Of the three units on the FIU football team, the Panthers defense should be the strongest this season. No doubt the Panthers will have to make up for the loss of NFL players Johnathan Cyprien and Tourek Williams but overall the FIU D still has some playmakers. This is the second of a two-part preview to get you ready for FIU training camp. The offense’s preview is below this post. Camp begins Monday at 9:15 a.m. I’ll have live camp updates for you on Twitter: @PetePelegrin. Let’s take a look at five storylines regarding the FIU defense and special teams.
BACKING THE LINEBACKERS
The youngest part of the FIU defense is the linebackers. FIU has two senior linebackers, Markeith Russell and Derrick Jones, but neither has played much during their FIU careers. Both Russell and Jones have dealt with the injury bug through their time at FIU and Jones converted from cornerback to linebacker this past spring.
Yet despite the relative youth of the linebacking corps, the Panthers have some promising talent led by Patrick Jean, who spurned Louisville at the last minute two years ago to sign with FIU. Jean had some strong games last season and is expected to start this season. Freshmen Leroy Owens and Josh Glanton are part of the talented linebacker troika that signed with FIU two years ago. Both should figure in the linebacker plans this season. Davison Colimon, who came to FIU as a safety, should benefit from the move to linebacker. Colimon is very athletic and can make plays. Luis Rosado started his FIU career with a bang in 2011 with a sack and a fumble recovery in the season opener against North Texas, but didn’t do much the rest of the season. This spring Rosado was all over the field and showed the potential from the 2011 opener. Rosado should earn playing time. What can be a huge help for the linebackers is the senior-laden defensive line opening holes along the line of scrimmage.
LINE OF EXPERIENCE
While its line counterpart on the FIU offense is the greenest part of the 2013 Panthers, the defensive line could go to the early bird special in restaurants. Well, they are not that old, but there is plenty of experience on the d-line and that will be needed with the young pup linebackers. Seniors Greg Hickman and Isame Faciane anchor the interior of the line while fellow senior Paul Crawford, junior Giovani Francois and sophomores Denzell Perine and Lars Koht are expected to bring pressure from the outside. These four could alleviate the loss of Tourek Williams to the San Diego Chargers.
With one season of college football under their belts, it will be interesting to see what the New Orleans trio of Marques Cheeks, Darrian Dyson and Leonard Washington bring to the table. There is still plenty of speed left on the FIU defense to consistently get in the opponent’s backfield. The Panthers just have to be more consistent defensively than they were at the start of last season where it took about eight games before the defense played to its capability.
FILLING THE CYP VOID
Safety Johnathan Cyprien is embarking on his NFL rookie season with the Jacksonville Jaguars this summer and with that a large hole is left in the FIU secondary. Junior Justin Halley is expected to man his safety spot, but Cyprien’s vacated position is up for grabs. Senior Terrance Taylor and junior Demarkus Perkins enter camp with the most playing experience among the candidates for the job. Taylor, in particular, had some solid games when he got the chance to play before. Taylor was good in both pass coverage and tackling. Perkins was a highly-touted recruit coming in to FIU and has showed some flashes when he’s played. Receiver-turned-safety Adrian Jenkins (6-2, 210) has good size to play the position, but just made the switch in the spring. Conference USA tends to be a passing league so expect opponents to test the Panthers deep if FIU does not get production from its strong safety position.
CORNERS ARE COVERED
With Sam Miller and Richard Leonard, FIU has a pair of pretty good cover corners despite being a little bit undersized. Miller and Leonard have been pesky in pass coverage and are also quick. Miller has a knack for causing turnovers. Leonard led all FIU defensive backs last year in pass breakups.
Six-foot cornerbacks Jeremiah McKinnon and Deonte Wilson have the size but lack the experience. McKinnon showed promise in the 11 games he got into last season. The Panthers signed three talented freshman cornerbacks whose first names begin with three of the final five letters of the alphabet, Vontarius West, Wilkerson Myrtil, and Xavier Hines. Like all freshmen they might need time to develop, but FIU hopes they grade out to one of the first two letters of the alphabet as cornerbacks.
THEY REALLY NEED TO BE SPECIAL
In the offensive preview on the post below this one I talked about the kicker competition. FIU will also have a new punter this season and right now that is a wide open competition. Redshirt freshman Chris Ayers is the lone holdover punter but by his designation as redshirt freshman you will know that he did not punt in any game last season. Ayers will be challenged by the three freshman kicker/punters in Karson Dietrich, Cody Hodgens, and Austin Taylor. With the uncertainty of the FIU offense, the punting will be even more important this season when it comes to field position. The Panthers defense does not want to be consistently defending a short field, especially if the FIU offense struggles.
The FIU kick return game has the playmakers to give the offense a boost in field position. Richard Leonard, Sam Miller, and De’Andre Jasper all returned kicks for the Panthers last season. Jakhari Gore and T.J. Lowder are fast and capable of returning kicks. Speedy freshmen Wilkerson Myrtil (whose last name is pronounced “mer-teel” just like former FIU and current New York Giants speedster Junior Mertile) and Shug Oyegunle could also factor in the return game.
One area of special teams that must be addressed is the long snapper. We saw last season all the troubles the Panthers had with snapping for extra point attempts, field goals and punts. This season where points could be at a premium FIU has to have a reliable snapper. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Taylor, who has been snapping since eighth grade, filled in admirably for former FIU snapper Mitch MacClugage during the 2011 season. Taylor could be pushed by freshman Sam Medlock, FIU quarterback Jake’s brother. Sam Medlock also plays safety and could battle for playing time there.