Florida International U

FIU Panthers add lots of talent but not experience

The noticeable difference in FIU’s first fall practice Monday: numbers.

Not that No. 9 now belonged to wide receiver DeAndre Jasper instead of Kedrick Rhodes, the dismissed leading rusher of 2011 and 2012. Or that No. 7, the number of model citizen/second-round NFL Draft pick safety Johnathan Cyprien, successor to current Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Anthony Gaitor, now belongs to freshman quarterback Travis Wright.

But it’s the sheer number of bodies running around, especially compared with the spring. A large departed senior class, some transfers and no early enrollments combined to give those first practices under Ron Turner’s staff the feel of an overgrown pickup game.

On Monday, 97 players bounded about FIU Stadium. Though missing probable starting center Donald Senat, excused from practice to walk in the summer graduation ceremony, the offensive line numbered more than enough to run drills normally (not the case in April).

The bulk of the increase, of course, are the 25 freshmen. That’s a maximum size signing class, but FIU supplemented the predictable signing class attrition — academics, injuries — with some transfers and late-recruited freshmen.

“We’re probably the youngest team in college football as far as experience goes,” Turner said. “But we also have some talent. How quickly they can step up will be key.”

Some of the freshmen FIU picked up post signing day include Wright; Brad Hyman-Muhammad, a Class 2A All-State wide receiver from St. Petersburg Admiral Farragut now listed at cornerback; and Riverview Spoto High running back Eric Moate, a 1,000-yard back as a junior who missed most of his senior year with a broken foot.

“A lot of those guys are walk-on guys that we had on our radar, but we didn’t have a spot for,” Turner said. “They wanted to be a part of this.”

Three who won’t be a part of things, at least until classes start Aug. 26, are senior wide receiver Willis Wright, redshirt junior running back Jakhari Gore and redshirt freshman safety Adrian Jenkins. Academic shortcomings need to be addressed before they can join practice. Even if they join at that late date, they probably won’t be truly ready for at least the first two games.

Wright caught 19 passes for five touchdowns and averaged 27.6 yards per catch in the last six games last season. Glenn Coleman, the other highly talented senior wide receiver, was at practice. Gore, cousin of former UM and current San Francisco 49ers star Frank Gore, transferred from LSU last season.

No Gore and no Rhodes opens up about 300 carries for the remaining running backs. Sophomore Lemarq Caldwell, a fullback last season, took snaps with the first team, although redshirt sophomore Shane Coleman also worked in with the No. 1 unit.

Coleman and Rhodes were good friends. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t realize that the door closing on Rhodes opens it for him after two years of limited play.

“No backs really got experience, so we’ve all got to step up to the plate. I had the most rushing yards last year with eight carries,” Coleman said. “We’re all basically freshmen, really.”

If there was a star of Monday’s practice, it was junior cornerback Richard Leonard, who twice picked off redshirt junior quarterback Jake Medlock for a pair of touchdown returns. Afterward, Medlock lauded Leonard’s football intelligence, which Leonard credited to learning how to watch film this offseason.

“That was my biggest thing, learning how to watch film,” Leonard said. “But I’m having fun. I’m just having fun out there.”

Turner said of Monday’s practice, “I loved the energy and the focus, very, very good focus. As long as we have that, we can take care of the other stuff. The mistakes and stuff are all correctable as long as we maintain that energy and focus. There’s definitely carryover from where we left off in the spring.”

Related stories from Miami Herald