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Key to title is FIU Golden Panthers’ strength: defense

Across the college-affiliated football land, offenses gallop ahead of defenses, leaving defenders, push-up-doing mascots and fans breathless with mismatches and broadband pace.

Still, at the top of college football last year, Alabama and LSU dueled with defense during two games. Which is why Sun Belt coaches said to win the conference, despite the plethora of returning productive quarterbacks, they would want the best defense rather than the best offense.

And that’s why FIU’s not just the consensus preseason favorite, but knows it could be headed for a big year. While some other Sun Belt contenders hope to have a good enough defense, the Panthers know they have the setup for a great defense.

Asked to name the best defensive individuals in the Sun Belt overall, Louisiana quarterback Blaine Gauthier said, “Definitely, I think FIU has a ton of them.”

They’ve got players on national award watch lists at every level — senior defensive end Tourek Williams (College Football Performance Awards Defensive Lineman), redshirt senior linebacker Winston Fraser (Lombardi Award) and senior safety Jonathan Cyprien (Jim Thorpe Award). They return not only 11 starters from a defense that ranked 14th in scoring defense, but 21 of 22 first- and second-stringers. They ended last season on a run of eight consecutive games with an interception. Junior Justin Halley led the team in interceptions last year — and wasn’t a starter.

“I’d like to see us get to the quarterback more without bringing pressure,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “We were pretty good for tackles for loss. I’d like to see us be more physical and effective in short yardage. We were OK last year. I’d like to see them, because they are mature, because they are the supposedly strong point of the football team, take over games.”

FIU’s full-game defensive failures last season came with the secondary in some disarray against Louisiana and Duke, the first two games after senior safety Chuck Grace sustained a season-ending knee injury (he got a medical redshirt); and Arkansas State, when quarterback Ryan Aplin escaped the pocket and ran for 154 yards.

“At that moment, we just weren’t doing things right,” Cyprien said of the Louisiana and Duke games. “As the games came on, we put it together. I’m proud of all our DBs. We did it the rest of the season.”

But as far as truly sitting on teams for 60 minutes, it’s a tough task for any defense these days.

“If you’re a defensive coordinator, it’s a nightmare,” Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry said. “Every week, you’re seeing a different brand of offense, a different style of offense. It’s not like 30 years ago when I got in this business, everybody was running the I-formation and the toss sweep. Every week, it’s something new. Offenses are going to score. Consequently, at some point, your defense is going to have to step up and make things happen.”

Louisiana’s Mark Hudspeth, presented with the “best defense or best offense’’ question, said, “I’m a little bit old school. But I’m sort of new age, too. By old school, I’d say, ‘I want to have the best defense.’ But the new school in me says, ‘We want to try to outscore people.’

“But at the end of the day, to me, you’ve got to have a great defense to win a championship.”

Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, whose team is the closest to the old run-it, stop-the-run mold, points out that 2011 Sun Belt winner Arkansas State did it with the Sun Belt’s best defense.

Though the FIU defense is senior heavy, this class has been encouraged to pass on a legacy of great defense. The recruiting concentration this year was on size and defense with 15 defensive signees. FIU’s top recruit, depending on which analyst you believe, is defensive end Darrian Dyson; linebacker Patrick Jean, who jilted Louisville on signing day; or linebacker Jamie Willis.

“We’re going to play a good chunk of them,” Cristobal said of the freshmen. “We’ve never been that vertical at linebacker — 6-2, 6-3, 6-3. [Freshman safety] Davison Colimon is a 100-meter hurdler champion. [Freshman safety] Jordan Davis, triple jump. [Freshman linebacker] Leroy Owens, a triple jump guy.

“So you’re looking at, long range, some explosive athletes.”

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