FIU addressed its need to get bigger along the lines, added more team speed and built more depth with its 2014 signing class on Wednesday.
The Panthers added 24 new players with their 2014 class plus two quarterbacks, Alex McGough and Bud Martin that count toward the 2013 class. Before yesterday FIU had the maximum 25 spots available in the 2014 class. Before the early signings of McGough and Martin, FIU had six spots open from the 2013 class.
As of today, should the Panthers want to add anyone else they have a total of five available scholarships (1 from 2014 and 4 from 2013). However, coach Ron Turner believes the team will be at the 85-man maximum roster limit with what FIU currently has on board. The last possible day for any signing is April 1.
FIU begins spring football March 18 on a Tuesday and finishes with the spring game on April 12. I’ll have a spring practice preview next month, but for now here is a look at how the newest Panthers fit the roster with the returning Panthers.
Like many positions throughout the team there will be battles for starting jobs beginning with spring practice and going through fall camp and quarterback is no exception. Returning quarterback E.J. Hilliard has a season in the pro-style offense under his belt and that will help when the quarterback competition starts in spring ball. McGough and Martin, who started classes at FIU last month, have been throwing to FIU receivers since then and digesting the playbook. The 15 spring practices will certainly help the freshman quarterbacks when fall camp opens in August. That’s when Luke Medlock will compete for the starting job with the other three quarterbacks. What the three freshmen have going for them besides size, athleticism and good arms is that all three played in a pro-style offense in high school. The battle for the starting quarterback job could be one that lasts well into fall camp.
Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell bring some pop to the FIU running game. Both have good speed and Maxwell at 6-0, 190 pounds has the frame to get well over 200 pounds. The Panthers return two productive backs in Lamarq Caldwell and Silas Spearman. Alfonso Randolph is healthy after missing most of last season with an injury. Randolph showed flashes of his talent, especially his nifty cutback abilities, during camp last year. Gardner (above) and Maxwell provide the depth (you will see that word “depth” in several of these position breakdowns) that FIU lacked at running back last season. Caldwell (144 carries), who was a workhorse at both halfback and fullback last season, and Spearman (132 carries) accounted for 276 of FIU’s 445 carries (62 percent). Just like in the NFL, you can never have too many talented backs.
FIU had some speed last season at this position, but the Panthers didn’t really have the home run hitter – the receiver that could go the distance and require extra attention from defenses. Around FIU the popular comparison for the home run hitter at receiver is obviously T.Y. Hilton, but that’s not a fair comparison for any underclassman or incoming receiver because of what Hilton did at FIU and is doing in the NFL. That being said, the additions of Dennis Turner (below) and Jarviel Hart improve the speed at receiver. Thomas Owens at 6-1 brings size and physicality to the position. Owens will be one to keep an eye on during fall camp because as Ron Turner said during our radio broadcast last night, Owens will start camp working with both the receivers and defensive backs. From there the coaching staff will decide where Owens will help the team the most. Owens played safety, quarterback and some basketball at Atlantic Community High. Although he was not a signee yesterday, Glenn Coleman is back on the team. Getting back the big physical, sure-handed receiver is almost like FIU adding another receiving talent to its 2014 signing class.
FIU signed one tight end in Chett Levay, who has good size at 6-3 and will surely add to his 195 pounds. Like freshman sensation tight end Jonnu Smith, Levay has the ability to line up out wide and stretch the field like Smith. With Levay the Panthers added another athletic tight end to its returners at the position such as Smith, Ya’Keem Griner and Jonathan Pavlov.
FIU signed five offensive linemen and four of them are already near or above 300 pounds. The only one not near 300 pounds, Daquane Wilke, might be the most athletic of the bunch. Kai Absheer (6-5, 310 pounds), Josh Deuyour (6-9, 325), Breht Joly (6-4, 295), Chris Miller (6-4, 310) and Wilke (6-3, 265) make up the five O-line signees. Again, the depth of the Panthers offensive front got better with this haul and some of these freshmen could challenge for starting jobs despite FIU’s starting O-line from last year returning intact. Last year’s O-line got valuable playing experience, but these five signees have the promise to make August interesting when it comes to deciding the starting line. The size along the offensive front improved and that’s something FIU needed to effectively run the ball.
