The Herald’s David J. Neal grades the FIU Panthers by position, and also the coaching staff:
E.J. Hilliard played as a true freshman, then learning Ron Turner’s offense turned his sophomore year into a refreshman year. Word is Hilliard’s making quicker, better decisions than a year ago when his on-the-job West Coast offense training didn’t include pass protection or a running game. Hilliard’s an effective runner or scrambler when he makes the decisive decision to do one or the other. Injuries caused FIU’s starting quarterbacks to miss time each of the past three seasons. So, get ready, freshman Alex McGough. Grade: C
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The land of opportunity. “Running back by committee” really is an invitation for someone to take the top spot the way Kedrick Rhodes slipped and shook his way to the feature job in 2011. Three-star freshman Alex Gardner out of Jacksonville Raines could pull a Rhodes this year. Junior Lamarq Caldwell is a short-yardage back. Sophomores Silas Spearman and Alfonso Randolph need to rebound from knee injuries. Last year’s young backfield got little help from a leaky line and provided no big plays. This year, everybody should be in a better situation. Grade: C+
They have shown speed and inconsistent catching skill, except for sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith, FIU’s best skill position player in 2013. Smith’s size (6-2, 225) and hands prompted some use in the slot to create matchup problems. In training camp, freshman Dennis Turner has allegedly shown the explosiveness FIU badly needs and the other school in town wanted when it recruited Turner. That’s what fifth-year senior Glenn Coleman had before he spent a year re-establishing his eligibility. If Coleman still has it and redshirt junior Dominique Rhymes brings his hands up to the rest of his physical tools, the Panthers’ options expand exponentially. Redshirt junior Ya’keem Griner and sixth-year senior Cory White should provide a play or three at tight end. Grade: B-
You learn from playing and your mistakes. All five starters — fifth-year senior left tackle David Delsoin, sophomore left guard Jordan Budwig, center Donald Senat and right guard Jordan White (both fifth-year seniors) and redshirt junior right tackle Aaron Nielsen — return after a season of much playing time and many mistakes. What they learned should bear fruit this season in a better running game; more yardage on first down; better third-down percentage; longer possessions that keep the defense from being ground down. And there’s functional depth. If this isn’t the most improved unit, FIU’s season can be described as 12 Angry Weeks. Grade: C+
Junior Michael Wakefield, redshirt junior Denzell Perine and senior Giovanni Francois started a combined 22 games last year, but produced only five sacks. Everything pivots on the the middle, however. Three former three-star recruits — redshirt sophomore Marques Cheeks, junior Darrian Dyson, redshirt sophomore Imarjaye Albury — and redshirt sophomore Leonard Washington attempt to replace defensive tackles Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman, both trying to earn NFL roster spots. Grade: C-
FIU has athletic ability and speed at the outside linebacker spots with junior Patrick Jean, junior Davison Colimon and redshirt freshman Jordan Guest. But as with the defensive line, it’s about the men in the middle, especially with such uncertainty at defensive tackle. After starting 12 games at outside linebacker in 2013, redshirt junior Luis Rosado moved to the middle in the spring. Sophomore Treyvon Williams, a more natural talent, spent his freshman year playing second-team middle linebacker. All must improve in pass coverage. Grade : C
The return of redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard from academic purgatory, the return of junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon from Turner’s doghouse and the emergence of sophomore Wilkenson Myrtil give this unit impressive depth and speed. Senior Randy Harvey might be in a fight to keep his starting job. Among the safeties, the ball finds fifth-year senior Justin Halley while senior Demarkus Perkins finds opponents with great violence. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Davis will find it tough to get past either one on the depth chart. Grade: B+
Here’s how much better Richard Leonard makes FIU’s returners: only three 2013 FIU kickoff returns exceeded Leonard’s 2012 29.2 yards per return average. FIU led Conference USA in net punting in conference games. But that punter, quarterback Jake Medlock, transferred so we don’t know who will assume the position. Sophomore kicker Austin Taylor hit five of five under 40 yards, three of seven 40 yards and over. Also, whether Taylor or fellow sophomore Serge Sroka, FIU’s kickoffs fluttered only 56.1 yards per kick, way too short. Grade: B.
With so many players he didn’t recruit and lacking in experience, head coach/offensive play-caller Ron Turner used only a portion of his playbook last year. Perhaps Turner’s repertoire will be more expansive this year. This year will be the true test of Turner and his staff. They’re in their second year of teaching the offensive and defensive systems with a roster longer on talent. Last year, a staff with Bear Bryant, Nick Saban, Jimmy Johnson, Bo Schembechler, Knute Rockne, Bud Wilkinson and John McKay could have won three games with FIU’s roster — maybe. Grade: C.