There’s only so much you can see from training camp practices, which begin for FIU on Wednesday morning on Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium.
But the Panthers need to see wide receiver progress to maintain an aura of optimism about this season.
The defense returns almost intact, save the safeties. That’s a defense with another year of physical maturity helping it be stouter against the run. That’s a defense with young, fast, heavy-hitting linebackers.
That’s a defense that brings preseason All-Conference USA defensive ends, seniors Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine, on the pass rush, and preseason C-USA Defensive Player of the Year cornerback Richard Leonard, who scares quarterbacks worse than a bad left tackle.
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But it’s the offense that needs to improve if FIU’s to make another two or three-win jump as the Panthers did in going from 1-11 in 2013 to 4-8 in 2014. In three of FIU’s four close losses last year, the offense scored a total of two touchdowns. They rolled over Old Dominion’s porous defense in the fourth such loss, but an interception led to a 38-35 loss on a walk-off field goal.
FIU ran the ball well enough and has three running backs — senior Anthon Samuel, sophomores Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell — who can break off a 50-yarder and don’t always need a huge hole to do it.
With then-freshman Alex McGough starting 11 of 12 games and occasionally taken out for E.J. Hilliard (now transferred to Valdosta State), FIU ranked 113th out of 125 FBS teams nationally in passing yards per game and 99th in team passing efficiency.
“The key to our offense is going to be our receivers have to step up,” FIU coach Ron Turner said.
“We’re going to be young, but I like what we have out there. They’ve just got to step up. We as an offense have to be more consistent. We did some good things last year. But we didn’t do them consistently enough and we turned the ball over too much, especially at some crucial times.”
The lack of consistent downfield production from the wide receivers took any complexity out of defending FIU — pack the box to stop the run; squat on short routes, especially safety blanket tight end Jonnu Smith; and dare the Panthers to connect on downfield. passes
A slugfest with undefeated Marshall turned into a rout when the Thundering Herd discovered the Panthers didn’t hit for distance with any regularity. Aside from the occasional bomb to Glenn Coleman, who graduated last year after averaging 20.35 yards per catch on his 23 catches, the Panthers picked up pass yardage in bites instead of chomps.
And, now, the most productive returning wide receiver is sophomore Dennis Turner (11 catches, 89 yards).
“We have some guys with some talent,” coach Turner said. “We have some guys who can play. And there might be some guys who come out of nowhere who can step up and play.”
Dennis Turner is one of the hopes among the potential bomb catchers. The FIU staff hopes a year of physical growth and learning the offense will help Turner play with the Hemi speed that made him a prized recruit.
Also expect freshman Anthony Jones out of Central High to get long looks at wide receiver.
Towering (6-4) walk-on Shawn Abrams impressed everyone in the spring, especially in the spring game, with his speed and body control.
Junior college transfer Julian Williams, whom Turner describes as “really quick,” could compete with senior Clinton Taylor for the slot receiver position.
FALL PRACTICE SCHEDULE
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 9 a.m.
Thursday, Aug. 6, 8:05 a.m.
Friday, Aug. 7, 8:05 a.m.
Saturday, Aug. 8, 8:05 a.m.
Sunday, Aug. 9, 8:05 a.m.
Monday, Aug. 10, 8:05 a.m.
Tuesday, Aug. 11, No practice
Wednesday, Aug. 12, 8:05 a.m.
Thursday, Aug. 13, 8:05 a.m.
Friday, Aug. 14, 8:05 a.m. and 7:15 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 15, 8:05 a.m.
Sunday, Aug. 16, 8:05 a.m. and 7:15 p.m.
Monday, Aug. 17, 8:05 a.m.
Tuesday, Aug. 18, No practice
Wednesday, Aug. 19, 8:05 a.m. and 7:15 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 20, 8:05 a.m.
Friday, Aug. 21, 8:05 a.m. and 7:15 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 22, 8:05 a.m.
Sunday, Aug. 23, No practice
Monday, Aug. 24, 8:05 a.m.