FIU spring football practice begins Thursday morning at FIU Stadium. When you last saw the Panthers it was November so you might need a refresher on what to expect over the next 15 practices, including the spring game. Here’s an A to Z guide:
Alex Gardner is back from his injury last season and full-go for spring practice. Gardner is part of a three-headed solid backfield with Anthon Samuel and Napoleon Maxwell. Gardner added 17 pounds over the off-season and now carries 192 pounds.
BTW, are the initials of new running backs coach Tim Harris’s former team, Booker T. Washington. BTW could also stand for “By The Way” very nice hire by coach Ron Turner in getting Harris to FIU. Turner said earlier today that Harris “was someone I always had in the back of my mind if I had an opening on the coaching staff. He is very professional. Besides getting someone that can recruit locally, he is someone that can coach, works hard and is passionate.”
Center is one of three starting positions open on the offensive line. Aaron Nielsen is moving from right tackle to compete at center with Michael Montero and Danny Nunez. Montero could also figure into the right guard spot. Some of the younger offensive linemen that sat out last season to get bigger will now challenge for starting jobs. Linemen such as redshirt freshmen Breht Joly, Chris Miller, Kai Absheer and juniors Trenton Saunders and Edens Sineace are all eyeing the right guard and right tackle spots. Dieugot Joseph and Jordan Budwig are expected to be the starters at left tackle and left guard, respectively. When it comes to the offensive line Turner said he'll play the best five.
Defensive coaches are all new to FIU. The 35th best total defense in the nation last season has a new coordinator/linebackers coach in Matt House, defensive line coach Tem Lukabu, secondary coach Ron Cooper and cornerbacks coach Greg Moss.
Expectations for quarterback Alex McGough in spring practice are the following according to Turner: "Be more consistently accurate, get better touch and better ball placement especially on deep balls". For example, Turner explained, when it comes to ball placement if the pass is meant to be thrown to the left shoulder then it has to be there and not to the right shoulder because if the pass is completed to the proper area then the play could go for another 10 yards after the receiver catches the ball.
First FIU football alum to coach at FIU is Greg Moss after Turner hired the former cornerback/return man from the 2002 inaugural FIU football team. Moss will coach the cornerbacks, a position he knows plenty about. It was great to hear about Moss's hiring not only because he knows football but because he's a great person and an FIU football alum.
Green is no longer a way to describe a good portion of the FIU football team. The majority of the defense that performed so well last season is back as are the majority of the offensive skill players.
House's defense won't change much from former FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin's stout unit last season. Turner believes the terminology will be similar but there will be some schematic differences as there always are when a new coach takes over.
In the end zone is where more of FIU's kickoffs have to get to this spring and into the 2015 season. FIU kickers had just six touchbacks in 59 kickoffs last season -- that's just 10 percent.
Juwan Caesar might be one of the more intriguing receivers this spring. The 6-5 Michigan State transfer sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Caesar has the big body and speed to help the FIU passing game this coming season. He sure made plenty of plays last year on the scout team.
Kickers, FIU has several of them. Turner did say incumbent kicker Austin Taylor worked hard in the weight room this off-season and has the job going into spring. However, Sergio Sroka and Scott Wade will each have their chances of unseating Taylor this spring and in fall camp.
Live radio broadcast of the spring game will happen again on April 17 from FIU Stadium. After the FIU/WKU baseball game that Friday afternoon I'll join my football broadcast partners Mike Levine and James Knapp to bring you play by play of the FIU spring game.
McKinnon or Wilkenson Myrtil will battle for the starting cornerback spot opposite Richard Leonard. Senior Jeremiah McKinnon will get the first crack at the job after his good season last year. At 6-0 and with great speed, McKinnon, Leonard's cousin, could open NFL eyes with a solid season. Myrtil could also compete for one of the two available starting safety jobs.
Next for Leonard is to continue what he's been doing. FIU's playmaking corner/return man is looking to get stronger and be more physical this year to not only help his team to a bowl game but to possibly grab some more attention from the NFL.
