FIU football team is ahead of the game even before the season begins

Panthers coaches and players alike say that with eligibility issues cleared up and a big crop of starters returning, heading into this season feels completely different than last.

07/23/2014 6:31 PM

07/23/2014 8:12 PM

Everybody is eligible. That’s everybody — all of FIU’s returning players and all of its 2014 recruits.

That’s the start of why FIU football coach Ron Turner feels much better about the coming season than he did a year ago.

“Comparing it to a year ago, offseason … night and day a year ago,” Turner said at Wednesday’s Conference USA media day. “Not even the same team, not the same anything. The culture has totally changed, the attitude has totally changed, the work ethic, the accountability is totally different than what it was. It’s been very positive. They’re working with a purpose, not just working.

“It’s a totally different feel down in the weight room. It’s a totally different feel talking to our academic advisors and talking to people on campus about how [the players are] handling themselves.”

Turner understands the skepticism toward this year’s FIU team from outside the program. “Skepticism” might be a polite word for “downright disdain.” The preseason conference coaches’ poll echoed all of the preseason college football magazines in picking FIU last in C-USA’s East Division. No FIU players made the coaches’ preseason all-conference team.

“We’re still going to use last year as motivation as expected, but all our focus is on this year and what we can accomplish,” fifth-year senior center Donald Senat said. “We know what it feels like to have a 1-11 season. We know what we have to do to be better than that. We’re going into every workout, every practice with that in mind.”

FIU’s problems last year started with anything related to points on their side of the scoreboard — offense and kick returns. Restoring redshirt junior cornerback/kick returner Richard Leonard and fifth-year senior wide receiver Glenn Coleman, FIU’s most talented players at those positions, automatically makes the Panthers better than last year’s 1-11 team.

Academics (Leonard, Coleman, wide receiver Willis Wright) and a felony (running back Kedrick Rhodes) stripped the Panthers of their best skill-position offensive players. Add in five new offensive line starters, a completely new offensive system, and FIU’s offense resembled afternoon rush hour westbound traffic on the Dolphin Expressway.

Now, all five starters on the line return.

“It’s continuity — you’ve got to have five guys working with one purpose,” Senat said. “We’re one of the only position groups that has to have that. Seeing that we had 12, 13, 14 games with each other, we know each other’s tendencies. We all can see a defensive front the same. So we feel as though we have that five-guys-one-mind mind-set.”

The offensive system remains the same. Turner gave offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler the “offensive coordinator” title but still will call the plays himself.

Quarterback Jake Medlock, who split starts with E.J. Hilliard last year, transferred to Valdosta State for his senior season. That lone offensive personnel loss leaves Hilliard, a junior, and freshman Alex McGough, who looked impressive in the spring, to fight it out.

“It’s a very competitive situation right now,” Turner said. “E.J. will go into camp working with the first group. He made good strides in the spring, had a good offseason, a good summer. He’s got a much better understanding of the offense. He’s worked hard on his mechanics.

“[Of] two freshmen who competed in the spring (McGough and Fort Lauderdale Dillard graduate Bud Martin), McGough is probably ahead right now. He will push, he’s going to challenge. It’s going to be a good competition.”

Turner said he’s not ruling anything out as far as how he will handle the situation.

“We might have, ‘This guy’s our starter, no question, let’s move forward,’ ” he said. “Or we could say, ‘He’s starting, but this other guy is going to play.’ We’ll see how it develops. I feel good about the position.”

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