Behind sophomore quarterback Alex McGough who started 11 games as a freshman sit four freshmen or redshirt freshmen on FIU’s depth chart. Returning wide receivers caught only 21 passes in 2014.
While that leaves plenty of opportunity for the flock of incoming 2015 wide receivers, FIU coach Ron Turner admits the lack of experience concerns him a bit. The situation results from six wide receivers or quarterbacks from 2014 asking for transfers or being told not to return with a year of eligibility remaining.
Each player’s situation is different. But the blues sung by two players and a players’ parent who spoke to The Herald claim the coaching staff treated them with an arrogant disdain and obstinately fielded this staff’s recruits to team detriment. FIU went 4-8 in 2014 after 1-11 in 2013.
Turner’s version: some veteran players couldn’t handle losing playing time to a freshman or sophomore. And a fifth year as a senior isn’t guaranteed.
As part of Turner’s recruiting pitch, he tells recruits the best players will play regardless of class. Seven freshmen either started or took regular backup snaps for FIU last season. Freshman Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell were FIU’s Nos. 1 and 3 rushers. Sight alone separates FIU’s defense into two categories last year – With freshman linebacker Anthony Wint and Without Wint, who missed four games with a knee injury.
"A coach should care about his players," said wide receiver Fred Porter, jettisoned after the season. "There should be some kind of relationship. There is no relationship. I don’t feel like he had any respect for us, especially when it came to dealing with conflicts."
Elgin Hilliard, father of former starting quarterback E.J. Hilliard, said it seemed "things were done in a retaliatory way" toward players perceived as truculent.
Hilliard transferred to Division II Valdosta State after playing in 22 games and starting eight over three seasons. That’s where 2012 and 2013 FIU starting quarterback Jake Medlock transferred a year ago. Also leaving: would-be fifth-year senior wide receivers Richard Burrows, Dominique Rhymes and T.J. Lowder, junior wide receiver De Andre Jasper and junior running back Lamarq Caldwell.
None had the kind of 2014 they anticipated. The five wide receivers combined for 30 catches, 294 yards and one touchdown. Hilliard completed 33 of 48 passes for 336 yards one touchdown and no interceptions. Caldwell, who took a beating as FIU’s leading rusher behind a leaky line in 2013, ran for 58 yards on 20 carries.
"The lack of production from the wide receiver spot stems from the lack of experience from the quarterback spot," Porter said.
Former walk-on Porter got put on scholarship in 2013 and would’ve been a fifth-year senior in 2015 as a graduate student. He said he’d been told his scholarship was "probationary." Just days before his December graduation, however, he learned his scholarship was being truncated to end with the 2014 fall semester.
He planned to begin graduate school in January. So, he appealed, pointing out that the scholarship contract says it’s for the entire 2014-15 school year. His scholarship was reinstated last weekend for the rest of this academic year.
"I’ve never seen a coach dismiss a player with zero infractions against him," said Porter, a Dean’s List student who hosted recruits. "That’s what (Turner) did."
Burrows, who received his undergraduate degree last summer, said, "He’s preaching to us we need to be accountable, disciplined grades. Basically, everything except for (on-field) numbers, we are what he wants.
"Who has numbers? If they wanted to go by numbers, they’d only bring back (tight end) Jonnu (Smith)."
Referring to Burrows and Porter, Turner said, "One was mutual and the other we chose not to bring back. Which is what you do. You’re here to get your degree, they got their degree."
Quarterbacks and wide receivers comprise seven of the aforementioned eight players. Both the quarterbacks coach and the wide receivers coach are Cam Turner, son of Ron Turner. Before coming to FIU, Cam Turner’s coaching experience was one year coaching The Citadel’s wide receivers and special teams.
"It’s one thing to have an inexperienced coach," Porter said, "but I feel like (former wide receivers coach Frank) Ponce cared a lot more. That whole coaching staff cared."
The elder Turner was asked if he needed to have a conversation with his quarterbacks and receivers coach.
"We talk all the time. I don’t think it has anything to do with that," Ron Turner said. "It has to do with what is best for this team. It has to do with attitude and what is best for this team. The guys we have in that locker room now, we have 100 percent all in. Last year, I don’t think we had 100 percent all in. It was way better than it was the year before. But we had some guys that it was still more about them than it was the team."
Hilliard, Rhymes, Burrows and Caldwell started throughout the 2014 spring, training camp and in the season-opening loss to Bethune-Cookman. After three three-and-outs in four possessions, Hilliard got pulled for McGough. Hilliard and McGough alternated at quarterback over the next two games before McGough took the starting job permanently.
A carousel of wide receivers, including freshman Dennis Turner, turned throughout the season. All could be just as erratic as McGough, who completed 50.3 percent of his passes, threw 14 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. The offense that stampeded Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee State and Old Dominion stumbled against Texas-San Antonio, Marshall and Rice.
Reliability rested solely with sophomore tight end Smith, whose 61 catches for 710 yards and eight touchdowns made him FIU’s leading receiver for the second consecutive year.
