Saturday, FIU and Middle Tennessee State might turn more entertaining when both offenses are on the sidelines.
That’s not a shot at FIU’s offense, erratic the past two games, or FIU’s defense, in full retreat since the second quarter of the season. It’s the fact of the Panthers facing a team that’s everything or nothing on special teams and FIU’s special teams injecting drama — not all of it desired — into games this season.
Middle Tennessee junior Kenneth Gilstrap averages 27.2 yards per kickoff return, third best in the Sun Belt and 23rd in the nation ... and Gilstrap’s the second-best kickoff returner on his own team. Sophomore Reggie Whatley leads the Sun Belt and is seventh nationally with a 31.2-yard average.
“Week to week, they’ll change what they do on their kickoff-return teams,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said.
But Middle’s kickoff coverage ranks last in the Sun Belt with only one touchback and a net of only 37.2 yards per kickoff. Using various kickoff returners, FIU as a team averages 21.5 yards per return, third in the Sun Belt. But freshman speedster De’Andre Jasper and sophomore Richard Leonard average 25.3 and 25.2, respectively.
Jasper will continue to return kickoffs this week. FIU also might use redshirt freshman T.J. Lowder, one of the three fastest players on the team along with Leonard and Jasper.
Leonard leads the conference in punt returns with a 14.4 average and has a 49-yard touchdown return to his credit. Also to his credit are two fumbles. Sam Miller has one. Between those turnovers and being the starting cornerbacks for a defense that’s been on the field often, Miller and Leonard get spelled by senior wide receiver Wayne Times.
Middle’s got the Sun Belt’s No. 2 gross distance punter, Josh Davis. They’re 75th nationally in net punting, however. Freshman Jared Singletary averages only 5.12 yards per punt return and last week muffed a punt against Louisiana-Monroe.
Being on the back end of punt returns for Middle, Singletary doesn’t always get much help.
“They’re very aggressive. They’ll sacrifice holding up on punts to come after your punter,” Cristobal said.
The Blue Raiders sometimes put two players on each side of the long snapper, creating both a blocking problem and perhaps some tension in the long snapper.
Which brings us to FIU’s punting. The Panthers are next to last in the Sun Belt and 96th nationally in net punting. Don’t pooh-pooh Cristobal’s statement that their punt coverage actually has improved since the start of the season — at FIU’s nadir this season, they ranked 118th in net punting. Opponents average 11.4 yards per return against FIU.