Senior Alex McGough is the only fourth-year starting quarterback in Conference USA. He has 30 career starts and is also FIU’s all-time leading passer. However, McGough took a step back last season from his stellar sophomore season. His completion percentage dropped from 64.1 percent to 58.4. His touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio dropped from 21-8 to 13-11. And his yards per game dipped from 227 to 210. But McGough, plagued by pick-sixes last year, has looked sharp in camp this summer.
RUNNING BACKS: B
The Panthers have two proven running backs in senior Alex Gardner and junior Thomas Jones. However, Jones is out with a knee injury and might not return until the third game. Last year, neither player missed a game. Gardner finished ninth in the league with 930 rushing yards, averaging 5.1 per rush. Jones added 575 yards on 4.8 per rush. They combined for 10 touchdowns. Depth after Gardner and Jones is unproven.
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RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: B+
Tight end Jonnu Smith left for the NFL as a third-round pick. He was perhaps FIU’s most talented player last season, catching 42 passes with four touchdowns. But even with the loss of Smith, FIU appears to be in good shape at tight end because of the arrival of two graduate transfers, Pharoah McKever (North Carolina State) and A.J. Sattinger (Coastal Carolina). McKever, 6-6 and 260 pounds, has been one of the stars of camp. He is agile for a big man as evidenced by a pair of 82-yard touchdowns at N.C. State. Sattinger, much smaller at 6-2, 225 pounds, could contribute as an H-back. He plays bigger than his size as a blocker, and he caught three two-point conversions in his career at Coastal. At receiver, senior Thomas Owens returns after catching 98 passes for 15 touchdowns the past two years. Sophomores Austin Maloney and Tony Gaiter IV, who combined for 32 catches last year, are set to emerge.
OFFENSIVE LINE: D
FIU allowed 30 sacks, fourth-worst in the league. Center Michael Montero, FIU’s most distinguished lineman, graduated. But returning linemen with significant experience include tackles Kai Absheer and Daquane Wilkie. The new center is Neal Mars, who started four games at guard and has shown promise.
DEFENSIVE LINE: D
FIU ranked just ninth in the league in stopping the run, allowing 5.2 yards per rush, which is a recipe for disaster. The pass rush needs work, too, as FIU compiled just 17 sacks. Junior defensive end Fermin Silva, who had five sacks last season, is the top threat. Senior Newton Salisbury (3 1/2 tackles for losses) will bookend Silva.
Senior Anthony Wint, the middle linebacker, is regarded as the 10th-best NFL prospect in Conference USA. Senior outside linebacker Treyvon Williams, like Wint, is regarded as one of the top three linebackers in the league. Williams led the team with 109 tackles last year. Wint had 108 stops, and both players had 6 1/2 tackles for loss. Sophomore Sage Lewis had 27 tackles, 2 1/2 for losses, and is the third starter.
FIU grabbed just six interceptions in a pass-happy league. The Panthers need more playmakers on this unit if that trend is to change. FIU ranked ninth in the league in allowing 61.5 percent completions by opposing quarterbacks. Cornerback Isaiah Brown led FIU with three picks last year as a freshman. The other corner is junior Emmanuel Lubin. Senior Niko Gonzalez, who has three picks the past two years, is the top safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Where have you gone T.Y. Hilton? The Panthers lack an explosive kick returner. In addition, they were last in the league in kickoff coverage and second-to-last in net punting. They also need to find a new kicker after Austin Taylor graduated.
Butch Davis arrives as a proven coach and an ace recruiter. He brings credibility to FIU football. Then again, the challenge to make FIU a consistent winner is significant.