In his December postseason conversation with The Herald, Ron Turner said, "I expected to see more, especially in the passing game. There are reasons why – we’ve got a true freshman quarterback. But I think he’s a very good true freshman quarterback. Receiver-wise, I was a little disappointed we didn’t have anyone step up and do what I wanted to do. We were shuffling a lot of guys in there. I didn’t like doing that, but no one really stepped up, took it and made it clear, ‘I’m your guy.’"
Porter and Burrows felt the Bethune starting group got yanked too quickly and never got another fair shot. Burrows and Caldwell never started another game. Caldwell got beaten out by the faster, more elusive Gardner and ended the season suspended for violating team rules. Rhymes got left in Miami for the season finale road trip to North Texas. So did Hilliard after missing a Friday morning meeting hours before the team flew to the Dallas Metroplex.
(Elgin Hilliard said his son tried to contact both Turners all morning after the missed meeting, but got no response until after FIU boarded the plane. Ron Turner said E.J. Hilliard never tried to contact any of his coaches. Similarly, Porter said he got no response from the Turners when unsure about whether he was excused from a postseason team meeting two days before Thanksgiving. Ron Turner said his phone had run out of charge, but Cam Turner contacted Porter nine minutes after receiving Porter’s message. Porter said he drove four hours back for the meeting).
Porter, who got into sideline contretemps with Turner during the game after a false start penalty, and Burrows quietly protested the absences of No. 13 Hilliard and No. 36 Caldwell.
"I put on my [eye] black "13" he put "36,"" Burrows said. "That was the reason we lost the game. That’s what [Ron Turner] told us. ‘We’ve got guys with eye black saying, "Free 36" and "Free 13.’" Through an FIU spokesman, Ron Turner denied saying that was why FIU lost but admits to saying it was a distraction.
Burrows and Porter admit to feeling a strong bond with Rhymes, Hilliard, Lowder and Caldwell. Porter went to Tampa Bay Tech with Caldwell.
"We’ve been with E.J. since he’s been here. Nothing against Alex, we respected EJ more because he’s been with us," Porter said. "He knew the playbook more than anybody. We had the quarterbacks and receivers in the same room. EJ knew the playbook in and out like the back of his hand."
Porter, Burrows and Elgin Hilliard all wondered why E.J. Hilliard didn’t get a second bite at starting when the offense struggled at midseason.
"We felt like the whole EJ and Alex thing was in the works from the first day he stepped on the field in the spring," Porter said.
"They felt obligated to start EJ because he started the previous year," Burrows said.
"But we knew they wanted (McGough) to play," Porter said. "Whether it was a vendetta against EJ because of his personality, how he handled things..."
Ron Turner said, "The guys who left, it was their third year, fourth or fifth year coming up and felt that they should be "the guy." Some of them got beat out. It was hard for them to handle. It was time for them to move on. It’s definitely best for the team. It’s not that they’re bad guys. We have guys we felt were better who gave us the best chance to win."
Porter said, "It’s a business. We’re numbers. He treats it like the NFL. In the NFL, if a coach doesn’t like a guy, he’s going to release him straight up. At the end of the day, we’re students, student-athletes. That’s what you label us as."
Name Pos School Ht/Wt
Christian Alexander QB Lakeland Christian 6-3, 205
Anthony Jones WR/RB Central 6-0, 192
Fermin Silva OLB Miami Central 6-2, 225
Maurice Alexander QB Miami Booker T Washington 5-11, 170
Terry Bennett RB Jacksonville Atlantic Coast 6-0, 205
Andrew Burgess OT Neptune Beach Fletcher 6-6, 300
Mac Carey TE Tallahassee Leon 6-1, 231
Olin Cushion CB Miami Central 5-10, 170
Deion Eakins OL Jacksonville Trinity Christian 6-3, 315
Raymond Gage WR Homestead Keys Gate 5-10, 175
Jestin Green WR St. Petersburg Admiral Farragut Academy 6-2, 180
R.J. Harris OG Tallahassee North Florida Christian 6-3, 260
Mark Hutchinson WR Zephyrhills Wiregrass Ranch 6-2, 205
Milord Juste DE Palm Beach Gardens 6-0, 240
Sage Lewis LB Miami Gardens Monsignor Edward Pace 6-1, 210
Emmanuel Lubin CB North Miami Beach 6-1, 170
Neal Mars OL Orange Park Fleming Island 6-1, 231
Austin Maloney WR Miami Columbus 5-11, 175
Bryce Mingo-Bradley DL/OL Boynton Beach Community High 6-4, 260
Irick McDonald OLB Hialeah Champagnat Catholic 6-3, 190
Collin Olsen RB Port Orange Spruce Creek 6-1, 227
Ocie Rose CB Miami Booker T. Washington 6-2-190
Justin Williams WR Milledgeville Georgia Military College Prep 5-11, 190
Stone Wilson P/K Bradenton IMG Academy 5-11, 170