When it comes to running backs, FIU’s not going into the season slinging (or singing) Meatloaf and hoping two out of three ain’t bad. After all, fifth-year senior Anthon Samuel and sophomore Alex Gardner did tie for the team rushing lead last year.
But losing sophomore Napoleon Maxwell to a torn knee ligament off a non-contact practice injury took a little bit of the fun out of comparing and contrasting the trio of backs. We’ll do it anyway as FIU begins game week preparations Friday for Thursday’s season opener at Central Florida.
Appropriate because UCF squashed the run last year flatter than a free seating pad on FIU Stadium bleachers. The Knights ranked sixth nationally last year in rushing defense and brings back most of its defensive line, but must rebuild at linebacker.
On the official numbers, Maxwell’s the biggest, at 6-0, 203 and an inch taller and three pounds heavier than Samuel. Gardner’s 5-9, 192 officially, the closest to “change of pace” back size and style.
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“Al is probably the most versatile of the group as far as being able to run inside, being able to run outside, being able to catch the ball out of the backfield, being able to split him out,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “Anthon’s more of a power runner, better pass protector. Both have really good vision in the hole.
“Napoleon is more big, straight ahead, speed. He’s got really, really good speed. But last year when he went in, he did show some knack for finding holes.”
Maxwell actually had the longest reception among the three in 2014, a 57-yard touchdown against Old Dominion during which he shed or danced by potential tacklers. Gardner broke off the longest run, a 62-yarder against FCS whipping boy Wagner.
Turner noted after working with last year’s running backs coach Kerry Dixon and Tim Harris Jr. this year, Maxwell had started running with the lower pad level necessary to prevent getting blasted in the hole. He agreed Maxwell’s more of a one-cut runner, the type that used to excel in with the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan.
“Al’s a jump cutter with good vision,” Turner said. “And Anthon’s a good-vision, hit-it, bull his way for 3 or 4 yards if needed [runner].”
As for how Gardner and Samuel measure the group … (At the time of these interviews, Maxwell was already injured, thus off limits to the media by FIU policy).
Samuel: “I’ll put it like this. ... On paper, it says me. All those guys are fast. We’d actually have to race.”
Gardner: “Of course, I’m going to say myself, but I think Napoleon is the fastest of us.”
Samuel: “Me. Those guys are young. I’m a senior, I’m supposed to be stronger. When they get to my year, those guys are going to be faster and stronger.”
Gardner: “It’s either Napoleon or Anthon. … I think it’s Anthon.”
Samuel started a fake hedge, then laughed: “A1. I’ll be honest. He’s very quick.”
Gardner: “Oh, I’ve got the best moves, by far.”
When FIU opened as a 17-point underdog to Central Florida, it meant FIU would be the underdog for the 11th consecutive game overall, the 23rd consecutive game against Football Bowl Subdivision competition and 24th game overall out of 25 since 2013.
The exception was last year’s home game against Football Championship Subdivision middleweight Wagner. Since beginning the 2012 season as the Sun Belt Conference favorite and getting three points worth of Top 25 votes, FIU has been favored in only three games overall and only two involving FBS teams: 2012 games vs. Akron (won 41-38 in overtime) and at South Alabama (won 28-20).