FIU returns a veteran-laden offensive line in 2016, including several underclassmen on the line who gained valuable game-playing experience last season when pressed into duty because of injuries to starters.
"[The game experience from last season] has translated into very few assignment errors," FIU offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler said. "Now it's a matter of strength, fundamentals, technique. They are a year ahead of where you thought they would be at this point. As far as assignments go they are pretty sound as to what they are doing."
The lynchpin of the line is senior center Michael Montero, who has developed from a walk-on three years ago to an all-conference selection. Left tackle Dieugot Joseph along with Montero, Trenton Saunders and Edens Sineace represent what could be four senior starters.
"In Montero's case when he is on task he pretty much knows what everyone else is doing," Shankweiler said. "That adds to the assuredness of the other kids. He can be a coach on the field. Dieugot is kind of in his own little world, working hard to be a really good technique player. Assignment-wise we have made things where he can focus on fundamentals. He does a great job of being able to talk to the guys in the meeting room when they are looking at video about the fundamentals of playing tackle. He understands it."
Saunders is back from an ACL injury he sustained last season. The senior is vying to lock down the starting right guard spot. Sineace is in a battle with sophomore Daquane Wilkie for the starting right tackle job.
"Trenton Saunders is playing awfully well," Shankweiler said. "He's a tough son of a gun. He'll make some fundamental mistakes because he's not very big but he's got very good technique. He's a very tenacious kid and you can live with some of the faults if you have a kid as tough as he is. He's pretty solid at that position."
With Jordan Budwig out with a shoulder injury, sophomore Kai Absheer, who has played just about every position on the line except center, is now at left guard.
"Kai Absheer has settled into that guard position," Shankweiler said. "In terms of knowledge of the game he's as good as I've been around. He studies the game. He's getting better every day technically. As long as he stays healthy and continues to grow maturity-wise we will have as good a left guard as anyone in this conference."
The Panthers have some younger linemen who have caught Shankweiler's attention.
"Neal Mars has really come on in the last week or so," Shankweiler said. "I'm really pleased with Dallas Connell. We've played him at tackle where he probably doesn't have the length to be a tackle. He's got really good feet. He's done a great job with his assignments and is competing awfully well. Those two guys jump out at me as young guys.
"Chris Miller got some experience from last year. He's backing up at left guard. At right guard James Cruise has learned the position. He's a hard-nosed kid who is probably the most-improved kid on the offensive line. He can step in and give Trent a break. I feel really good about the two-deep."