Teams can survive quarterbacks with weak arms, weak shoulders and weak knees to attain the zenith of success. But a weak leader? The ship goes down with the quarterback.
And FIU doesn’t want this season’s ship sailing out of the Sun Belt for Conference USA without a conference title and a third consecutive bowl appearance. So much of the season that begins Saturday night at Duke rides on the leadership of strong-armed, strong- (and reattached-) shouldered — but young — Jake Medlock.
That’s why some of the senior team leaders took the redshirt sophomore aside for some supportive words.
“Jake’s a young guy, going into his sophomore season,” FIU senior safety Johnathan Cyprien said. “As seniors, we’ve been on the field more than him, if I can say it that way. He has a couple of games he started. He has wet his feet. But we just told him that with the experience he’ll get from playing versus us in spring and in camp, we believe in him. He’s been growing. We just motivate him on things he’s doing right, correct him on the things he’s going wrong, and let him know we’ve got his back.”
That’s Medlock’s mantra about what he’s done to assume the general’s role — “I let them know I’ve got their back like they’ve got mine” — with less experience than all but the tight ends in the offense.
Medlock is confident, especially now that he feels he has improved his accuracy. Swagger, however, doesn’t fit. Talking about Medlock beckons the word “presence.”
Sometimes, talking to Medlock can make you feel like you’ve suddenly got a bit part in A Few Good Men. The North Florida accent (Jacksonville Fletcher High), direct answers, liberal use of “sir,” inclusion of the rest of the platoon when possible all have that aura of not so much military discipline, but military command.
“I think he’s been embracing it well,” Cyprien said. “As time went on, from the start of spring until now, I’ve seen him grow since then. He has a presence about him.”
Medlock brings the game to go with the action hero/1970s TV detective name: a 6-3 passer with hard throws and powerful legs. In each game he played last season, one in relief of injured starter Wesley Carroll and two after replacing Carroll, Medlock ran at defenders at left them dazed.
But against Louisiana-Monroe, he left the field with a separated shoulder. End of season. Carroll took back over for wins against Monroe, Middle Tennessee State and the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl loss to Marshall.
“More than anything else, when he played last year, he gained their confidence,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “He’s really a guy who wins you over. As a former offensive lineman, I could tell you, I want to block the hell out of people for that guy. Because he’s going to bring it every single day. He’s genuine. He’s energetic. He wants to be great.”
Medlock must take control of a senior-laden offense brought in by new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey, one that Cramsey said last week is still adjusting to the players and vice versa. In discussing the deeper grasping of the offense, senior wide receiver Wayne Times, unprompted, brought up Medlock’s leadership.
Failure by Medlock is an option. But it’s an option that would leave FIU either bathing in disappointment over the missed opportunity for a landmark season or playing a quarterback with only practice snaps (redshirt freshman Lorenzo Hammonds Jr. or freshman E.J. Hilliard).
The first test of his leadership and optimism came in August. More than a few days, FIU’s deep, experienced defense pounded the FIU offense.
“We’ve kept our confidence really high,” Medlock said. “Even though defense gets us some days, it’s going to switch — defense is going to get us some days, offense is going to win some days. We’re going against one of the best defenses in the country. They’ve got great leaders over there. They’re making us a better offense.”
How much better could determine how much better — if better at all — this season can be for FIU.