With new coach Ron Turner at the helm and a new conference to compete in, a new era begins for FIU football as the team seeks to rebuild its identity. This year’s roster is filled with new faces from top to bottom, all looking to make an immediate impact alongside several remaining veterans and help the team surpass expectations.
New-look offense faces big challenges in new conference
Ask quarterback Jake Medlock about last season and he won’t shrug it off, change the subject or mince words. He knows what it was.
“We’re coming off a real bad year,” Medlock says matter-of-factly.
He knows that there are a lot of doubters and skeptics on FIU’s chances this coming season. Adjusting to a new head coach and a new style of offense is never an easy task. Add to that a move to Conference USA with proven programs like Marshall and East Carolina, and it’s clear this will be a challenging season for the Panthers.
Still, Medlock, the favorite to start at quarterback, is eager to turn those doubters into believers.
“We’re going out there to prove to people that we’re a great team,” Medlock said. “Everyone is counting us out, but the way we’re working this offseason, we’re going to shock some people.”
The pro-style system being implemented by new head coach Ron Turner, a former NFL quarterbacks coach, differs from the more fast-paced spread offense run by FIU for years.
The new offense puts the quarterback under center more often, putting more pressure on Medlock. He knows that for this offense to work, he needs to be as sharp and as quick in his passing release as he’s ever been.
“It’s a big-time offense,” Medlock said. “There’s more on my shoulders now and I like that.”
Turner’s son, Cam Turner, joined FIU as the quarterbacks and wide receivers coach and was excited with what he saw in spring practice from Medlock, a redshirt junior, and sophomore backup quarterback E.J. Hilliard.
“Jake did a great job this spring under center,” he said. “His arm strength is outstanding and he’s a great leader who understands the game. The guys look up to him.”
On Hilliard, Turner said, “He’s good in the pocket and got more comfortable in there every day during the spring. It’s extremely hard to go in as a freshman quarterback and play and he’s definitely going to play a role for us this year.”
Here are some of the other offensive players to keep an eye on this season.
The Panthers have no shortage of talent at the receiver position, but redshirt sophomore Clinton Taylor and sophomore De’Andre Jasper may have breakout potential and emerge as top targets on offense.
“They are both young players with very bright futures ahead of them,” Turner said. “Both are very versatile and we will definitely do all we can to get the ball in their hands to allow them to showcase their ability.”
The new pro-style offense means an increased role for the tight end position, which means that Ya’Keem Griner and Zach Schaubhut could become essential in Ron Turner’s offensive plans.
Both Griner and Schaubhut will be competing for the starting job this fall and could see increased numbers from last season. In 2012, Griner made nine catches for 113 yards in four starts while Schaubhut made two catches for 29 yards in three starts.
Defense looking for recipe to slow down new conference foes
Fast, simple and physical. That is the kind of defense new defensive coordinator Josh Conklin wants to build at FIU. He knows complexity doesn’t translate necessarily into success in Conference USA, known for high-octane offenses that can rack up points in a hurry.
It’s not surprising then that Conklin, a former safeties coach at Tennessee, wants to emphasize getting his defense up to speed – literally. If the Panthers are going to slow down opposing offenses in their new conference home, they have to keep up.
“It’s almost fast-break football,” said Conklin of what he expects when conference play begins this fall. “Defenses have to maintain a structure of simplicity. Speed makes a big difference. Our guys know the battles they’re getting into will be different.”
Speediness is one of the four “pillars” that he is building his defense around – pillars that he believes will translate into wins: play fast, play physical, play smart, execute under duress.
“Everything we do on a day-to-day basis encompasses those four things,” Conklin said.
Conklin came in with the goal of effectively building a scheme around the strength of his players; a defense that makes up for its inexperience with quickness, pressure and depth. The defense the Panthers run will be slightly different this season, with Conklin implementing a 4-3 defense with a 4-2-5 thrown in as well. With a strong core of linemen returning, Conklin believes it’s a formula that will work.
“The defensive line can be really, really special this year and whenever your line is able to put pressure, it makes you better as a defense,” he said.
Here are some defensive players to watch this year.
With Jonathan Cyprien off to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL, Halley returns as the only returning defensive back with starting experience at safety. Conklin believes he has the potential to standout in the backfield alongside cornerbacks Richard Leonard and Sam Miller.
“He has a chance to be a really good player for us back there,” Conklin said.
The redshirt junior appeared in all 12 games last season, starting four, and made 33 tackles. Halley emerged as a surprise player in 2011, leading the defense with four interceptions as a redshirt freshman.
The defensive line loses a huge force – figuratively and literally – in Tourek Williams, who is now a member of the San Diego Chargers. But a number of returning starters, including Giovani Francois, give Conklin confidence in the line he is building.
“He has serious breakout potential,” Conklin said of Francois. “He has great pass-rush capability and will be big for us at defensive end.”
As a sophomore in 2012, Francois recorded 24 tackles and showed his ability to put pressure on the quarterback with 4.5 sacks, second only to Williams (6.5).
A completely new starting linebacker corps will try to rise up to the challenge of defending the defensive midfield. A pair of sophomore linebackers, Patrick Jean and Davison Colimon, will have a chance to step into those roles.
“Colimon has shown the skill set to have a good year and Jean is a young guy with a lot of talent,” Conklin said.
Rebuilding special teams looking for consistency
Offenses and defenses have three or four downs to do their work. The special teams unit gets just one.
So special teams coordinator Kevin Wolthausen knows how important it is for his players to execute cleanly and consistently.
“Attention to detail is extremely important,” Wolthausen said. “The number one thing we want to focus on ball security and maintaining possession.”
In the kicking department, the Panthers are hoping that a pair of redshirt freshmen, kicker Sergio Sroka and punter Chris Ayers, can step in and prove to be reliable options for the special teams. After a rough start in spring practices, featuring a number of blocked field goal attempts and botched punts, things have improved.
“We don’t have a lot of experience, so what we do in practice is going to be really important,” Wolthausen said. “We have a lot of talented players. It’s about putting those guys in the right spot.”
The kickoff and punt return unit returns a few familiar faces, including Richard Leonard who averaged 29.2 yards per kickoff return last season, the highlight coming against Florida Atlantic.
Leonard’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Owls helped lead the Panthers to a Shula Bowl victory and Wolthausen is hoping for more of the same from Leonard and other returners next season.
“You’re always training to gain an advantage with hidden yardage. Every 10 yards means something,” Wolthausen said.
Here are some players to watch for on special teams this fall.
Sergio Sroka, a redshirt freshman, entered fall camp as the incumbent for kicking duties, but will have competition from an assortment of new Panthers joining the program.
Sroka, whose father, Roberto, was an NFL kicker for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1981-82, redshirted last season after a successful high school career at Belen Jesuit in Miami. Now he’s the frontrunner to handle the kicking duties for the Panthers this season.
“We saw a lot of improvement from Sergio this spring,” Wolthausen said. “He can be a consistent kicker for us.”
Like Sroka, Ayers enters the season as a redshirt freshman and will have competition to take over for graduated FIU punter, Josh Brisk.
“Chris started off slow in the spring but he picked it up as the spring went on,” Wolthausen said. “It comes down to consistency in fall camp.” ♦
Photos by Sam Lewis and Doug Garland