Even though the beginning of the fall semester marks the end of summer, it does bring with it one piece of good news: football is back.
FIU football opens up the 2014 season with four straight home games, beginning Saturday, Aug. 30, against visiting Bethune-Cookman at Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Now in his second season as FIU’s head coach, Ron Turner hopes that this year’s squad can turn things around for the program. Turner says the difference between last year’s fall camp and this year could not be more clear.
“You can’t even compare the two,” he says. “The guys are doing everything we ask them to do. They’re working hard and hopefully they’ll be rewarded for that on the field.”
This year’s team is filled with a mix of veteran leadership, key returning players and promising young talent that could help the Panthers move forward in their second season in Conference USA.
Here are six players on the Panthers roster to keep an eye on this season:
1. RICHARD LEONARD (CORNERBACK – SENIOR)
The Panthers are happy to have defensive back and special teams returner Richard Leonard back after missing the 2013 season. His presence in the backfield immediately elevates the Panthers pass defense and provides much-needed senior leadership for the defense.
“He brings a lot of confidence to the team and leadership on the field – not so much in what he says, but more in what he does,” Turner says.
He is also a threat on special teams every time he touches the ball and has a chance to set some records this season. In the FIU record books, he currently stands at No. 4 in career kick returns (33) and career kick return yards (902) while coming in at No. 5 in total return yards (1,010).
2. JONNU SMITH (TIGHT END – SOPHOMORE)
Expectations are high for tight end Jonnu Smith, who might be the team’s most potent weapon on offense. Smith made a splash last season as a freshman, starting in all 12 games for the Panthers and leading all FIU players with 39 receptions for 388 yards – the first true freshman to lead the team in both categories since 2008 when T.Y. Hilton accomplished the same feat.
Now entering his sophomore season, Smith will look to try and top his freshman numbers with an even more impressive sophomore campaign. At 6-3, 220 pounds, Smith has the size, the speed and the hands to become one of starting quarterback E.J. Hilliard’s favorite targets this season.
“He was our most valuable player on offense last year as a true freshman and I think he’s picked it up to another level this year,” Turner says of Smith. “The nice thing is hopefully we’ll have some other guys to do some things where he won’t have to carry the whole load.”
3. MICHAEL WAKEFIELD (DEFENSIVE END – JUNIOR)
Now that defensive linemen Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman have graduated and are chasing their NFL dreams, defensive end Michael Wakefield will be one of those called to help fill the gap they left behind. And the 6-3, 254-pound junior feels prepared to do just that.
“It’s a big step for me to step up as a junior and lead these guys,” Wakefield says. “I like to get after the ball and never quit on the play. I always keep going and that’s the biggest thing in pass rushing.”
Wakefield has been relentless in camp chasing down the quarterback and running backs, and he hopes it will carry over into the regular season. After starting all 12 games last year and now that he is stepping into a larger role, Wakefield could have a breakout year.
4. RICHARD BURROWS (WIDE RECEIVER – JUNIOR)
Injuries have slowed down wide receiver Richard Burrows in his first two seasons at FIU. But this year might be different for the 6-3, 190-pound junior.
“He’ll make the tough catch. He knows how to get open and he has great football instincts,” Turner says of Burrows. “
With good size and capable hands, he has emerged in camp as one of the team’s top receivers and caught the attention of Turner and his staff, earning a starting spot opposite Dominique Rhymes when the Panthers take on Bethune-Cookman on Saturday night. With defenses likely to zero in on Rhymes and Smith, Burrows has a chance to make some big plays this season.
5. ALEX GARDNER (RUNNING BACK – FRESHMAN)
He might not be No. 1 on the depth chart (yet) but freshman running back Alex Gardner could still see some action early on this season after an impressive showing in fall camp. He has displayed the ability to juke defenders, break free for solid gains with quick bursts of speed and has also shown capable hands as a receiver.
Don’t be surprised if Gardner has a breakout freshman campaign as a playmaker and major contributor alongside running backs Lamarq Caldwell and Shane Coleman.
6. ANTHONY WINT (LINEBACKER – FRESHMAN)
The Panthers’ linebacker corps is stacked with young talent expected to see plenty of playing time this season and freshman Anthony Wint could be one of the players who emerges as one of the standouts in the bunch.
“He has been a pleasant surprise because you never know what you’re going to get from a freshman,” Turner says of Wint. “We knew he was physical and could hit, but he’s got good quickness and football instincts as well.”