For all the NFL and college coaching experience held by the FIU coaching staff, much of its 2013 success or failure turns on the coaching abilities of a bunch of sub-21s who have never coached a down.
Every college team does summer players-only workouts to get in work while complying with NCAA rules that limit official coaching contact. The importance of those sessions were magnified at FIU this year what with an inexperienced team and a new coaching staff bringing in different offensive and defensive schemes.
So what happened in July under the direction of quarterbacks redshirt junior Jake Medlock and sophomore E.J. Hilliard and seniors such as linebacker Markeith Russell and defensive tackle Isame Faciane had greater correlation with what could happen in the fall.
“They did a tremendous job this summer,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “I challenged the players to lead the drills for the players to take charge. We came back better than the last day of spring ball as far as knowledge and understanding the system. We came back in good shape, but mentally we came back way better than we’d been in spring ball, which is not always the case. A lot of times, you take a step back.
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“It meant we had some leadership, some guys doing something this summer. It was good to see.”
Turner said if it hadn’t, “we’d be in huge trouble. The last week and a half of spring ball, it was like the light — I wouldn’t say came on, but it started to flicker. They were starting to get it.”
Turner caught some luck with Medlock taking charge because last year’s starting quarterback is a football coach’s son (Ricky Medlock has been Jacksonville Fletcher High’s offensive coordinator since 1997) and he has through this before.
Last season, new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey brought what was supposed to be an up-tempo offense similar to the one Oregon almost ran to the 2010 national title. Although that didn’t quite wind up working as designed, the experience from last year made teaching this year’s offense easier.
“I went upstairs, watched a lot of film, got all the plays in,” Medlock said. “I wrote down the scripts myself. I got the team out there. I got to the receivers early, before we went out, we went over every play. We went out there, just us players, and perfected every play.”
Turner said the most successful summer practices he has known hewed as closely as possible to regular practices: position drills, seven-on-seven, etc. Players, all of whom were in town for the second academic summer session, were granted access to the field. They set the practice times, lengths of practice and punished their own for tardiness.
Also, the summer sessions allowed new leaders to emerge on what might be the youngest Football Bowl Subdivision team. Redshirt sophomore T.J. Lowder, who got into six games and caught only five passes last season, said he was one of those in charge of the wide receivers.
“It made me feel good because it let me know that they’re really counting on me this year,” said Lowder, whose fall practice repetitions have been with the first team. “I wanted to step up and be a leader this year anyway because I feel like that’s what I need to be doing.”
Medlock said he could see a difference the second day of fall practice.
“Day 2 when we started, the whole team was locked in,” he said. “Everyone was here 30 minutes early, ready to go.”