Next Monday morning FIU football opens training camp for the 2014 season at FIU Stadium. Coming off a 2013 season where many Panthers saw significant playing time for the first time, FIU hopes to build on that experience in 2014. Over the next several days we'll take a look at the 2014 Panthers with a series of previews leading up to Monday's first practice of the new season.
There is an old adage that most football games are won in the trenches at the line of scrimmage so that's where we'll focus on first.
A major concern entering last season was the inexperienced of the offensive line with FIU having graduated a veteran offensive line after the 2012 season, including current Seattle Seahawks tackle Caylin Hauptmann.
The Panthers O-line last season had its share of struggles allowing 52 sacks and not providing much daylight for FIU rushers. The line also had its moments last season such as paving the way for Silas Spearman's freshman single-game rushing record at Southern Miss.
Before last season only Donald Senat (photo above left with Jordan Budwig) and David Delsoin had started games (a total of six starts, two by Senat and four by Delsoin). Now FIU returns an O-line with all five starters from a year ago. Budwig, Aaron Nielsen and Delsoin (photo below) each started 12 games last season. Senat started 11 games and Jordan White started nine games before getting hurt. The playing experience should translate into an improved line this season.
"They have the experience now," said FIU coach Ron Turner. "And what also helps out is that some of our backups also got some valuable playing time. It showed in the spring. I feel better about our offensive line. They understand the offense now and they are communicating better, adjusting to different looks that a defense gives them."
FIU welcomes five freshman offensive linemen (Daquane Wilke, Josh Deuyour, Chris Flaig, Chris Miller and Kai Absheer) when camp opens Monday. Four of those five linemen come in with good size, already weighing more than 300 pounds each. However, how each freshman quickly adapts to the speed of the college game will determine how much playing time they will see.
One thing that should help the offensive line is that FIU has a deeper and more talented running back corps, including some freshman speedsters. We'll take a look at the running backs later this week. Last year, Lamarq Caldwell and Spearman accounted for 62 percent of FIU's rushes. Caldwell and Spearman did an admirable job, but FIU having more rushing options this season should help the line.
As should quarterbacks E.J. Hilliard and Alex McGough getting rid of the ball quicker, especially with Hilliard having a year's experience in Turner's offense. Getting an extra year of eligibility for tight end Cory White should benefit the line too, as White is one of FIU's best blockers.
The zillion dollar question when it comes to the defensive line is who will replace NFL tackles Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman. Faciane in camp with the Minnesota Vikings and Hickman in camp with the Detroit Lions, anchored the FIU D-line last season. Early on FIU will look at several defensive linemen to fill the voids left by Faciane and Hickman.
"It's going to be a group effort," Turner said. "We are going to play a lot of people on the defensive line. Last year Imarjaye Albury looked good on the scout team as he had to sit out due to transfer rules. Leonard Washington, Marques Cheeks, Darrian Dyson and Lars Koht will all see plenty of time at tackle."
Although Koht (photo below) is a bit undersized at 265 pounds, the junior had a very good spring on the defensive interior. Albury, Washington and Cheeks are all sophomores. Dyson like Koht is a junior, but outside of Koht not many of the tackles have much playing experience.
FIU does have some defensive ends that came on last season in Giovani Francois and Denzell Perine. The Panthers get to see Buffalo transfer Wonderful Monds II in action this season after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. One of the more underrated FIU defenders is Michael Wakefield, who can play both defensive end and linebacker. Wakefield was third on the team behind Faciane and Hickman in tackles for loss and sacks last season. Expect Wakefield to shuffle between the two positions again.
Turner likes the depth on the defensive line, including the addition of five freshmen to the unit. Breht Joly (6-4, 295 pounds), Justin Sibole (6-4, 275), Anthony Johnson (6-3, 245), John Broome (6-2, 235) and Jermaine Sheriff (6-2, 225) look to make an impact during the month of August to possibly get playing time come opening week against Bethune-Cookman.