2015 CFB Preview – FIU

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There may be hope for the Panthers after all.

By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

By the horrifying standard set in 2013, when blowout losses were the norm, Florida International was dramatically improved a year ago. Yeah, the program still went 4-8, but it was unexpectedly competitive throughout the campaign, dropping four games by no more than a field goal.

And the gains were engineered with a youthful roster, including an all-rookie backfield until RB Alex Gardner was injured in October. Now, FIU hopes to seize the momentum, turn a few of last year’s close calls into wins and achieve bowl-eligibility for the first time in four years.

By just about every imaginable statistical measure, Florida International raised the bar in 2014. The team that lost games by an average of 27 points in 2013 was outscored by a mere 1.8 points. In the world of FIU, it was a quantum leap. And a much-needed one at that for second-year head coach Ron Turner.

Turner enters his third season on the job determined to build on last year’s success. And he has the right mix of talent to keep things steadily rolling in the right direction. The defense, in particular, is going to be an asset. The unit was terrific a year ago, and has a chance to be even better with most of last season’s top performers retaining their eligibility for another fall. It’s on offense where the Panthers will either sink or swim in 2015.

Florida International has never in its history averaged 30 points in a season. And it won’t break the trend this year without an about-face from an offensive line that’s arguably fit for the FCS. The Panthers have been routinely shoved around the past three seasons, a trend that’ll stifle the growth of Gardner and QB Alex McGough, two of the school’s true freshmen building blocks in 2014.

Turner has deftly navigated the storm that was his dismal one-win debut in 2013. And with so many productive holdovers back, his Panthers are poised to take another step forward in 2015. If FIU can make even modest gains on offense, especially at the point of attack, the team is liable to surprise people, while nabbing one of Conference USA’s automatic bowl tie-ins.

What you need to know about the offense: Florida International improved considerably. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s still a very long way to go in Miami. The Panthers, to their credit, went from less than 10 points per game in 2013 to 23 in 2014. Progress. However, peeling back a few layers reveals an attack that still ranked 126th nationally in yards per play and was greatly aided by an opportunistic defense. Additional strides now hinge on an O-line that’s among the least effective in the nation. If the blockers don’t improve, how can the skill guys? Too bad, too, because there’s potential lurking beneath the wreckage of the past couple of seasons. Jonnu Smith is a next-level tight end. Alex Gardner and Anthon Samuel form one of Conference USA’s better backfield tandems. And QB Alex McGough is way ahead of last year, when he was a wide-eyed rookie grasping for confidence and consistency. FIU is close to achieving legit gains on offense, but so much depends on how it performs in the trenches.

What you need to know about the defense: Former coordinator Josh Conklin did such a bang-up job in Miami last fall it landed him the same job on Pat Narduzzi’s staff in Pittsburgh. Matt House was hired by Ron Turner to keep the Panthers from veering off the tracks. FIU was outstanding on defense in 2014, capitalizing on its speed and aggressiveness to rank No. 5 nationally in takeaways. And now House will be the beneficiary of a D that returns all five all-stars from last year’s squad, ends Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine, linebackers Anthony Wint and Davison Collimon and CB Richard Leonard. Florida International, regardless of the coaching changes, plans to attack from all angles in 2015. And the results could outdo last year’s impressive numbers. House’s biggest worry, beyond the ongoing need for more depth, will be breaking in new safeties. Junior Jordan Davis and sophomore Shermarke Spence have the edge, but must prove they can support CB Jeremiah McKinnon when Leonard’s area of the field is avoided by opposing quarterbacks.

What to watch for on offense: McGough’s McGrowth. The Panthers went with youth behind center last year, tabbing rookie Alex McGough to be the starter. As expected, he struggled with the speed of the game and a lack of protection. And while the flashes of potential were certainly evident, if he doesn’t make a considerable stride, FIU could employ a true freshman for a second straight year. Touted rookie Christian Alexander is already on campus … and already listed on the depth chart. And he has the size and arm strength to turn quarterback into quite a competition in the summer.

What to watch for on defense: House rules. Coordinator Josh Conklin did a remarkable job with the D last season, transforming it into an attacking, turnover-producing machine. And while Conklin is now at Pitt, his successor, Matt House, inherits many returning playmakers. House, who ironically preceded Conklin at Pitt, should consider stepping back and letting his players make plays. Yeah, every coach wants to put his own stamp on a unit, but there’s something to be said for not tinkering too much with a good thing.

