Down here at the trying-to-break-even neighborhood of Conference USA, FIU faces Old Dominion on Saturday.
Or, on this year’s FIU schedule, Rebuilding vs. Building II.
Old Dominion’s sixth year of football also is its first in Conference USA and at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. But, much like Texas-San Antonio, a program in its fourth season that edged FIU 16-13 in the Panthers’ last road game, newer than FIU doesn’t mean younger.
“I was thinking about that the other day,” began FIU coach Ron Turner, asked to compare FIU’s situation with Old Dominion’s and UTSA’s.
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“I don’t think it’s that similar. They recruited their guys. They established their identity. We’re still in the transition period of getting all that established. I think we’ve come a long way in that regard.
“It’s a different process, a different mind-set. You’ve got guys that are there that you’re either trying to change or are not going to be here. The guys that we have fortunately who are here now have bought in 100 percent.”
For example, UTSA leads the nation in seniors on its roster, all recruited and coached by a staff headed by Larry Coker.
Similarly, Old Dominion, which returned 10 defensive starters, four-year starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke and senior wide receiver Antonio Vaughn, knows only coach Bobby Wilder’s way of doing things.
They have also known only achievement.
Heinicke’s statistics and honors could fill a media guide by itself as he perpetuated the success begun from Old Dominion’s first season: records of 9-2, 8-3, 10-3, 11-2 and 8-4 at the FCS level with two playoff appearances.
That parents an attitude of expected victory even as Old Dominion moved up to FBS this season, something obvious in a Wilder quote before last week’s loss to SEC foe Vanderbilt that stretched ODU’s losing streak to five.
“It’s frustrating, it’s frustrating for all of us as coaches, because everybody around here is used to winning,” Wilder said.
“And the biggest thing I have to emphasize with our coaching staff is that we’ve got to maintain our level of enthusiasm with the players, because they need that right now. We have got to stay consistent in what we are coaching and teaching, because it is obvious that we are close.”
Meanwhile, FIU has got a coach in his second year; a freshman quarterback (Alex McGough); its top three running backs all in their first year on the field for FIU (freshman Napoleon Maxwell, injured Alex Gardner, junior transfer Anthon Samuel); and a sophomore tight end (Jonnu Smith) as the leading receiver.
On defense, the linebackers tend toward youth. As opposing quarterbacks have taken to treating redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard’s side of the field like it’s on a State Department warning list, they’ve tested the other side.
That means sophomore cornerback Wilkenson Myrtil or, when junior Jeremiah McKinnon’s renting the doghouse as he was last week against Rice, freshman cornerback Shemarke Spence.
“If you’re building a house and there’s nothing but a lot out there and you build, that’s what they did,” Turner said.
“We took over a house — ‘All right this room needs to be torn down, let’s remodel this one, this one is really good, the foundation needs a little bit of work … a lot of work,’” Turner laughed. “There, you build the foundation how you want it and you build each room exactly how you want it. Custom build it. We’re remodeling.”