The most glaring departures on the team were on the defensive line with the graduation of NFL hopefuls Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman. FIU lost some serious size when Faciane and Hickman finished their college careers. Enter Jordan Ingraham (6-2, 315 pounds) and Justin Sibole (6-4, 275), who both come from high school football powers in Booker T. Washington and Plantation American Heritage, respectively. Although Ingraham and Sibole (above) may not be as polished as Faciane and Hickman were last season, both are quite physical and could have immediate impacts. Heck, Sibole is a former hockey player. FIU also signed defensive ends John Broome (6-2, 235), Anthony Johnson (6-3, 245) and Jermaine Sheriff (6-2, 225). Broome had a school-record 17 sacks last season at Plant City High and ran track so you know he can get into an offensive backfield. Johnson and Sheriff are also quick off the ends. Add those wheels to the motors of Giovani Francois, Denzell Perine (who really came on at the end of 2013) and Michael Wakefield and you have a potent exterior D-line. On the interior Lars Koht, Marques Cheeks, Darrian Dyson and Leonard Washington return along with West Virginia transfer Imarjaye Albury, who is eligible this season after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules.
The Panthers had such a lack of depth at linebacker last season that cornerback Derrick Jones was moved to linebacker. And that is not a knock on Jones because he did an admirable job with 33 tackles. It’s just like most of the roster, FIU lacked depth last season. FIU signed two linebackers in Fred Russ and Anthony Wint. Both Russ (below) and Wint had a nose for the football in high school with both surpassing 100 tackles and creating several turnovers. FIU has been successful getting players from Tampa Bay Tech in the past (see: Hickman, Greg and Caldwell, Lamarq) and that is where Russ (5-10, 220 pounds) is from. I think Wint might be the hidden gem of this signing class. Wint is a little undersized at 6-0, 210 pounds, but this is a guy that totaled 360 tackles in his last three years of high school. He’ll surely add to the 210 pounds in the FIU weight room. Leading tackler Markeith Russell graduated, but Luis Rosado, Davison Colimon and Patrick Jean are back. Freshman Treyvon Williams showed some early promise last season.
We learned last year that Conference USA is a passing league. Therefore teams need to stock up on cornerbacks and safeties. FIU did that with five defensive back signees and possibly six if receiver/safety Thomas Owens ends up on defense. Mark Bruno, Niko Gonzalez, Shermarke Spence, Bobby Stinson and Tyree Johnson are the five defensive backfield signees. Bruno, Spence, Stinson and Johnson are corners with Spence having the ability to also play safety. Gonzalez is a safety. One thing about most of these new defensive backs is they bring size, which is critical in covering some of the big receivers in the conference. Bruno (5-10), Gonzalez (5-11) and Stinson (6-0) have good size. Spence (5-9) led Northwestern High in tackles and has some good bloodlines with his brother Sean being a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker. Plus, the last time FIU got a cornerback from Northwestern it worked out pretty well in Anthony Gaitor, who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Johnson (5-9) had a knack for causing fumbles. He led Dade County in that statistic and runs a 4.4 40-yard dash so you could envision Johnson as a kick returner. If you want to play the same game we played at receiver with Glenn Coleman earlier in this blog, you can say FIU signed cornerback Richard Leonard with his return to the team after being ineligible last season. Leonard was one of FIU’s better cover corners in 2012 and has the game-breaking speed that FIU sorely missed last year in kickoff and punt returns. With Leonard also running a 4.4, it would be interesting to see a foot race with Johnson.
Besides competing for the starting quarterback job, Luke Medlock will immediately compete for the punting job with Chris Ayers. Medlock comes from a family of kickers. His father, Ricky, was a soccer player for Jacksonville University and played against the then-FIU Sunblazers back in the day at FIU. And of course, Luke’s brother, Jake, punted really well last year for FIU – including a 70-yard punt at UTEP that was not wind-aided despite the blustery conditions that night in El Paso. FIU did not sign any kickers. Austin Taylor, Sergio Sroka, Karson Dietrich and Cody Hodgens are all back with Taylor looking to hold on to the kicking job after hitting 8 of 12 field goals last season, including a program-record tying 52-yard field goal.