It will be Christmas in September.
That’s how FIU coach Butch Davis and several of his players are regarding Thursday’s season opener at the UCF Knights.
It will be Davis’ first game as head coach since 2010 at the University of North Carolina. Two of his players, starting left guard Jordan Budwig (right shoulder) and backup running back Napoleon Maxwell (left knee), are also making major comebacks after missing the past two years due to injury.
But Davis’ return is Thursday’s main story.
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“I’m excited to see these kids,” Davis said. “I’ve been around them for several months. I’ve seen all the passion and hard work they’ve put in, and now it’s like Christmas. I want to open up the packages and see what’s inside.”
Given that UCF routed FIU 53-14 in Miami last year, Davis is surely hoping that those packages don’t contain a lump of coal and instead reveal something of value.
FIU should be improved from last season, based in part on the return of fourth-year starting quarterback Alex McGough, who already owns the school record for touchdown passes, and senior running back Alex Gardner, the Panthers’ career rushing leader.
Senior wide receiver Thomas Owens, who is fourth in program history with 15 touchdown receptions, leads a fairly deep group of pass-catchers, including Julian Williams, Austin Maloney, Tony Gaiter IV and Stantley Thomas.
McGough can also look to a pair of graduate transfer tight ends: Pharoah McKever (North Carolina State) and A.J. Sattinger (Coastal Carolina).
FIU’s defense is led by seniors Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams, perhaps the best linebacker duo in Conference USA.
“I want to see how we play under the lights,” Davis said. “We have a lot of inexperienced players. I want to see if the stage is too big for them this early in their careers.”
On the other sideline, the Knights will be led by senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference. He led the league last year in tackles for losses (20.0) and sacks (11.5).
Offensively, sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton, who started seven games last year, is much improved, according to second-year coach Scott Frost.
Among the playmakers McKenzie can use are sophomore running back Adrian Killins, who set a school record last year against Michigan with an 87-yard touchdown run; junior wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, who had 57 receptions for 853 yards and five touchdowns; and running back Jawon Hamilton, a sophomore from South Dade High who led UCF with 495 yards rushing.
Add it up, and UCF is favored by 16 1/2 points. But that’s unlikely to worry any FIU player, especially Budwig and Maxwell.
Budwig’s injury dates to his junior year at Fort Lauderdale University School. After getting hurt, he came back to win a state title as a senior in 2012, playing under current St. Thomas Aquinas coach Roger Harriott.
At FIU, Budwig was an immediate success, starting all 24 games during his first two years. But then he hurt the same shoulder twice more, missing the past two years.
“I essentially have no labrum left,” Budwig said of his shoulder, “but I’m feeling good. You always think about it, but I’m beyond where I was before I got injured. I’m stronger and have 100 percent mobility.”
Maxwell’s original injury happened two years ago in practice. He caught a screen pass, made a cut and crumpled to the turf.
“Missing two years has been tough,” Maxwell said. “But this [UCF game] is like Christmas coming around the corner for me.”
Thursday: FIU @ UCF
Kickoff: 6 p.m.; Spectrum Stadium, Orlando.
TV/radio: CBSSN; WAXY 790.
Favorite: UCF by 17.
Series: UCF leads 3-2.
FIU injuries: Out — RB Anthony Jones (knee).
UCF injuries: No reported injuries.