FIU’s defense returns a large number of starters from a unit with some high national rankings in statistics embraced by defensive coaches.
That’s a foundation of FIU hopes in 2015.
If your nearest FIU fan read the above and now displays a look of recognition and terror, there’s a reason. The same thing could be said of the 2012 FIU defense expected to lead FIU to at least a Sun Belt title, but instead collapsed like a poorly constructed Lego building on the way to a 3-9 record.
You know the true cliché about those who don’t learn from history. Enough of the 2015 defense participated in the 2012 failure or watched it from redshirt sideline seat. Much should’ve been learned to prevent a repeat.
“I can learn a lot from that season,” fifth-year senior cornerback Richard Leonard, a sophomore starter in 2012. “There was a lot of selfishness going on. This year, it seems like we’ve got young guys who are really hungry and the older guys who are really pushing them. It’s going to be a good season this year.”
Senior defensive end Michael Wakefield, a freshman then, just says, “Everybody wasn’t on the same page that season.”
Many of the seniors on FIU’s current defense value each moment on the field because, save Wakefield, they’ve come close to having football taken away from them at FIU.
“I’d call it a quiet leadership because none of them are really vocal,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “They lead through their attitude and effort. They do encourage guys and get them to do the right things, but without being vocal. None of them are. They do a good job of it. In their own way, they don’t tolerate guys not going what they’re supposed to do.”
The 2012 team returned 21 of 22 players off the two-deep roster from the 2011 team that ranked 16th nationally in points allowed. And they certainly didn’t lack for raw talent — two seniors, safety Johnathan Cyprien and defensive end Tourek Williams, got drafted by NFL teams and they remain with Jacksonville and San Diego, respectively. Cyprien’s been nothing but a starter.
Yet FIU allowed 37.4 points per game in losing seven of its first eight games.
Nothing went right. Defensive tackle Isame Faciane played the season with one healthy shoulder. Offensive troubles — early three-and-outs, going into a shell with a big lead, turnovers — quickly became defensive troubles. Bad punt snaps gifted points. Everything short of locusts befell the defense.
Barring a repeat, FIU should be a better defense in 2014 if not as occasionally spectacular. A year older, stronger and more experienced might mean a better tackling team, which Leonard identifies as the biggest area needing improvement.
FIU returns nine starters from a team that finished second in the nation in fumble recoveries, 29th in interceptions, fifth in total turnovers and eighth in turnover margin.
Turnovers can be a mercurial element, positively or negatively. According to numbers-ponderous prognosticator Phil Steele, 77 percent of teams since 1991 with a double-digit positive turnover margin had the same or worse overall record the following season.
FIU was 11 turnovers to the good last year.
“You’d like to think we’d improve on it. Realistically, that’s going to be tough to do. Those things don’t happen all the time,” Turner said. “They happen because you’ve got good players, No. 1, and they play hard, they play fast and they play physical. That’s what we did.
“I believe we’ll continue to do the same thing,” Turner continued. “We’ve got most of our guys back on defense. That doesn’t guarantee anything. But we do like what we have on defense. We have a chance to be very good defensively. If we continue to play hard and do the things we did, hopefully, the ball will bounce our way and we’ll get those turnovers again.”