Like kids on their first day at a new school, FIU quarterback Jake Medlock and first-year coach Ron Turner sat in the corner of Conference USA’s Media Day room Wednesday waiting for reporters to come talk to them.
The media eventually flocked over to meet the Panthers — one of the newcomers in a restructured 14-team conference that presents a bigger challenge than the Sun Belt where the team began last season with high expectations before sputtering to a 3-9 record that led to the dismissal of former coach Mario Cristobal.
Expectations in the eyes of the media are low as FIU has been picked to finish last in the conference’s East Division.
But for a program in transition and dealing with a couple of recent off-field incidents, Turner said the team’s goal is to build a lasting foundation for years to come.
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“It’s important this season to establish our identity,” Turner said. “We’re building something that can have success and can last. That’s not to say we don’t believe we can win many games and that we’re building for the future. We’re building for now, and trying to get our core values in place.”
A year ago, FIU was believed to be one of the favorites to win the Sun Belt conference and play in what would have been its third consecutive bowl game.
Turner, a 36-year coaching veteran in college and the NFL who was the Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year at Illinois in 2001, spoke Wednesday about the uphill climb his team faces to get back to that level and starting play in their new conference on the right foot.
The Panthers return four regular starters, including two on offense.
One of the biggest ones was lost last week when running back Kedrick Rhodes was kicked off the team after being arrested for discharging a gun on-campus.
This was followed by an embarrassing incident following a team workout on Crandon Park Beach where a few players disrobed publicly. Turner later apologized for the incident.
“Those two incidents set us back,” Turner said. “We’re not where we want to be yet. But we’re working and getting better. We have to establish a foundation and build something that will last.”
One of the bright spots is Medlock, whose injury-plagued 2012 campaign was one of the reasons for the Panthers’ dismal finish.
Medlock said he’s completely healthy, and Turner expects him to thrive in the team’s new pro-style offense.
“Nothing on my body hurts anymore,” Medlock said. “I fixed my foot. I fixed my shoulder. I’m ready for a new beginning.”
Turner added: “Jake’s done a great job, and he fits into what we want to do. I love his physical skills and how he throws the ball. He’s got all the intangibles. He can make every throw we want him to make. We have to build around him, and he’ll be able to do some great things.”
Medlock and Turner know it won’t be easy to replace Rhodes, who ran for 714 yards and four touchdowns last season. Each said the team has a few potential options in sophomores Shane Coleman and Lemarq Caldwell, junior Jakhari Gore and freshman Silas Spearman.
Medlock’s health could be the biggest key to having any chance to exceed the dire preseason prognosis.
Medlock believes the new offense will be more conducive to him throwing more, running less and therefor taking fewer punishing hits.
Obviously, that will depend on a young offensive line that does not have a returning starter.
“The linemen have made good progress, but only three have playing experience,” Turner said. “Everybody has to go out and play for the first time. I think as we go and they build, they’ll develop into a good group.”
Turner said behaving responsibly off the field is one of the qualities he most wants to stress to his players especially in light of recent events.
Medlock said Turner has become a father figure for him in the seven months since becoming his coach.
“Our goal is to win a lot of games and win championships, but ultimately where these guys are 20 years from now is more important,” Turner said. “I have guys that I coached 20 years ago and I still get together with them. To see them become successful is more important.”