FIU’s football media day on Tuesday was a time for reflection and perspective on how far the program has come since the days of a 23-game losing streak and heavy NCAA sanctions that FIU coach Mario Cristobal equated to “a death penalty.”
Now, when Cristobal says, “We now gauge anywhere from 23 to 26 freshmen or redshirt freshmen will play significant roles for us on the two-deep [depth chart] or on special teams in a primary role,” it’s not out of desperation as it was four or five years ago, but out of what the coaches are seeing from the past two years of recruiting.
As an example, several of those freshmen getting snaps could be on defense, FIU’s deepest side of the ball. Last week, FIU defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said, with the caveat of it being early in practice, he could envision six freshmen contributing. Linebackers Leroy Owens and Patrick Jean have been taking second-team snaps since the middle of the first week of practice.
“A lot of talent. Leroy, Patrick, Josh [Glanton], they have a lot of patience,” fifth-year senior linebacker Winston Fraser said after Saturday night’s scrimmage. “It’s only practice nine, and they’ve really caught on in the running game. I can see it in the meeting room; they’re all into it.
“From the coaches, to the captains, to [senior linebacker] Jordan [Hunt] and I, whatever we tell them to do they do it, no problem. They’re some very good kids.”
Not included in that aforementioned 23 to 26 redshirt freshmen and freshmen are quarterbacks Lorenzo Hammonds and E.J. Hilliard. Redshirt sophomore Jake Medlock came into camp with the lead for the starter’s job and has done nothing to lose it.
Last week, wide receiver Wayne Times spoke of Medlock’s command of the offense and strong communication skills as stamps of his leadership. Also, as Cristobal pointed out, Medlock’s development is helped by facing a strong defense every day in practice.
“Physically and mentally, he’s where we want him right now,” Cristobal said. “There is a considerable gap between him and the No. 2 right now. Nos. 2 and 3 are battling for that spot. Within the next 10 days or so they’re going to be capable of helping us win as opposed to helping us get by.”
At running back, Cristobal said fifth-year senior Jeremiah Harden has become “1A” with returning 1,100-yard rusher Kedrick Rhodes.
A common thread around FIU football so far this training camp has been the effects of new strength and conditioning coach Chad Smith. Fraser called strength and conditioning the team’s biggest offseason improvement.
“The focus in camp has been really to become a much more physical football team,” Cristobal said. “I think we’ve acquired a lot of talent over the past couple of years. We’re fast, we’re athletic. We’ve gained a lot of length at all three levels [of the defense].
“We have become a much more athletic team. We want to become a more physical team. We want to be known for being a physical team, make it our identity. So that has been the focus since Jan. 4 when we started our offseason program.”