This team will be far better if … the offensive line matures. The D is set, and the offensive backfield is moving in the right direction. The key for Florida International in 2015 rests squarely on the pads of the offensive linemen. The Panthers have ranked last in their league in sacks allowed three years running, yielding 129 over that time. If the young quarterbacks, Alex McGough and Christian Alexander, are going to fulfill their potential this fall, it’s incumbent upon on the blockers to do a distinctly better job in pass protection.

The Schedule:
The Panthers play only five home games, including just one through the first week of October.
– FIU is playing just one FCS opponent, N.C. Central, in a game sandwiched between road trips to UCF, Indiana, Louisiana Tech and UMass.
– One of the Panthers’ seven road trips will be to Boca Raton to face a rival, Florida Atlantic, hell bent on payback for last season’s blowout loss.
– The lone bye week on the schedule comes at the worst possible time, Nov. 28, a week after the final regular season game has been played.
– Both of this year’s West Division opponents, Louisiana Tech and UTEP, participated in bowl games last season.
– WATCH OUT FOR … UMass. The Minutemen made strides in Mark Whipple’s return to Amherst, and the pitch-and-catch combo of Blake Frohnapfel to Tajae Sharpe is back together for one more year.

Best Offensive Player: Junior TE Jonnu Smith. Boy, did a lot of schools in the state of Florida miss on Smith three years ago. Without much advanced warning, he’s developed into one of the nation’s best tight ends, outclassing opposing linebackers who try to match him stride-for-stride. Smith has led the Panthers in receiving in each of his first two years, and he emerged into a dominating weapon in the passing game in 2014. He could be even more productive now that his quarterback is a year older, and NFL scouts will be monitoring him closely.

Best Defensive Player: Senior CB Richard Leonard. He’s undersized. He creates chaos. He’s exactly what the Panthers are looking for in a defender these days. Leonard is a microcosm of a D that was second in Conference USA in combined sacks and takeaways a year ago. FIU’s resident gamebreaker scored four touchdowns in 2014, three on defense and one on special teams, and will again compel opposing quarterbacks to test the other side of the secondary in 2015.

Key players to a successful season: Every offensive lineman on the roster. Three starters, LT Dieugot Joseph, LG Jordan Budwig and RT Aaron Nielsen, are back, and all three must hold blocks better than they did in 2014. Plus, juniors Michael Montero and Trenton Saunders are being asked to fill holes at center and right guard, respectively. For the FIU offense to take a much-needed step forward, there has to be a collaborative effort up front that helps turn loose the program’s best skill players.

The season will be a success if … the Panthers flip a few of last season’s close losses, and earn their third-ever bowl berth. It’s not as far-fetched as it seems, especially after going 4-8, with four losses by no more than a field goal. Florida International is an important year older, and more confident than they were in 2014. It’ll also be operating with a base of talent, especially on defense, that can deliver an upset in the fall and hold up well versus the rest of Conference USA.

Key game: Sept. 12 at Indiana. Florida International might need to win a game it’s not supposed to in order to become bowl-eligible. Could this be the spot in Bloomington? The Hoosiers can no longer lean on the legs of RB Tevin Coleman, and the line is liable to struggle with the Panther pass rush. Getting out of Memorial Stadium with an upset could prove to be an important turning point of the Ron Turner era, and a spark for the rest of the 2015 season.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Yards per game: FIU 293.2 – Opponents 363.8
– Turnovers: FIU 22 – Opponents 33
– Sacks: FIU 31 – Opponents 40

Players You Need To Know

1. CB Richard Leonard, Sr.
Leonard sure was missed in 2013 when he was academically ineligible. He wasted no time serving reminders why he’s one of the Group of Five’s most electrifying playmakers. Leonard scored four times a year ago, twice on picks, once on a fumble return and once on a punt return, testament to his open-field wizardry. He also picked off five passes and recovered four fumbles to help earn a spot on the All-Conference USA First Team. Leonard is only 5-9 and 189 pounds, but he’s too good in coverage and too much of a game-changer to not play on Sundays.

2. TE Jonnu Smith, Jr.
If there was a 2013 Signing Day do-over, the speedy, sure-handed Smith might be playing for one of the Sunshine State’s three marquee programs. Instead, he’s a Panther, having way with Conference USA linebackers and defensive backs. Smith led the team in receiving for a second straight year, upping his totals to 61 catches for 710 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s a 6-3, 230-pound jack-of-all-trades in the FIU offense, creating mismatches whether he lines up at tight end, wide receiver or even H-back.

