The most prolific quarterback, running back and wide receiver trio in FIU Panthers history formed one week into the 2014 fall training camp.
Quarterback Alex McGough, a three-star recruit from Tampa Gaither, and Alex Gardner, a two-star running back from Jacksonville Raines, had just arrived as freshmen.
But the third member of this “triplet”, two-star freshman Thomas Owens, was playing safety that first week of camp.
In high school, at Boynton Beach’s Atlantic Community, Owens had primarily been the starting quarterback and safety. But as fate would have it, his time as an FIU safety only lasted a week.
“I guess he wasn’t very good,” McGough joked.
Perhaps, but once he was switched to receiver by the previous Ron Turner-led coaching staff, everyone on that practice field took notice. “I don’t know what happened [at safety],” Gardner said, “but he was making one-handed catches right away for us.”
The rest, quite literally, is in the FIU history books.
McGough holds the FIU career record for touchdown passes (49) and the single-season records for passing yards (2,722 in 2015) and TD throws (21, also in 2015).
Gardner is FIU’s career rushing leader with 2,394 yards. He also has the most 100-yard rushing games (10), the most career catches by an FIU running back (100), and the most career receiving yards by an FIU running back (684).
Owens isn’t as high up in the record books, but he has already moved up this year to eighth in career receiving yards with 1,417.
The good news for McGough, Gardner and Owens — all of whom are seniors —is that they still have plenty of games remaining to add to their numbers.
FIU (1-1) will visit Rice on Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m., and McGough is mindful of the big picture, which is the Panthers’ string of five consecutive losing seasons that encompasses his entire college career and that of Gardner and Owens.
“We’ve always had the dream that we could be the best players to come through here,” McGough said when asked about himself, Gardner and Owens. “But we haven’t won, and that’s still in my head. That’s all I can think about.”
Gardner defined his goals clearly.
“I’m trying to help this team get to a bowl game and a conference championship,” he said. “We haven’t had a winning season in a long time. I’m just trying to help us get back there.”
Due to Hurricane Irma, FIU’s scheduled game against Indiana this week was deferred to a future season, giving the Panthers one less chance for a win. But regardless of how FIU performs as a team, Gardner has already come a long way in his career.
Listed at 5-9 and 195 pounds, size has always been an irritating subject for Gardner.
“I’ve always been seen as too small — that’s something that’s driven me,” Gardner said. “I want to show that I play bigger than my size.”
He doesn’t have to convince first-year FIU coach Butch Davis of anything. Davis has said that Gardner has “a lot of the same vision and explosiveness” of Clinton Portis, a two-time Pro Bowl running back during his 2002-2010 NFL career.
Napoleon Maxwell, Gardner’s backup, also offered praise.
“[Gardner] gets in the film room, and he brings me in along with him,” Maxwell said. “He pushes the group.”
But while Gardner is the captain of the running back group, McGough leads the entire team.
That’s according to Gardner, who was McGough’s roommate that first semester back in the fall 2014.
“He’s a great guy and a heck of ballplayer,” Gardner said of 6-3, 220-pound McGough. “He studies the game so much. If I’m down and slacking, he can tell me where I’m supposed to be. He’s a great commander.”
Owens, meanwhile, is the quietest of the three and one of the least talkative players on the team. But there’s another side to him, he said.
“If you get me out of my shell, I’m a funny dude, I’m a chill dude,” he said. “I ain’t no bad person.”
Owens leads by example, according to fellow wide receiver Julian Williams.
“He’s so fundamentally sound,” Williams said of the 6-1, 205-pound Owens. “He’s not necessarily a burner who will run 4.3. But he makes every route look the same. He has great balance and hand-eye coordination. He makes plays.”