Florida International U

Here’s an analysis of what Butch Davis inherits at FIU

Butch Davis is named head coach of FIU Football at FIU Stadium on Tues., Nov. 15, 2016
Butch Davis is named head coach of FIU Football at FIU Stadium on Tues., Nov. 15, 2016 adiaz@miamiherald.com

As new FIU coach Butch Davis gets ready to sign his first Panthers recruiting class in February, he has a unique chip that wasn’t available to previous coach Ron Turner.

FIU will play the University of Miami in 2019 and 2021. Davis can offer FIU players a chance to prove Miami wrong for not recruiting them.

That recruiting pitch could pan out in the coming weeks. In the meantime, it is fair to ponder this question: Exactly what does Davis inherit in terms of FIU’s 2017 football talent?

Ex-FIU quarterback Wes Carroll, now an analyst on Panthers broadcasts, said the personnel is good enough to be a bowl team under Davis in 2017.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Carroll said, “if [Davis] went after some junior-college recruits to give him a better chance to win right away.”

With FIU (4-7, 4-3 Conference USA) set to play its 2016 season finale at Old Dominion (8-3, 6-1) on Saturday, here’s a closer look at what the Panthers will look like in 2017:

▪ Offense’s top graduation losses: Center Michael Montero is the leader of the line, and tight end Jonnu Smith is the team’s best NFL prospect. Capable backups are in place, however, in center Neal Mars and tight end A.J. Branisel.

▪ Top returners on offense: FIU returns two good running backs in Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones and every significant wide receiver, including top pass catcher Thomas Owens and deep threat Stantley Thomas. There’s good depth with receivers Tony Gaiter IV, Darrius Scott and Austin Mahoney.

▪ Top issue on offense: Figuring out the quarterback will be the key. Alex McGough returns for what will likely be his fourth season as the starter, and that kind of experience can be invaluable.

But McGough needs to cut down on his interceptions. In eight starts he has been picked 11 times, and five of those were returned for touchdowns.

Maurice Alexander, who has three starts this season as a redshirt freshman, is small for the position (6-0, 180) but could be valuable in a spread system because of his elusiveness.

Christian Alexander, another redshirt freshman, is intriguing. He has received little playing time but has done well with his chances, completing 8 of 12 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His completion percentage and efficiency rating are easily the best among the three FIU quarterbacks.

▪ Defense’s top graduation losses: Defensive tackles Imarjaye Albury and Leonard Washington will be gone, but that shouldn’t be crippling for the Panthers, who could go the JUCO route here.

▪ Top returners on defense: Linebackers Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams, both seniors next season, are two of the best in the league.

“Those two make just about every play,” Carroll said. “They are perfect fits for this conference in that they can run sideline to sideline.”

▪ Top issue on defense: Conference USA is an up-tempo passing league, and yet FIU has just five interceptions this season, tied for last in the conference. The Panthers are also third-worst in sacks and second-worst in turnover margin. Davis is a defensive-minded coach, and he will have to find a lot more big-play guys for 2017.

“My guess is that Butch will bring in a much more aggressive defensive line,” said former center Brett Romberg, who played for Davis at Miami and is now a college football analyst for BEIN Sports. “Butch has a knack for finding that kid who may be hard to handle [behaviorally] but will pan out for him. That will make all the difference in the world.”