Our position-by-position outlook of the FIU football team entering spring practice continues with the offensive line. Previous articles in the series are listed below.
Key returners: Lyndell Hudson Jr. (R-Sr., 6-5, 320, eight appearances with seven starts), Shamar Hobdy-Lee (R-Jr., 6-5, 300, 12 appearances with 12 starts), John Bock II (Soph. 6-3, 305, 12 appearances with 11 starts), Jacob Peace (6-5, 315, 12 appearances with 11 starts)
Key losses: Julius Pierce (11 appearances with eight starts)
Newcomers: Jaheim Buchanon (three-star recruit/Lehigh Acres, FL), Travis Burke (transfer — Gardner-Webb), Daniel Michel (three-star recruit/Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Biggest unanswered question: Can this group develop?
Entering last season, there were no grand illusions as to the state of the FIU offensive line. After being a mostly veteran-laden group from 2018-2021, the Panthers entered 2022 with several untested players and an equally unclear question as to how much depth they had across the line.
Left tackle Shamar Hobdy-Lee, left guard John Bock II, center Julius Pierce and right guard Jacob Peace earned their first FBS starting assignments last season. Of the four, Hobdy-Lee played the most snaps (804) and held up the best during the season.
As a true freshman, Bock was thrust into the rotation early and performed admirably, seeing time at both center and guard. Pierce battled injuries for the majority of the season, which surely affected his play, especially in the latter stages of the season.
Peace also performed admirably, seeing time at both guard and tackle during his first FBS season after beginning his career at Virginia Military Institute.
With Pierce now at in-conference foe Middle Tennessee State, the biggest question entering the spring will be the development of three returning starters listed above — along with rotational players like Sam Hill, Wyatt Lawson and Philip Houston.
Former walk-on Ming Tjon was also among the inexperienced players who were forced into action last season and looked formidable at center.
Why 2023 production could be better: There’s legitimate reason to believe that this group can and will improve in 2023. For starters, they have the benefit of playing experience under their belt. While they looked overmatched at times, particularly as the season wore on, the group should be served well after facing several top C-USA talents such as Praise Amaewhule, Jordan Ferguson and others.
Right tackle Lyndell Hudson Jr. was graded as the team’s top offensive linemen, per Pro Football Focus in 2022. The issue was a long-standing back injury that has plagued the Brooksville native for an extended period — with Hudson Jr. appearing in multiple games last season that he wasn’t expected to play due to injury. If he can remain healthy, that will be a major factor in stabilizing the line.
Peace is a mountain of player at 6-5, 315-pounds who plays with a natural physical and nasty demeanor and should get better with time. While Hobdy-Lee wasn’t great season, he was far from a liability and has the talent to be a top-line left tackle in Conference USA.
Bock, Houston, Hill, Lawson and Jahmari Sylvester are all players worth keeping an eye on during spring ball. Additionally, the spring will be proving grounds for Bo Blanchard and Naeer Jackson and J.D. Lee, all of whom are young talents who didn’t extended time last year.
Why 2023 production could be worse: It’s hard to imagine the play of the offensive line being worse than last year. It’s not that the unit was abysmal — when they had their moments (Charlotte and La Tech) — the offense looked better as a result.
However, ranking last in rushing yards and allowing the amount of tackles for loss and quarterback pressures as they did last year was indicative of a unit that was still finding their way against FBS-level defenses.
Joshua Eargle takes over at offensive line coach after spending last season as tight ends coach and has both playing and coaching experience at offensive line. Having a position coach in-place for the start of camp will be crucial for the development of the unit.
As a whole, the way this group is worse than last season is if the development of the players is completely stagnant and/or they’re besieged by injuries in a manner similar to or worse than last year.
Overall outlook: There’s nothing wrong with taking the wait and see approach with this unit, especially during the spring. Hobdy-Lee and Hudson Jr. should be locks at both tackle spots. Outside of that, spots are up for grabs — even if they’re held by familiar names.
Peace’s size would project him as a tackle, but if he can develop into a road-grader inside at guard, that would do the offense a huge service. With Pierce’s departure, the center spot could be filled by Bock, Tjon or Lawson.
6-9, 300-plus pound transfer Travis Burke will be on campus and challenge for playing time at tackle.
Something to keep an eye on during spring and into fall is the how does the development of the offensive line affect what David Yost does offensively?
Yost’s offense looks to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, but FIU’s yards per pass attempt number was second-to-last in the nation last year. Improved play up-front could open up things for Yost — and the offense as a whole.
The best case scenario for the Panthers is that they come out of the spring with 7-9 players identified that can play a full season of FBS-level offensive line. Where those players fit across the line may stretch into fall camp.