a point of emphasis for us and our plan is working to comb Dade and Broward (counties),” said MacIntyre. “We’ll of course hit Tampa and Orlando and elsewhere, but Dade and Broward are our backyard.”