No. 3 is back returning kicks for FIU for another season and that immediately makes the Panthers special teams dangerous. Richard Leonard electrified the FIU punt return unit last season with the highest punt return average in FIU's 13 years of football. Leonard averaged 23.76 yards per punt return in 2014, including a touchdown of 74 yards at North Texas in the season finale.
Mostly because of Leonard, FIU as a team averaged 18.19 yards per punt return last season which is also tops in program history. The Panthers recorded the third best kickoff return average in program history with 23 return yards per kickoff in 2014. Only the 2011 and 2012 FIU kickoff returners, which in 2011 included a fellow by the name of T.Y. Hilton, averaged more yards per return.
FIU special teams coach Shannon Moore said running backs Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell and receiver Anthony Jones would also see time on kickoff returns because you know opponents will kick away from Leonard. Those three along with Leonard and Clinton Taylor will also get the chance to return punts.
"Gardner and Maxwell have the speed on kick returns," Moore said. "Jones has a tremendous burst and he makes people miss."
Austin Taylor enters camp as the No. 1 kicker but Moore says the place kicking and kickoff jobs are wide open. Taylor was 15 of 21 on field goals last season with a long of 43 yards. He was 4 of 6 between 40 and 49 yards. You'll recall Taylor shares the FIU record for longest field goal made with former FIU kicker Adam Moss. Both kickers hit 52-yard field goals. Taylor hit his 52-yarder against East Carolina in 2013.
Sergio Sroka and Scott Wade will get their shots at field goals. Moore said both those kickers are progressing and Wade might have the strongest leg of the three FIU kickers. Combined the three kickers hit 64 of 79 field goals in spring ball (81%), which included some pressure kicks such as during the two-minute drill.
Where the kickers have to improve is with kickoffs. Too many times opponents got a good start on their kickoff returns due to short kickoffs or poor placement of those kickoffs.
"That's where we need to improve the most when it comes to the kicking game," Moore said. "We had only six touchbacks last season which was last in our conference. We have to locate better on our kickoffs."
Freshman punter Stone Wilson joins Chris Ayers to compete for the punting job in camp. Wilson averaged 42 yards per punt with a 3.9 hang time at IMG Academy. The FIU program record for punting average in a season is 42.9 yards per punt by Carlos Munera in 2009.
Ayers alternated punting with Jose Laphitzondo last season. Ayers handled the punts that needed placement inside the 20 and Laphitzondo took care of the longer punts. Laphitzondo graduated so Ayers will try to win the entire punting job, something Ayers is capable of as he was an All-Broward punter at South Broward High.
"Chris was real good in the spring," Moore said. "He hit four punts inside the 10 and two punts inside the 5. Stone hit some big ones on film and was real consistent. It should be a good competition for the punting job."
Long snappers and field goal snappers are like umpires in baseball, you never hear their names unless they perform poorly. In FIU's case, Sam Medlock and Brandon Taylor have been anonymous during their careers and that's a good thing. Both Medlock and Taylor have been pretty consistent in long snapping and field goal/extra point snapping, respectively. Medlock missed a chunk of last season with an injury but he's healthy and ready to go. Many times during our radio broadcasts the first name I called on punt coverages was Medlock making the tackle downfield. The FIU special teams units do not have to worry about the snap with those two.