Florida International U

Confident Panthers football players dismiss Conference USA predictions for FIU

FIU receiver Thomas Owens, left, celebrates his catch on a 75-yard touchdown pass play against Central Florida with teammates Pharoah McKever, center, and Anthony Johnson (91) on Aug. 31, 2017, in Orlando.
FIU receiver Thomas Owens, left, celebrates his catch on a 75-yard touchdown pass play against Central Florida with teammates Pharoah McKever, center, and Anthony Johnson (91) on Aug. 31, 2017, in Orlando. AP

Conference USA officials signaled in the beginning of football season by gathering the league’s 14 schools for its annual media days on Wednesday and Thursday only feet from the Dallas Cowboys’ headquarters.

For FIU, Year 2 under coach Butch Davis — which officially begins Sept. 1 against Indiana in Miami — brings with it an even clearer focus of the program’s mantra, “Why not us?”

A surprise 8-5 record and an appearance in the Gasparilla Bowl only whetted the craving of a program starving for success. Plus, watching Central Florida have the success it has had only begged the question.

A national breakthrough probably won’t happen this year for the Panthers, picked by coaches to finish fourth in CUSA’s East Division, behind Florida Atlantic, Marshall and Middle Tennessee.

The Panthers must replace quarterback Alex McGough, who is readying to start camp with the Seattle Seahawks, and top running back Alex Gardner.

“I believe we’ll be much better than that. Those are just predictions,” said Napoleon Maxwell, who will take over Gardner’s starting role in the backfield. “No one has seen the work we’ve put in this off-season.

“This year, everybody competed and worked hard because they saw we had something going for ourselves last year going 8-5. We don’t want to go down from there. We want to be better than last year.”

Said defensive lineman Anthony Johnson: “We went to a bowl game last year. It was a great experience for everybody. Everybody is hungry to go back. We always look at that trophy. We want that trophy.

Familiarity with the scheme and expectations has made the beginning of Year 2 easier, both players said. Depth is another reason players and coach believe FIU is significantly further ahead of where they were this time a year ago.

Davis has two recruiting classes heading to fall camp, and his players have been immersed in his culture of doing things.

“Having spent a year and half with the players we inherited, we know them better,” Davis said. “We’ve created a culture and environment that we know what the kids will be like every Saturday. The very first team meeting that we had a year ago when I was there, these kids go, ‘Coach, we’re all in. You tell us what you want us to do,’ and they did.

“We’ve moved the needle quite a bit.”

Christian Alexander is the front-runner to replace McGough, though James Morgan, a Bowling Green graduate transfer, will also in play at that position.

“With the competition we had going into the off-season, I feel like we’re one of the best running back groups in the country,” Maxwell said of his position before rattling off the names Anthony Jones, a senior coming back from a knee injury, Shawndarrius Phillips and D’Vonte Price.

Lining up on the line

Davis said improved depth will definitely show on the offensive line, where all five starters return, though the coach envisions a rotation of up to eight players.

Among them is D’Antne Demery, once a highly recruited lineman, who initially signed with Georgia before leaving with legal trouble.

The Panthers represent Demery’s second — and likely last chance — after he pleaded out charges alleging that he assaulted his girlfriend at a Georgia Waffle House.

Demery signed with FIU after spending last year at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.

“Getting him in and getting him in the spring was a huge plus,” Davis said. “He’s talented enough that if you got him in the week before the first game, it’s a dramatic upgrade.”

Thumbs up to new rule

Count Davis among those in favor of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, which will allow players to participate in up to four games in a season without burning their redshirt.

From a coaching standpoint, the new directive gives coaches a bit of a cushion, he said, if a team gets in a position like FIU a year ago, and you need a backup, for example, you can do that now.

“I still believe that if kids can’t play, they’re not going to play. I think it’s a great rule for the kids because [to] get exposure, a chance to play in some games four times during the season. It will dramatically change how they prepare the next year.”

Keep an eye on this dude

Asked who will surprise observers most this season, Maxwell had an immediate answer.

“Maurice Alexander,” he exclaimed.

Alexander came to FIU as a quarterback, but ultimately didn’t fit schematically in the Panthers’ offense. Coaches obliged when he asked to move to receiver.

“He’s going to be a playmaker out there,” Maxwell said. “The kid is amazing. The things I’ve seen this off-season from him, I’m just ready to see him get on the field on Sept. 1 and go to work.”

Said Davis: “This is a kid with great athletic ability. Being a quarterback, he understands coverages and disguises and stuff like that. It’s transition for him, but he came to us and said he thought he could help us at WR. We were ecstatic about it.”

On his side of the ball, Anthony Johnson said cornerback Ike Brown, who missed most of last season with a broken collarbone, is the guy he will be keeping an eye on. “He’s running the fastest 40 on the team … a 4.3.”