As the season quickly approaches, fans continue to wonder: Who will fill the void created by the loss of several key players from last year?
By Pete Pelegrin
Like every college football team in the nation, FIU has yet to write its script for the 2018 season. However, unlike many teams, the Panthers have plenty of roles available for leading men.
Coming off one of the most successful seasons in FIU football history, the Panthers enter their 17th campaign on the gridiron with competition at several key positions all over the field.
Last year’s team matched the program record for wins in a season with eight. (The 2011 team also won eight games.) And for the first time since 2011, last year’s team returned to the postseason in what was head coach Butch Davis’ first season at FIU.
FIU lost many instrumental cogs from its 8-5 Gasparilla Bowl team. Due to graduation, the Panthers said goodbyes to their leading passer (Alex McGough), leading rusher (Alex Gardner), leading receiver (Thomas Owens), top four tacklers (linebackers Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams and safeties Bryce Canady and Niko Gonzalez) and interception leader (Brad Muhammad).
Still, thanks to Davis and his coaching staff’s recruiting prowess, the cupboard is not bare entering 2018. FIU has a deep running back and receiving corps plus a combination of experience and promising youth along the offensive line. The defensive line and linebackers have an intriguing mix of brawn and quick playmakers. A quick glance at the secondary shows athletic, tall, rangy defenders.
Inquiring minds want to know
Possibly the number one question entering training camp in August and leading into the season opener against Indiana on Sept. 1: Who will be the starting quarterback?
McGough broke just about every FIU passing record during his illustrious four-year career before being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2018 NFL Draft last April.
This season FIU will have a new starting quarterback for the first time since 2014. The leading candidates to be under center are Bowling Green graduate transfer James Morgan and redshirt junior Christian Alexander. Maurice Alexander, who played quarterback last season, has moved to receiver. FIU also has redshirt freshman quarterback Kaylan Wiggins.
Despite losing Gardner, the Panthers have four diverse and talented running backs returning in Napoleon Maxwell, Shawndarrius Phillips, Anthony Jones and D’Vonte Price.
Although Owens missed the last four games with a knee injury in 2017, the Panthers got an extended look at their young receivers and liked what they saw. Sophomore Bryce Singleton set an FIU freshman record with three touchdowns in the regular season finale against UMass. FIU also welcomes Florida transfer C.J. Worton, who impressed in spring practice.
FIU brings back the majority of its starting offensive line from a year ago and adds monstrous left tackle D’Antne Demery (6-5, 320 pounds). Jordan Budwig, one of the pillars of the line, was granted a sixth year and he’ll man his usual left guard spot.
The team’s two leading sackers are back in Fermin Silva and Anthony Johnson. Each had seven sacks last year. While Johnson remains on the defensive line, Silva moves to linebacker this season to help quell the losses of Wint and Williams.
The FIU defensive line is bolstered by the additions of Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Wood, who showed tremendous promise while working with the defensive scout team last season. Junior college transfer defensive tackle Tayland Humphrey, the highest-rated recruit in FIU history, figures to take the FIU D-line up a notch or two.
Sage Lewis is expected to continue his good work at linebacker as he and Silva look to carry on the sterling play of Wint and Williams.
The FIU secondary will have a new look with the loss of its top three defensive backs. Cornerback Isaiah Brown is healthy again and looked every bit as good in the spring. Emmanuel Lubin is expected to compete at the other corner with receiver-turned- cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver.
Safety Dorian Hall (6-4, 215 pounds) has intriguing size and athleticism while at free safety Rutgers graduate transfer Kiy Hester should make an impact.
The Panthers return both of their kicking specialists. Kicker Jose Borregales was 15 of 18 on field goals last season. Punter Stone Wilson knocked nine punts inside the 20 in 2017.
UM, FAU and more this season
FIU has a challenging schedule in 2018, but the Panthers will only leave the state of Florida four times in their 12 games. FIU has seven home games this season beginning with the Sept. 1 opener against Indiana.
The Panthers actually play six of their first seven games in Miami — the only out-of-town game in that stretch is at Old Dominion Sept. 8. FIU travels up the Florida Turnpike to Hard Rock Stadium Sept. 22 to renew its rivalry against Miami. The Panthers and Hurricanes have not played since 2007.
After opening its Conference USA schedule on the road at Old Dominion, the Panthers begin the home portion of their C-USA slate against Middle Tennessee Oct. 13.
Don Shula Bowl XVII takes place at FIU’s Riccardo Silva Stadium Nov. 3 when FIU and Florida Atlantic play for the coveted Shula Trophy.
FIU finishes the regular season with two of its final three games on the road at University of Texas-San Antonio (Nov. 10) and Charlotte (Nov. 17). The Panthers close out their regular season at home against Marshall (Nov. 24). ♦
Football season and single-game tickets are on sale now.