When FIU came a-callin’ at recruiting time this year, opportunity didn’t knock for recruits. It performed a Mongo Santamaria bongo solo on their doors.
Though the Panthers lost only one offensive starter, five defensive starters and three 2012 starters could be academically eligible again, they were 1-11 in 2013. The offense ranked No. 123 out of 123 FBS programs in yards gained and third-down conversions, 122nd in scoring and 121st in first downs. The defense ranked 99th in rush defense and 116th in passing-efficiency defense.
Starting quarterback Jake Medlock chose to transfer to Valdosta State. Junior E.J. Hilliard is the only remaining quarterback with playing experience, six starts over two seasons, but nobody locks down a job while being the occasional leader for the nation’s worst offense.
So where some saw disaster, others see a chance.
With a week left before National Signing Day, FIU has verbal commitments from 26 players, including three pro-style quarterbacks (better for running FIU coach Ron Turner’s West Coast-style offense) and six wide receivers.
Already enrolled among the quarterbacks are Fort Lauderdale Dillard’s Bud Martin and Tampa Gaither’s Alex McGough. Dillard wide receiver and cornerback Dennis Turner de-committed from the University of Miami in December and committed to FIU, desperate for a big-play wide receiver, last week.
Although Jake Medlock is transferring, which subtracts FIU’s best punter also, younger brother Luke Medlock still plans on coming to FIU. Like Jake, Luke’s a pro-style quarterback and punter, who gained All-State recognition in the latter task while a junior at Neptune Beach Fletcher.
FIU’s also bringing in Donavan Williams, a 6-1, 225-pound junior college running back with 4.5 speed originally from Belton, Texas. Williams was a NJCAA honorable mention All-America selection after running for 1,024 yards, 12 touchdowns and 7.1 yards per carry (with only one fumble) for ASA College. Williams would be FIU’s biggest and, likely, fastest running back.
Jarviel Hart, a Class 3A First Team All-State defensive back for Frostproof who’ll play wide receiver at FIU, committed to FIU in October and didn’t waver.
“Last season didn’t bother me at all,” Hart told the Miami Herald via Twitter direct message. “I strongly believe in Coach Turner’s plan. We are going to turn this program around.”
Homestead linebacker Anthony Wint echoed those sentiments. Wint had attention from other schools. But FIU’s location and his comfort with the coaching staff after some previous camps pulled him to West Dade.
“The fact that they went 1-11 would be a negative, but it motivated me,” Wint said via Twitter direct message Sunday after announcing his verbal commitment to FIU. “Because, I feel like that what ‘great’ players do, they join programs and change the culture and reshape it.”
Interestingly, that’s what several members of the 2008 recruiting class said near the end of their time at FIU. That’s the class that took FIU from program nadir to zenith in four years.
They came to FIU during the program’s dark days, after the Panthers suffered through a 23-game losing streak, 0-12 in Don Strock’s final year, 2006, and 1-11 in 2007, Mario Cristobal’s first season. That class included dynamic kick returner/wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, linebacker Winston Fraser and safety Chuck Grace, among others, who started on FIU’s bowl teams of 2010 and 2011.
Throughout the fall, Turner insisted recruits weren’t bothered by the disastrous season, at times telling reporters “go talk to them about us. I can’t say who they are [by NCAA rules], but you know who they are.”
Turner said after the season, “I believe and I think everyone in this program believes our program is ascending and we are heading in the right direction.”