Little went right this season for FIU. One win, 11 losses, some humiliations.
That didn’t take the emotional catches out of senior defensive lineman Greg Hickman’s voice after Friday’s season-ending loss to FAU.
“I’m sad the season’s over with. I wasn’t ready to give it up yet,” Hickman said. “Just being around the guys and enjoying my team. Next year, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing, I have no idea. I just hope my team is able to play better next year.”
The Panthers lose five senior starters off a defense that waged an almost quixotic fight throughout the season. Academics and discipline stripped depth. They spent too much time on the field hampered by an offense that spent the season finding itself.
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FIU finished last in the nation in total offense and third down efficiency, the latter partially because they were next to last in sacks allowed. As far as the bottom line, points, the Panthers averaged 9.8 points per game, 122nd out of 123 FBS teams. In FIU’s 11 previous seasons, only the 0-12 2006 team, the last coached by Don Strock, scored fewer (9.6) and even that team gained more yards per game (233.1 to 219.0).
“We’re rebuilding,” said redshirt junior quarterback Jake Medlock, who said he would be back next year. “We changed the whole offense. We went from five-wide spread to now a Power I. We tried to slow the game down a little bit. Run a power game, play action passes. I feel like we’re going in the right direction.
“That’s very positive,” he continued. “This year wasn’t very positive. But, you’ve got to look at we were missing a lot of guys. If we have some of those guys, I think the season would be different.”
Medlock’s referring to wide receivers Willis Wright and Glenn Coleman as well as cornerback Richard Leonard, all of whom were academically ineligible this year but could be back next year. Also, FIU lost starting running back Kedrick Rhodes right before training camp after he fired a gun on campus.
The loss of Leonard, FIU’s best coverage cornerback and returner, allowed teams to pay the rent throwing at whoever started opposite senior cornerback Sam Miller, usually junior Randy Harvey. It also took the lightning out of kickoff and punt returns, doubly damaging for a team so offensively challenged. FIU failed to score on a kickoff or unblocked punt return for the first season since 2005 (Nick Turnbull’s punt return touchdown that year came off a blocked punt).
Without Wright and Coleman, both 6-1, fast and big enough to outmuscle defensive backs, the Panthers wide receivers rarely got open quickly enough for the timing routes in the West Coast-based offense. Then, when they did, they often didn’t finish plays — drops and fumbles ruined several potential big plays throughout the season.
As it turned out, a freshman, tight end Jonnu Smith, became the security blanket receiver for Medlock and sophomore quarterback E.J. Hilliard. Smith quickly moved up the depth chart, caught a pass in every game and ended the season leading the team in catches (39) and yards (388).
And that’s where there might be a light at the end of a tunnel that’s not the Union Pacific. Along with Smith, fellow tight ends Ya’keem Griner and possibly Cory White (petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility) will be back. So will an offensive line that should be a year more cohesive, experienced and physically mature. At season’s start, none previously had been a regular starter at his position.
All that means FIU might be able to create more room for sophomore Lamarq Caldwell (3.5 yards per carry), freshman Silas Spearman (2.8 yards per carry) or perhaps lightning fast Hialeah commit Henry Bussey (over 10 yards per carry this season).
FIU head coach Ron Turner, in his first year, often cites George O’Leary-coached Central Florida as the team he’d like to see FIU become. FIU fans would just like to see the Panthers return at least to the level of the 2010 and 2011 bowl seasons they enjoyed under Mario Cristobal.
Number of losses in each O’Leary’s first season at UCF and Cristobal’s first at FIU: eleven.