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Cornering the market
CROWDED BACKFIELD: The Golden Panthers from left, Marshall McDuffie, Robert Mitchell, Anthony Gaitor, Ashlyn Parker and Jeremiah Weatherspoon to the secondary. AL DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Ashlyn Parker didn't need any reminders -- even though they were provided from time to time -- that he was up against the No. 4 pass defense in college football when he arrived at FIU his freshman season in 2005.

As an all-state receiver who led Port St. Joe High to a state championship his senior season, Parker rarely encountered a pass defense he couldn't solve.

But when Parker began his career as a receiver for the Golden Panthers he quickly got an education.

"You could tell when you got out there it was no joke," said Parker, of FIU's 2005 secondary, which had three players go on to NFL camps. "[The secondary] made it clear to us in practice when we went against them [that they were No. 4 in the nation]. So I knew they were good."

The 2008 Golden Panthers secondary has the chance to be good, but the pass defense can crack the top 10 remains to be seen.

After all, FIU was ranked 80th last season.


Three members of that 2005 secondary did not play in 2007. With their return, the Golden Panthers' strength on defense should be its cornerbacks and safeties.

"Without question, at least right now, it is," said FIU coach Mario Cristobal. "We are abnormally large at the safety position. We are linebacker-size back there, but we run like the little guys."

Parker -- who moved from receiver to safety his sophomore season -- provided size at 6-1, 207 pounds last season, but it will be the presence of safeties Jeremiah Weatherspoon (a 6-2, 221-pound junior) and Marshall McDuffie (a 6-2, 212-pound senior) that will have receivers thinking twice about going over the middle.

Add freshman Chuck Grace (5-11, 185), who has been a ball hawk this month in camp, and the surplus of size gave the Golden Panthers the luxury of moving Alonzo Phillips (6-1, 190) from safety to receiver.

"We have a lot of guys this year in the secondary," Parker said. "Last year we were kind of limited. This year we can pick and choose to do different things with different people."

Weatherspoon (academics) and McDuffie (suspension), who were a freshman and a sophomore, respectively, on that 2005 defense, did not play last season. But in spring practice, the duo rapidly learned and executed the new Golden Panthers defense.

"Weatherspoon and McDuffie showed in the spring and before [in 2005] that they have the ability to get us in the right situations and get us out of bad situations," said defensive backs coach Jeff Popovich.

Senior cornerback Robert Mitchell, a freshman in 2005, missed most of last season with a foot injury.

Mitchell is healthy now and defending like he did in 2005.

Much like the secondary did in Mitchell's freshman season, this year's unit feeds off each other.

"We help each other and coach each other," Mitchell said. "We do a lot of player-coaching around here."

Some of that player-coaching goes toward the 10 underclassmen in the secondary.

Like the rest of the Golden Panthers, there is plenty of youth to be served in the defensive backfield, as well. FIU has seven freshmen and three sophomores in the secondary.

"You never know what could happen with young guys," Popovich said. "Like [sophomore Anthony] Gaitor last year, he ended up starting right away. Gaitor is now like a junior with the experience of last year."


Gaitor, who is expected to start with Mitchell at cornerback, has been doing his part to speed the learning curve for the freshmen.

This summer Gaitor worked with freshman Emmanuel Souarin on his footwork and the two saw plenty of film.

"When I came in I had the upperclassmen helping me out," Gaitor said. "I felt it is my responsibility to help [Souarin] out and get him to know the system, because he and the rest of the freshmen are going to be impact players this year."

But can this secondary be as good as the group in 2005?

"We had a great pass rush, great linebackers and we just did our part," said McDuffie, who holds the school record with 82-yard interception return for a touchdown against Florida Atlantic in 2005. "So it was nothing amazing we did, we just played football. This [2008] group is definitely experienced. Hopefully we'll be better than [the 2005 pass defense]."

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