Oh, boy! might be what opposing offenses are thinking when they see the majority of FIU's defense is back for 2015. The FIU defense was among the national leaders in total defense, passing defense, sacks, fumbles recovered and defensive touchdowns scored last season.
Punting could be better for FIU this year. Jose Laphitzondo is back and Luke Medlock will join the punting competition along with Chris Ayers. Last season Laphitzondo was called on for the longer punts and Ayers for the punts inside the 20. Both did good jobs in their respective duties. Medlock was a terrific punter in high school. We'll see how he does in his first full-time shot at the job.
Questions that start to be addressed in the spring will be how quickly the offensive line can mesh, especially at center, right guard and right tackle. What receivers will step up and produce? And how will the kicking and punting improve. As Turner said about the kicking and punting, "We have to get better here or if not bring in someone else that can do the jobs."
Rocket is the name of the package for new FIU receiver/running back/quarterback/return man Anthony Jones. The former Central star is one of four early arrivals in the spring. Jones will be asked to do several things in the Rocket, which is named after Central's nickname -- the Rockets.
Safeties, FIU will have two new ones this season. Jordan Davis, who played plenty there last season, is one of the favorites for one of the starting safety jobs. Niko Gonzalez, Shermarke Spence, special teams ace Deonte Wilson and Xavier Hines will all compete for playing time. Vontarius West, who arrived at FIU as a safety, is being moved to linebacker.
Take the top off the defense is one of the areas that FIU will work on this spring. With more expected speed at receiver the Panthers look to stretch the defense, something that was hard to come by last season with the exception of a couple of Glenn Coleman touchdowns.
Unearth walk-ons. Looking at FIU's spring roster there are plenty of new names on there. This is not to say that any of these walk-ons would be asked back when fall camp opens but you never know. FIU has had some success with walk-ons before, to name a few of the success stories linebacker Toronto Smith, punter Carlos Munera, cornerback Jose Cheeseborough and receiver Jacob Younger, who made the difficult catch to start the Motor City Miracle in the 2010 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl comeback win over Toledo (photo below).
Very quickly is the pace that FIU's backup quarterback has to learn the offense. With E.J. Hilliard no longer on the team, there is no experience whatsoever behind McGough. It will certainly help freshman Christian Alexander to participate in spring ball. Bud Martin will also get the reps in spring. Turner did say he could bring in a fifth-year quarterback or a JUCO signal caller to compete for the backup spot.
Wide receivers might be the position where FIU needs the most improvement. Tight end Jonnu Smith was the team's leading receiver last season. The leading wide receiver last season, Glenn Coleman, had almost one-third the catches of Smith (23 to 61). The expectation is that with their freshman years under their belts, Dennis Turner and Thomas Owens will take the next steps. Clinton Taylor came on at the end of last season and Ron Turner said he's excited about Taylor's potential this season. Shug Oyegunle will get a long look in the spring. Juwan Caesar and Anthony Jones have the ability to be big playmakers in the FIU passing game.
X-factor for this season could be the gains made in the weight room. Ron Turner said defensive linemen Marques Cheeks and Darrian Dyson "look like different guys" after strength coach Chad Smith's off-season program. Linebacker Anthony Wint is as strong as ever returning from his season-ending injury last year. I'll have more specifics on the off-season strength and conditioning program later with coach Smith.
Ya'keem Griner and Akil Dan-Fodio have the chance to help FIU's offense become more dynamic if they are more consistent catching the ball. The two tight ends along with Jonnu Smith could form a tough duo for opposing defenses to cover if they can come close to Smith's production. Griner and Dan-Fodio have shown flashes of potential during their FIU careers.
Z-z-z-z's. Don't sleep on any of the newest Panthers: Anthony Jones, Fermin Silva, Christian Alexander or Tyree Johnson having an immediate impact and possibly earning significant playing time. All four are taking a step ahead by starting in the spring. Jones steps into an offense looking for big plays from its receivers. Silva's defensive play fits right in to the fast, aggressive FIU defense. Alexander will get plenty of reps and Johnson is supposedly as fast as Richard Leonard.