Florida International U

Players’ goal is to lay foundation for FIU’s future

New FIU head coach Butch Davis kicks off fall practice for the Panthers football team on July 29, 2017 at Riccardo Silva Stadium.
New FIU head coach Butch Davis kicks off fall practice for the Panthers football team on July 29, 2017 at Riccardo Silva Stadium. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Former NBA star Allen Iverson’s thoughts on practice are, to a certain extent, as true today as when those infamous words left his lips two decades ago.

It’s just practice, man … but it’s also the start of a new era at FIU.

The Panthers, with new coach Butch Davis, on Saturday began full-squad preparations for their Sept. 2 season-opening game at Central Florida.

Every football team in the country is optimistic in the preseason, but Davis’ track record at least brings credibility to a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011, and has made just two bowl appearances in its history.

Athletic director Pete Garcia, who hired Davis, said he has already seen a significant change since the conditioning program began in January.

“Coach Davis has put together a dynamic staff,” Garcia said. “The players have bought in — I talked to them [Friday]. They had an exceptional offseason. The strength they have put on, the speed … they are bigger, faster and stronger.

“The thing I’ve noticed is that the players are coaching each other, and that’s remarkable. To learn a new system and then they are helping each other … that speaks volumes.”

Garcia said that the same spirit is evident in recruiting. Veteran players have gone “out of their way” to help.

“They are not just concerned about this year,” he said. “They are concerned about the future of this program. [Senior running back] Alex Gardner said he wants to leave a legacy here.”

Talk of a legacy at this point is way premature considering the Panthers are just 17-43 in the past five years, including 4-8 last season, costing coach Ron Turner his job.

Lindy’s magazine ranks FIU as the seventh-best team in the 14-member Conference USA for 2017, and No. 4 in the East Division.

Judging by the rankings, FIU will be the clear underdog in four games — on the road at UCF, Indiana and Middle Tennessee, and home against Western Kentucky. Those four programs beat FIU last season, outscoring the Panthers 178-83.

If the Panthers were to lose to those four schools again, that would leave them eight games to try to win six to be bowl eligible.

That’s the mountain the Panthers have to climb, but at least they have some experienced players such as quarterback Alex McGough, who is a fourth-year starter, and Gardner, who rushed for 930 yards last season. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry.

The receiver group, led by senior Thomas Owens, is experienced, and the defense brings back eight players who started at least six games. Linebackers Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams, safeties Niko Gonzalez and Xavier Hines and defensive end Newton Salisbury are all returning senior starters.

Davis, though, said he is concerned about his team’s depth.

“One of my biggest disappointments coming out of spring practice is that we didn’t have near enough competition at certain positions,” Davis said. “The best teams that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, at [the University of] Miami and the Dallas Cowboys and my last couple of years at North Carolina, there was unbelievable competitiveness to be the starter or on the two deep.

“We didn’t have that [at FIU] in the spring.”

That’s what these workouts under the blazing-hot sun will be about for the next month-plus. That, Mr. Iverson, is why you practice.