When talking about what he would like to see more of from his offense in 2014, FIU coach Ron Turner mentions the "big play". In 2013 FIU lacked the type of plays where the Panthers got chunks of yardage. The offense averaged 3.6 yards per play and 2.1 yards per carry. The dearth of big plays was one reason FIU struggled when it had the ball last season. Yes, the inexperience played a part but the Panthers were also short on speed. One year later FIU expects to have more of each when they have the ball this season.
Pretty much at every level of football nowadays teams use multiple running backs to give defenses different looks and to prevent wear and tear on any particular back. FIU will employ that plan and more with its backs this season.
Like the Panthers defensive line, the FIU running game will feature a bevy of backs until someone gets the hot hand. FIU's backs have a variety of skills that can help the offense move the sticks.
"We will go with the running back by committee," Turner said. "We got more depth now at the position. But we need big plays from the backs like we need them from the receivers. I thought Shane Coleman came on and had a good spring. The best of any running back. Lamarq Caldwell (photo above) is steady and he's in great shape after playing so much last season."
While Coleman, Caldwell and De'Andre Jasper are the veteran backs on the team, Turner has several younger backs to choose from depending on the game situation. Silas Spearman, who broke the FIU freshman single-game rushing record last season with 136 yards at Southern Miss, has good speed and elusiveness. Alfonso Randolph impressed in camp last season with his ability to cut back but then was lost for the season with an injury after just three games. Randolph is healthy now and he could be a home run hitter out of the backfield.
Three newcomers could be intriguing. Bowling Green transfer Anthon Samuel is ready to contribute after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Samuel can be a physical, quick runner for the Panthers. Freshmen Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell might be the fastest backs on the team. Besides being a good rusher, Gardner catches the ball out of the backfield just as well. Maxwell ran track in high school finishing third in the 100m at the state championship.
If the Panthers are going to have a successful season on offense this year they will need big plays not just from the backs but from the receivers and tight ends as well.
Again like the backfield last season, FIU did not get the production it needed from its receiving corps. The Panthers really didn't stretch the field and force opposing defenses to worry about the deep threat. Thus you saw many opposing defenses stack the box on FIU and cut down the short passing game and running game. With a season of experience for the returning pass catchers and the addition of freshman burner Dennis Turner, the Panthers might have the big pass play abilities this fall.
"We feel we have the depth and experience at receiver now," Ron Turner said. "Last year we had several receivers that had never played and probably weren't ready to play. They all had good offseasons. Dennis Turner is definitely in the mix for us. Some of our players who have practiced with him during the summer say he has looked very good catching the ball. With Dennis, T.J. Lowder and Dominique Rhymes we feel we can stretch the field. We need big plays from the receivers, which we lacked last year."
Besides Lowder, Rhymes and Dennis Turner, the Panthers expect Shug Oyegunle to improve along with Fred Porter, Richard Burrows and Glenn Coleman. One receiver to keep an eye on is 6-5 Michigan State transfer Juwan Caesar, who is eligible after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Last year on the scout team, Caesar gave a glimpse of what he can do making some nifty catches and delivering some long gains.
FIU's best offensive weapon last year was freshman tight end Jonnu Smith, (photo top of the blog) who led the team with 39 catches for 388 yards. After last season Smith vaulted into second and third place among several FIU tight end records. Ron Turner said he plans to use Smith this season in a similar fashion to last season where Smith moved around and played several positions -- tight end, slot receiver, fullback, etc.
With his size (6-4) and speed, junior tight end Ya'keem Griner (photo above) could really help the offense. Griner was fourth on the team last season with 14 catches, 158 yards and tied Smith for second on the team with two touchdowns.
Fifth-year senior tight end Cory White was granted a medical redshirt year and is back. White is probably one of the better blockers for FIU but can also catch the ball and punish defenders with his 6-6, 260-pound frame.