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FIU Golden Panthers again voted as Sun Belt favorites

Everybody loves FIU football these days.

Most preseason publications pick FIU to win the Sun Belt in its last season before moving to Conference USA. The preseason All-Sun Belt team, a poll of coaches and media, includes three FIU offensive players and four on defense, the most of any school.

Sun Belt coaches picked FIU No. 1 in their preseason poll. No surprise considering the consensus is still defense wins and FIU returns 11 starters of a defense that ranked 14th nationally in scoring defense.

It all looks so good. Even better than last year when preseason Sun Belt favorite FIU went 5-3 in the conference on its way to an 8-4 regular-season record.

“I think you said it best right there — ‘again,’ ” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said when asked how to guide his team through the advance adulation. “Human nature is what it is, but in this case, human nature might serve us well. We’ve kind of seen this picture before. We had a great start, stumbled a little bit, then got back on track. That’s going to serve us as a great example.

“And the other part of it is the way we work and approach it with them. As we know, kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Being very up front and honest about it — if we focus on these polls, our goals will go out the window. All the chatter, all the noise has to be thrown out and can never be part of the process.”

Said FIU senior safety Jonathan Cyprien: “We just have to keep humbling ourselves. We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to last season. We’re training right now for that reason.”

Cyprien is one of the All-Sun Belt picks, along with senior defensive end Tourek Williams, the preseason Defensive Player of the Year selection; junior defensive tackle Isame Faciane; redshirt senior linebacker Winston Fraser; junior running back Kedrick Rhodes; senior offensive left tackle Caylin Hauptmann; and senior offensive right tackle Rupert Bryan.

And FIU kicker Jack Griffin, last year’s First Team All-Sun Belt kicker and on the Lou Groza Award Watch List, got shunted aside in the preseason poll for Louisiana-Lafayette’s Brett Baer.

You will note that’s representation from offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, secondary and offensive skill positions. The only area in which FIU carries more uncertainty than its Sun Belt brethren is the most important position: quarterback.

While other expected contenders such as defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State (Ryan Aplin, the 2011 Sun Belt Player of the Year); Louisiana-Lafayette (Blaine Gauthier); Louisiana-Monroe (Kolton Browning); and even ground-bound Western Kentucky (Kawaun Jakes) bring back their quarterbacks, FIU returns redshirt sophomore Jake Medlock.

Medlock played three quarters against Lafayette as a backup; the whole game against FAU after taking over the starting job from Wesley Carroll; and the first few plays at Louisiana-Monroe before sustaining a shoulder injury when he tried to run over a linebacker.

Behind Medlock are redshirt freshman Lorenzo Hammonds and true freshman E.J. Hilliard out of Northwestern High.

Cristobal said he hopes the talent surrounding Medlock will alleviate any pressure to overextend himself.

“To me, the best approach with Jake is, ‘You be you and don’t worry about having to lead everybody,’ ” Cristobal said. “We have mature guys up front. We have mature guys back there. Those guys will help him settle down some. He needs to be efficient, smart with the football and accurate.

“He needs to make good decisions. He doesn’t have to get outside of that.”

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