Going into the 2016 season FIU has a little bit of everything in its offensive backfield to carry and catch the ball.
Junior Alex Gardner, who can run outside and between the tackles, not only led FIU in rushing (760 yards) last season but also caught the most passes (60) while having the second most receiving yards (442) on the team behind Thomas Owens. Gardner (above) had a combined 10 touchdowns (9 rushing, 1 receiving).
Anthony Jones split time between running back and receiver last season, but will work exclusively from the backfield this season. Jones (below) rushed for 243 yards and a couple of scores as a freshman last season. During camp Jones has worked as the number two back behind Gardner. Jones should be helped by concentrating on the running back spot.
"With [Jones] being able to focus on one thing in the backfield he’s gotten a lot better in all phases," FIU running backs coach Tim Harris said. "He’s been a good runner since we recruited him here but his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and now understanding protections as well is going to make him a well-rounded back. His playmaking ability is big for us in so many ways."
Jones is a bit bigger than Gardner having an eight-pound edge (200 to 192), but the arrival of bruising freshman Shawndarrius Phillips (5-11, 230 pounds) gives FIU another dimension to its running game. Phillips has had some promising runs during camp.
"Shawndarrius's physical presence as a runner complements well with the other guys we have," Harris said. "With Alex being a shifty, scat back type and Anthony being a step above that mold, Shawndarrius gives you a guy that can run into the defense and give you tough yards. Shawndarrius is also a guy that can break long runs too. He has tremendous vision and does a good job catching the football too."
Another big back in the FIU running back corps also does a good job catching the football. Fullback Jacob Kraut, who transferred from Rutgers earlier this year, is more than just a blocker. As he displayed in the spring and this month in camp, Kraut has soft hands catching the ball, but he can also run the ball when his number is called.
"Jacob Kraut is a very powerful guy," Harris said. "He wants to hit people and that’s the number one thing you look for in a fullback. Jacob brings another dimension because he is athletic with the ball in his hands. You watch him in high school and he was a guy you handed the ball to a lot more than he blocked. When you have a guy who can be a blocker and can also hurt people when he has the ball in his hands that’s great for you."
With FIU having a true fullback in Kraut, for the first time since the days of John Ellis (2006-09), that will provide the Panthers with the options of using Jonnu Smith in his regular spot at tight end or splitting him out wide instead of using him as a fullback like FIU did in his first three seasons. Still, using Smith in the backfield remains an option.
"That helps us and it helps Jonnu," Harris said. "He can focus on just being a tight end or split out as a receiver that helps him a lot. At the end of the day Jonnu still knows the fullback position and it’s an option for us."