For FIU and its nine returning defensive starters to go from being a good defense to being a very good to great defense, it must solve its big problems from 2014: big plays and big backs.
Big plays have become to college-affiliated football in the new millennium what traffic and tolls have become to Miami-Dade County drivers. Avoidance is impossible. But FIU’s problem with Costco-size backs doesn’t necessarily come with the football package. Thursday’s season opener against Central Florida and running back William Stanback will measure FIU’s improvement in that area.
Last season, Stanback’s First Team All-American Athletic Conference selection represented the third consecutive year the Knights produced a first-team all-conference running back. Offensive coordinator Charlie Taafe’s retirement shouldn’t take the running game out of UCF’s double helix. The new offensive coordinator is the old offensive line coach, Brent Key.
As FIU fans can recall during the era with Mario Cristobal as head coach and Alex Mirabal as offensive line coach, former offensive line coaches tend to default to the run.
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“That’s what we anticipate seeing. It’ll be a huge challenge right off the bat,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “Hopefully, the strength of our team is the defensive line and the depth of the defensive line. They’ll step up, play with great pad level, take care of their gap responsibilities and play well for us, which we anticipate them doing.”
Three seniors — ends Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine, and tackle Darrian Dyson — and redshirt junior Imarjaye Albury should give the Panthers defensive line a physical maturity overflowing into the backups. Tackle Leonard Washington and linebacker-turned-defensive end Josh Glanton are redshirt juniors and defensive tackle Lars Koht is a fifth-year senior.
Pitt’s James Conner (6-2, 240) pounded FIU for 177 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries last year. Marshall’s Devon Johnson (6-1, 244) rumbled through the Panthers for 117 yards on nine carries, plus three catches for 79 yards and the two touchdowns that turned a competitive game into a rout.
Neither can be dismissed as pedestrian backs. Conner racked up a few All-America selections last year. Johnson finished fifth in rushing, nationally, made several All-Conference USA teams and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player by the C-USA Media Association.
But they did what they did against FIU and now comes Stanback, who ran for 697 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 11 passes for 55 yards. At 6-1, 228, Stanback can be described as Conner minus an inch and 12 pounds or Marshall’s Devon Johnson minus 16 pounds.
Stopping Stanback starts with a fundamental element, according to Albury.
“Tackle. And not just street ball tackle. But tackle with technique,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been working on the most. I can say that. We do tackling circuit every day. Every day no matter what, we’re doing tackling circuit. With those big guys, you’ve got to become relentless. Another thing is, it can’t be just one or two players. You have to swarm. That’s a big emphasis, swarm to the ball.”
DAVIS ACADEMICALLY INELIGIBLE
One of the mysteries of training camp was why redshirt junior safety Jordan Davis —who started one game last year and seemed an obvious fill for one of the two vacant safety positions — seemed to have dropped down and nearly off the depth chart.
Others got worked there because Davis is academically ineligible for the first two games of the season.
Right guard Trenton Saunders foot injury won’t keep him out of Thursday’s game.
But sophomore wide receiver Shawn Abrams, expected to be a deep threat who could open the offense up, could miss up to four games with his injury.
Senior wide receiver Juwan Caesar, who underwent knee surgery last week, could be back for the home opener, Turner said.