3. DE Michael Wakefield, Sr.
Wakefield was the face of a Panther pass rush that went from 113th nationally in sacks in 2013 to 40th a year ago. He got to the quarterback a team-high eight times, while also making 14.5 stops for loss, three fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles. The 6-3, 254-pound Wakefield is a tenacious pass rusher, with the functional strength to knock opposing blockers off their base. After playing at a Second Team All-Conference level in 2014, he’s eyeing bigger prizes this fall.

4. DE Denzell Perine, Jr.
Fast. It’s the only speed Perine knows. He’s Florida International’s quintessential speed rusher off the edge. While not much is expected in run defense, Perine is capable of blowing up the pocket when he times the snap properly. An end in an outside linebacker’s body at 6-3 and 245 pounds, he earned honorable mention All-Conference USA with 40 tackles, 9.5 stops for loss, 6.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.

5. RB Alex Gardner, Soph.
The Golden Panthers gave the keys to the running game to a rookie in 2014, and were not disappointed with the outcome. Gardner is one of building blocks of the future in Miami after rushing for 582 yards and a score on 137 carries. Had he not missed more than four games to a shoulder injury, a 1,000-yard debut could have been within reach. Gardner is just 5-9 and 192 pounds, but he’ll make defenders miss by cutting away from trouble and juking into the open field.

6. LB Davison Colimon, Sr.
Colimon is an ideal fit for a defense that likes to move fast and attack the ball whenever it’s possible. He started nine games as a junior, notching 46 tackles, eight stops for loss, four sacks, three fumble recoveries and a pick-six. At 6-1 and 217 pounds, Colimon lacks ideal size, but his tenacity and closing speed make him nicely suited to be turned loose on blitzes from the second level.

7. RB Anthon Samuel, Sr.
After a slow start in 2014, Samuel finally began to flash the form that led to 1,842 yards and 16 touchdowns in two seasons at Bowling Green. The 5-11, 200-pound transfer filled in after Alex Gardner was injured, running for 346 yards and a pair of scores over the final three games. The rust of inactivity now gone, Samuel is now hoping to build on last year’s strong finish by increasing his role in the rotation.

8. QB Alex McGough, Soph.
Fingers are crossed around campus that FIU may have finally located a quarterback to rally around. McGough started all but one game in his first season removed from Gaither (Fla.) High School in Tampa, getting incrementally better as the season progressed. The 6-3, 210-pounder has plenty to learn, and his accuracy must improve. But in completing 138-of-274 passes for 1,680 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 picks, he laid a foundation on which a future can be built. McGough will also make plays with his feet, rushing for four scores and 317 pre-sack yards in 2014.

9. LB Anthony Wint, Soph.
Wint is one the Golden Panthers’ budding young stars on defense. In his debut out of Homestead (Fla.) High School, he instantly turned heads with his speed and hitting ability. The transition happened quickly for Wint, who might have led the team in tackles had he not missed three games to a knee injury. The 6-0, 224-pound guided missile finished with 48 stops as a nine-game starter, laying the foundation for a promising future in Miami.

10. DT Imarjaye Albury, Jr.
Albury enjoyed a successful return to Miami, his first season since transferring from West Virginia. He started every game on the inside for the Panthers, making 19 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and 1.5 sacks. This season, the FIU staff will be looking for more disruption and chaos from a cat-quick 6-0, 277-pounder who’s fast off the snap. New coordinator Matt House would like Albury to be a version of Aaron Donald, who the coach had for a few years at Pittsburgh.

Head Coach: Ron Turner
3rd year: 5-19
12th year overall: 47-80
Sept. 5 at UCF
Sept. 12 at Indiana
Sept. 19 NC Central
Sept. 26 at Louisiana Tech
Oct. 3 at UMass
Oct. 10 UTEP
Oct. 17 at Middle Tennessee
Oct. 24 Old Dominion
Oct. 31 at Florida Atlantic
Nov. 7 Charlotte
Nov. 14 at Marshall
Nov. 21 WKU
Ten Best FIU Players
1. CB Richard Leonard, Sr.
2. TE Jonnu Smith, Jr.
3. DE Michael Wakefield, Sr.
4. DE Denzell Perine, Sr.
5. RB Alex Gardner, Soph.
6. LB Davison Colimon, Sr.
7. RB Anthon Samuel, Sr.
8. QB Alex McGough, Soph.
9. LB Anthony Wint, Soph.
10. DT Imarjaye Albury, Jr.