LOUISIANA-MONROE AT FIU, 6 P.M. SATURDAY, NO TV

FIU Panthers seniors look on bright side ahead of season finale

 

FIU’s seniors will play their last home game on Saturday capping off careers full of peaks and valleys on the football field.

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

Most of them came in with a 3-9 season. Oddsmakers say they’ll exit the same way after Saturday night’s season closer against Louisiana-Monroe.

In between, those honored during FIU’s Senior Night had a good time.

“They’re part of a class that has brought national recognition to the program,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “A conference championship, two bowl appearances, beating a BCS [automatic qualifier] program, beating the conference USA defending champion, getting the Shula Bowl champion and defending it. And it looks like a handful will have an opportunity to continue playing.”

Halfway through a senior piggyback ride off the field from freshman cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon, cornerback Junior Mertile said, “We did a lot of good things. Won a conference championship, a bowl game. I feel like I made the right decision coming here.”

Mertile’s one of six players along with cornerback Jose Cheeseborough, linebacker Winston Fraser, safety Chuck Grace, defensive tackle Andre Pound and wide receiver Jacob Younger who did five years at FIU. They’re the last remaining players who came during the program’s nadir: recruited in the midst of a 23-game losing streak with FIU Stadium even more unfinished than it is now and NCAA sanctions having just been levied on the program.

“They’ve done so much for this program,” Cristobal said. “When you think about what this program was when they took a leap of faith four or five years ago, it wasn’t exactly the most popular decision to make.”

Mertile came out of North Miami High as a First Team All-Dade selection at the athlete position. He played quarterback and some safety in high school, but got switched to wide receiver at FIU. In fact, one of Mertile’s two touchdown catches came off a gadget pass from former FIU star and current Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.

In answering what drew him to FIU, Mertile gave a similar answer to Fraser’s when asked the same question back in September.

“They just said everybody can compete to start as a freshman, nobody’s got their position,” Mertile said. “We can build FIU from the ground up.”

This year’s been a disappointing benediction. Picked to win the Sun Belt and as among the top 50 teams in the country in some preseason rankings, FIU saw the senior-laden defense and special teams fell apart at inopportune times. An injury to redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Medlock forced freshman E.J. Hilliard into a starting role for two games.

The 3-8 record means it’ll likely be a friends and family crowd at FIU Stadium watching the finish of a few weeks that have seen several seniors playing with extra feeling.

Though senior wide receiver Wayne Times described his college career as “fast,” he’s an exception.

“I don’t know why,” Times said. “I was talking to T.Y. over the phone and he said, ‘You haven’t cried yet?’ I was like ‘Naw, it hasn’t hit me yet.’ It’s not too emotional for me. I understand I’ve got to stop one day. Can’t keep playing.”

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