How much has sophomore E.J. Hilliard matured? In arm, eyes and attitude? Because though redshirt junior Jake Medlock moved the team quite well last season with a 13-2 touchdown/interception ratio, Medlock’s health record says Hilliard will start a few games again this season. Neither quarterback will run as much by design in a pro-style West Coast offense leavened with some spread option plays. Both will need a few games to get comfortable with the quick reads of the West Coast at game speed, as well as the shifting personnel around them. Both can throw long, but Hilliard needs to improve his short and medium passing.
Running Backs: C
If Bowling Green transfer Anthon Samuel (5-11, 190) had been eligible to play this year, it would’ve ameliorated 1,000-yard rusher Kedrick Rhodes’ moment of drunken stupidity that cost Rhodes his place in the program. Instead, FIU will rotate bowling ball sophomore Lamarq Caldwell (6-0, 220); short, speedy Shane Coleman (5-6, 200); junior college transfer Talir Satterfield-Rowe (5-10, 195); freshmen Silas Spearman (5-10, 195) and Alfonso Randolph (5-11, 185).
Many BCS automatic qualifier conference schools envy FIU’s raw, physical talent at wide receiver. Before academic attrition, that is. Seniors Willis Wright (6-1, 200) and Glenn Coleman (6-2, 200) could overwhelm a secondary with size, strength and speed — if they were eligible. Redshirt sophomores T.J. Lowder (5-11, 185) and Dominique Rhymes (6-4, 210), the latter coming off a wrist injury that cost him 2012, can blaze turf and scrape the sky. Out of the slot, the turbo on sophomore DeAndre Jasper (5-9, 200) can turn the mundane into the magnificent. Freshman Shug Oyegunle (5-9, 175) can do the same when he hangs onto the ball. Several packages include double tight end sets, meaning several snaps to be divided among fifth-year senior Zach Schaubhut (6-2, 230), freshman Jonnu Smith (6-3, 210) and redshirt sophomores Akil Dan-Fodio (6-3, 225) and Ya’keem Griner (6-5, 230).
Offensive line: D
Here, there be dragons … the dragons of youth and inexperience. Total previous starts for the first team: nine. And cohesion affects the run game more than the passing game, although their pass blocking could use work, too. The quick passes in the West Coast offense should help keep sacks down if the quarterbacks can make decisions quickly enough. .
Defensive line: B+
The unit that has NFL scouts dropping by practice is led by senior tackles Greg Hickman (6-2, 280) and Isame Faciane (6-5, 295), the latter back from a torn rotator cuff that hampered him throughout 2012. Off the ends, 6-8 senior Paul Crawford and Giovani Francois (6-1, 250) can flush quarterbacks up into the Faciane-Hickman maw. Crawford’s been replaced at times by linebacker Michael Wakefield and Francois is out for at least the first game. Behind them on the depth chart, redshirt sophomore defensive end Denzell Perine (6-3, 225) will race New Orleans-area monster tackles 6-3, 310-pound sophomore Darrian Dyson, redshirt freshmen Leonard Washington (6-0, 290) and Marques Cheeks (6-3, 270) to backfield dining.
Shifting to a 4-3 with three linebackers who have a combined two starts … well, at least they don’t have enough playing time to be too set in previous ways. Most interesting could be the progress of freshman Treyvon Williams (5-11, 230) or sophomore Patrick Jean (6-3, 205, either of whom might replace fifth-year senior Markeith Russell (6-2, 220) as starting middle linebacker by the midseason. Sophomore outside linebacker Davison Colimon’s speed — the 6-1, 200-pound converted safety won a state high school hurdles title — allows him to cover slot receivers without FIU having to weaken their run defense by inserting another defensive back.
Defensive backs: B-
Nobody on FIU’s roster looked better throughout spring and training camp than junior cornerback Richard Leonard, 5-9, 170 pounds of speed and ball skills. His eligibiity remains in question. Leonard, senior cornerback Sam Miller (5-10, 190) and redshirt junior safety turnover collector Justin Halley (6-3, 200) should bounce back from an inexplicably erratic 2012 season. With a year of experience, expect sophomore cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon (6-0, 185) to put his length to better use. Few safeties in Conference USA enjoy hitting more than Demarkus Perkins (6-0, 215). Fast freshmen cornerbacks Brad Hyman-Muhammad (5-10, 180) and Wilkenson Myrtil (6-0, 185) might see slot cornerback playing time by midseason.
Special teams: C-
Play it again, Sam (Spence): combine the college starts for the new kicker, punter/holder, long snapper and you get four. That’s if redshirt sophomore Brandon Taylor winds up the long-snapper. Then again, last year, FIU’s experienced special teams trio with long reliability records fell apart at key moments as they didn’t when they were younger. So, who knows about redshirt freshman punter Chris Ayers, redshirt freshman kicker Sergio Sroka and freshman kicker Austin Taylor? Junior Richard Leonard remains one of the nation’s best returners, but he and Sam Miller committed as many big turnovers as big returns.
From head coach/offensive coordinator Ron Turner on down, there’s little this staff hasn’t seen, either at the college or NFL level. How well can they effectively teach that knowledge to college kids and apply that knowledge in-game? Spotty records abound on that. Similarly, how well can they and their football operations staff monitor kids to make sure they stay eligible and out of law-crossing foolishness? They’ll spend this season finding out about their team and finding out about coaching life at FIU. Like several units on this team, an honest grade would be “incomplete.”