In the race for recruits, FIU has been trying to get back on the lead lap for more than a month.
The engine went (former head coach Mario Cristobal fired, staff told to stop work), sending FIU recruiting off the track and stalling the process. Since Ron Turner’s hiring Jan. 4, FIU has been trying to get restarted, upshift and scramble back into the mix.
The recruiting coordinator under Cristobal, Dennis Smith, remains on staff for now. Turner is having to restart recruiting while putting together his staff.
“Obviously, that makes things more difficult,” Turner said. “I’d rather sacrifice [recruiting] and be a little short-handed for a year and get the right coaches.”
Also, like Turner, most of this staff didn’t spend last spring, summer or fall looking at high school players with FIU in mind if they were looking at high school players at all.
“You don’t know guys as well as we will next year,” Turner said. “You go off film and numbers.”
As much as South Florida and the rest of the state get mined for college talent, FIU’s new staff moves in unknown territory.
Neither the newer members of the staff nor Turner has much record of recruiting South Florida. And Cristobal, now assistant head coach at the University of Miami, walked into South Florida schools with the background (Miami-raised, UM player and assistant, resisted other offers to stay at FIU) and reputation that opened doors previously closed to FIU.
“I’ve been a lot of places, but they’ve all been in Florida,” Turner said. “I wanted to get out and be visible. Get to the local high schools. Obviously, I didn’t get to all of them, and I want to get to some more this week. Here, the Tampa area, up in the Jacksonville area. The reception we’ve gotten here has been upbeat and positive.”
Going into this recruiting season, the Cristobal staff focused on the offensive line and adding size without sacrificing speed in the secondary. Almost immediately after Cristobal’s firing, Carol City defensive back Simeon Thomas, North Miami defensive back Troy McCollum and Collins Hill (Ga.) quarterback Brett Sheehan decommitted from FIU. Earlier this month, FIU lost Jacksonville Sandalwood’s Donald Rocker, a three-star offensive tackle, and Panama City Bozeman defensive end Chandler Burkett.
Last week, FIU pulled its scholarship offer from Weston Cypress Bay center Jason Rae, a recruit rated at two stars by Scout.com and Rivals.com. who orally committed last year.
“I don’t meet their requirements of what they need as an offensive lineman,” Rae said last week by phone. “Maybe I’ll have to walk on to a school and prove myself.”
Ironically, offensive line is the position Turner singled out as a target spot.
“We need depth at each position,” he said. “Offensive line jumps out first because we lose all five starters.”
FIU remained without a coach during the end of recruiting for junior college players, costing them a shot at some offensive linemen and linebackers who were considering FIU.
FIU did manage to reel back in 6-5, 285-pound Vero Beach offensive lineman Chris Flaig, a July commit who had reopened his recruitment after Cristobal’s firing. Flaig is rated at two to three stars depending on the recruiting site. And, thus far, the Panthers have hung on to Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson’s Sandley Jean-Felix, 6-5, 285-pound offensive tackle.
Davie University School’s Jordan Budwig, a two-star lineman who FIU extended an offer to recently, orally committed Sunday, as did Palm Beach Gardens 6-5, 275-pound Second Team All-State lineman James Cruise.
What the list of commits lacks right now is a quarterback. Last year’s class included current backup E.J. Hilliard out of Miami Northwestern, who enrolled mid-year, and Favian Upshaw from Titusville Astronaut. FIU hosted Louisville Trinity’s Travis Wright, Kentucky’s top-ranked quarterback, this past weekend.