The spotlight stalks quarterbacks, fixating on them with teenage obsession. For Saturday’s FIU game at Louisiana-Lafayette, that’s actually more appropriate than usual.
For the first time since Jamie Burke in the FIU program’s true freshman year of 2002, someone less than a year removed from high school will start at quarterback for the Panthers. Redshirt sophomore Jake Medlock’s broken foot kicked E.J. Hilliard into that spotlight and Hilliard’s first start since the 2011 Soul Bowl for Miami Northwestern High against Jackson High.
“I wouldn’t say I’m too excited. I just want to get the win. It’s a learning process for me,” Hilliard said. “Sometimes I think about how quickly it came, but it doesn’t really affect me or cross my mind that much.”
On Louisiana’s side, quarterback Blaine Gauthier will start and, according to Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth on the Sun Belt coaches’ media conference call this week, will stay in unless he is injured.
FIU remembers Gauthier the way Homestead remembers Hurricane Andrew. Whether escaping the pocket (86 rushing yards, 5.7 yards per carry) or staying in it (14-of-26 passing, 221 yards, three touchdowns), Gauthier left FIU’s defense in shambles throughout last year’s 36-31 loss. What Gauthier did also opened room for some of the rare running back damage to FIU last year.
“There were a couple of plays last year where we gave up touchdowns either in the passing game or running the ball because guys didn’t have their eyes on their keys or were out of position,” senior linebacker Winston Fraser said.
Dual threats like Gauthier, 2011 Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin of Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe’s Kolton Browning rank as the best of a conference full of experienced quarterbacks. In fact, coming into the season the Sun Belt’s biggest quarterback question mark wore blue and gold. That question mark got erased by Medlock’s solid play through most of the first three and a half games, including 119 passes without an interception, the second-longest streak in FIU history.
The question mark returns both bigger (figuratively) and slimmer (literally) with the switch to the lithe 6-3, 180-pound Hilliard from the 6-3, 225-pound Medlock.
Certainly, not much more could have been asked of Hilliard last Saturday against Louisville. Entering the game with FIU down 21-14, Hilliard directed three drives — a 62-yard drive that ended when the Cardinals stopped Jeremiah Harden on fourth down at the Louisville 10; a 38-yard drive that ended at the Louisville 21 on his lone incompletion, a desperate throw after a fumbled snap; and a 32-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Younger.
“I think I played well,” Hilliard said. “I wasn’t really worried about my performance. We were trying to come back to win. I was just trying to do whatever it took. I wouldn’t say I played really well.”
This season, Medlock took charge of a unit he led at times last year and that he had been around during his redshirt season before that. Being thrust into the director’s chair leaves Hilliard little time to establish himself as a team leader.
“I talk with a lot of the guys and ask a lot of questions,” Hilliard said. “I’m trying to learn more and progress as a person, as a teammate. I’m not really trying to take the leadership role on. I’m not trying to focus on what it takes to be a leader. I’m just learning from guys like [senior safety] Johnathan Cyprien, Winston Fraser and [senior wide receiver] Wayne Times. I’m just watching them and trying to pick up on their habits so that when the time presents itself, they’ll look at me as a leader.”