Look into the FIU offensive backfield and you will see that the Panthers have some pretty good talent and depth as they head toward the 2015 season. Still, improving the competition in the backfield is not necessarily a bad thing. The same thing can be said of the Panthers kicking and punting when it comes to competition.
Before we get more into the running backs, quarterbacks and kickers, the Countdown to NSD 2015 series disclaimer: Due to NCAA restrictions, I can only comment on current or former Panthers until National Signing Day on Feb. 4. Until then you good people are smart enough to know where to find recruiting rumblings.
On National Signing Day, Feb. 4, I'll talk to you about all the new Panthers on our FIU 2015 NSD Radio Broadcast from the FIU Stadium Club after FIU's National Signing Day event where coach Ron Turner will introduce the newest FIU players. The event will be open to the public and begins at 5:30 p.m. Turner will speak at 6 p.m. On the radio broadcast, Turner and FIU players will join me and former FIU linebacker James Knapp to talk about the day and look ahead to spring practice. CLICK HERE to access the radio broadcast.
If there is one position where the Panthers are set heading into 2015 it's at running back. FIU returns its top two running backs in Anthon Samuel and Alex Gardner, who each ironically enough, ran for 582 yards last season. Samuel (above left) scored five touchdowns and Gardner (above right) had one. Freshman Napoleon Maxwell, who played in six games, had 254 yards rushing and a score. But what I thought was most impressive of these three backs was their per-carry average. All three averaged more than 4 yards a tote behind an offensive line that was finding itself in the early going. Maxwell led the way at 4.6 yards per carry, Samuel was at 4.4 and Gardner at 4.2.
Each back also showed he can catch the ball out of the backfield with Maxwell registering a 57-yard catch and run touchdown down the sideline at Old Dominion. Samuel is a senior this coming season while Gardner and Maxwell are sophomores. Expect FIU to add one or two backs on Wednesday, including a much needed fullback to take some of load off of tight end Jonnu Smith lining up in the backfield.
Like all freshmen quarterback Alex McGough had his moments last season and had some moments where he would like to improve. McGough broke the FIU passing yardage record for a true freshman with 1,680 yards (2002 FIU QB Jamie Burke's 1,652 yards held the mark; 2003 FIU QB Josh Padrick holds the redshirt freshman mark with 2,493 yards). McGough tied the FIU freshman record for touchdown passes with 14 tying Burke.
The newest FIU quarterback Christian Alexander plus returnees Bud Martin and Luke Medlock will vie for playing time with McGough in the spring and into fall camp. Alexander comes to FIU with an impressive high school resume: throwing for 2,847 yards last season while completing 179 of 297 passes (60.3 percent) and throwing 37 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions. Alexander finished his high school career with 110 touchdowns (No. 5 all-time in the state of Florida) and 8,299 passing yards (No. 9 all-time in the state of Florida). The Panthers will likely add another signal caller on Wednesday.
Kicking and punting are areas where the Panthers could kick it up a notch. Kicker Austin Taylor did a decent job on field goals last season going 15 of 21 with a long of 43 yards. Taylor did only have six touchbacks on 55 kickoffs and that's an area that could be improved. Sergio Sroka and Scott Wade return to challenge Taylor. FIU is expected to add a kicker as a preferred walk-on to immediately compete for the job.
The combination of Jose Laphitzondo and Chris Ayers give FIU kind of a complete punter. While Laphitzondo (40.7-yard average) has the leg for the longer punts, Ayers showed better touch on shorter punts, downing five punts inside the 20 on just 23 attempts while averaging 35.3 yards per punt. Still, there will be competition for the punting job by whoever the Panthers bring on to the team in 2015.