Florida International U

FIU Panthers freshman duo find rhythm on offense

FIU Panthers’ Alex Gardner (1) controls the ball during the football game against Wagner Saturday, September 6, 2014 at FIU Stadium in Miami.
FIU Panthers’ Alex Gardner (1) controls the ball during the football game against Wagner Saturday, September 6, 2014 at FIU Stadium in Miami. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

This freshman Alex on whom the FIU football offense relies rooms with that freshman Alex on whom the FIU football offense relies. Both came to FIU knowing they would have a chance to be where they are now.

After that, there’s not much confusing them. Take singing.

“I like to say I can sing. But I can’t. Anything that’s on the radio. I just try to have a good time whatever I’m doing,” 6-3 quarterback Alex McGough said with a chuckle.

“Nah, he tries, he tries,” 5-9 running back Alex Gardner, who has been making a joyful noise since grandmother Sharon George took him to Jacksonville’s Queen Esther Church of God & Unity at 4 years old, said with a laugh.

Gardner said he sings, “all the time. When I’m hanging out. I have friends on campus as I go along and sing with, play instruments and everything. We just sing and mess around. Mostly religious music.”

Said McGough: “I can do the Leslie Chow voice from The Hangover. I can do that very well. Obviously, that’s a talent.”

Also, obviously, that’s not the talent that led FIU coach Ron Turner to entrusting the starting quarterback job to McGough from the second game of the season. Ability to make throws and prudent decisions (five touchdowns, no interceptions)? A certain bearing of a leader that gives McGough a good grade on that nebulous “eye test?” Yeah, those.

When McGough enrolled last January after graduating from Tampa Gaither, “They told me I would have a chance to compete. I just came in and tried to learn the offense. I just tried to fit in and tried to get used to the guys, so that when fall came, I knew what I was doing. I wouldn’t have to try to learn it while playing.”

Spring practice showed two things: McGough definitely had a shot at starting over junior EJ Hilliard (“I can’t say enough about how much EJ has helped me,” McGough said); and FIU could hold a running back job fair.

“I chose a school where I felt I could go in and fight for playing time early,” said Gardner, a three-star recruit out of Jacksonville Raines.

Gardner didn’t enroll early, but the National Honor Society member did show up on campus with a few college credits in his pocket. He wants to major in computer engineering, but most of those classes are across town at the Biscayne Bay campus. That’s a tough fit with football and other classes without a car.

Lots of heart, little holes, small engine characterized FIU’s 2013 running game. When Gardner zipped around the left side for 22 yards on McGough’s second play in the season opener against Bethune-Cookman, he added horsepower to the FIU run game. His FIU freshman record 138 yards on 15 carries against Wagner followed.

“It’s great for me and him. It’s a learning process at the same time,” McGough said. “We go out of practice, we ask each other, ‘Who’s the Mike [linebacker]? Who’s this? Who’s this?’ That’s great that we can play in the backfield, two freshmen, and learn at the same time.”

Neither suffers from head inflation.

“I just thank God,” Gardner said. “I’m not one of those big, want-to-be-seen guys, just be out all the time. I’m the one who stays with very few friends and would rather stay in, do little things with them instead of being out and seen a lot.”

Said Turner: “Both those guys are really good kids. I think they’ll stay grounded. They’re humble. And the coaches do a great job of keeping them in place and focused on what’s important.”

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