Despite only five wins in the last two seasons, FIU began 2015 football practice Wednesday morning with no self-esteem issues.
“A lot of confidence. Way more confidence than we had last year,” senior defensive end Michael Wakefield said. “We have more experience. We just feel it. You feel it in the atmosphere.”
The record says FIU is trying to build from 4-8. The Panthers see themselves as four-win team that should have won at least two more and needs to refine their ability to finish games so their record reflects their perception.
Coincidentally, the individual FIU most needs to grow from experience, sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, also listed that characteristic when asked about what has allowed him to grow into being the clear leader on offense.
“Confidence — in every aspect,” McGough said. “Confidence in knowing people believe in you will give you the confidence to tell them what to do and also to reflect on yourself and tell yourself what to do and let other people tell me what to do.”
The first cut at FIU’s team confidence came from a scalpel on junior left guard Jordan Budwig’s right shoulder, offseason surgery that will end his 2015 season before it begins. Budwig started all 24 games since coming to FIU from Fort Lauderdale University School in 2013 and was voted preseason First-Team All-Conference USA by the league’s coaches.
“It’s the same shoulder he had surgery on before,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “We knew he was at risk, so it was time to get it fixed.”
The loss of Budwig moves the offensive line from the Cautiously Optimistic column and closer to the Complete Uncertainty column. Two starters remain from last season, only one of them in the same position: junior left tackle Dieugot Joseph. Last year’s right tackle, senior Aaron Nielsen, now plays center, which Turner believes is Nielsen’s natural position.
Wednesday, redshirt junior Michael Montero, whose offensive experience in college has been as a backup center, played left guard with the first unit. The right side of the line could be occupied by juniors Edens Sineace and Trenton Saunders with 11 games and zero starts between them in 2014.
“We’ll rotate different guys in there [at left guard],” Turner said. “We’ve got guys we believe can step in. We’ve got really good class who redshirted last year, so we think those guys can help.”
Potential guards Josh Deyour, 6-9, 310; Chris Miller, 6-4, 345; and Kai Absheer, 6-5, 305 all redshirted their freshman seasons last year.
FIU quarterbacks took 40 sacks for minus-290 yards last year. Turner spent his first two seasons wishing his quarterbacks got the ball out quicker, although it should be said neither situation set up FIU’s quarterbacks to play instinctively.
In 2013, a leaky line and a new offense kept Jake Medlock and E.J. Hilliard too discombobulated to grow into the offense. Last year, Hilliard knew the offense, but quickly lost his job to McGough, a true freshman learning the offense.
Now, McGough is the incumbent without a close challenger and getting the vast majority of the first team reps.
“From film last year, I was indecisive,” McGough said. “I wouldn’t throw the ball. Even in the spring, I did it a little bit. So, I just tried to look through each play a hundred times and say, ‘I would go here, I would go here.’”
▪ Jose Laphitzondo, a member of the FIU Honors College, walked on as a punter last year and averaged 40.7 yards per punt on his 59 punts. Laphitzondo is no longer on the team, leaving the punting job to either redshirt junior Chris Ayers or freshman Stone Wilson out of IMG Academy.