Sterling Palmer’s “welcome to big-time college football” moment came at Hard Rock Stadium on Sept. 22, when he had to try to block the Miami Hurricanes’ two ferocious defensive ends, Joe Jackson and Jonathan Garvin.
A year ago, Palmer — FIU’s 6-6 true freshman starting tight end — was in prep school at Fork Union Military Academy, where he was a 205-pound wide receiver.
But, since enrolling at FIU in January and working with his new school’s strength-and-conditioning staff, Palmer is now up to 235 pounds. His three-repetition bench press went from 200 pounds to 240, and his 40-yard-dash time improved from 4.9 to 4.6 seconds.
Yet, even with all that improvement, trying to drive block or even chip the 6-5, 265-pound Jackson or the 6-4, 250-pound Garvin was a tall order.
“I didn’t get mauled into the ground or anything,” Palmer said. “But I did come to the realization that, ‘Yo, these guys are big. This is what they do.”
Someday soon, some freshman linebacker might treat Palmer with that same reverence. After all, Palmer is already second on the Panthers in receptions (16), although his average per catch (8.7) shows he is not yet a game-breaker.
FIU tight ends coach Drew Davis, son of head coach Butch Davis, said “the future is bright” for Palmer.
“If we can get that kid to 250 pounds, and he is still running like that (4.6), he’ll be a big matchup problem for linebackers and safeties,” Drew Davis said. “He’s a big, explosive athlete.”
Part of Palmer’s athleticism can be traced to the genetics he inherited from his father, former Florida State and Washington Redskins defensive end Sterling Palmer Sr.
The elder Palmer was a USA Today All-American at Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas in 1988 and was Washington’s fourth-round pick in 1993, playing four years for the Redskins.
Palmer, who is studying Journalism at FIU, has seen video of his father playing for Florida State.
“It’s crazy to see my dad doing the same thing [football] that I like to do,” Palmer said.
Palmer, a native of Richmond, Virginia, played basketball in middle school, but his passion has always been football. That’s why it was such a “blow”, as he calls it, when no acceptable scholarship offers came his way out of high school.
So he enrolled at Fork Union for a semester, and as soon as he accumulated enough game tape, he sent it out to college programs.
“A couple of days later,” Palmer said, “I got a phone call from FIU.”
Palmer accepted FIU’s offer and arrived in time for practice this spring, ready to make the transition to tight end.
Armed with tips from his father on how to use leverage against defenders, Palmer bought in to his new position.
“If I’m smaller than the guy I’m blocking, that means I should be faster,” Palmer said. “Beating guys to spots where they want to go is helping me throughout this season.”
Thinking back to his first days at FIU this past spring, Palmer said he’s come a long way.
“As a former wide receiver, pass-catching was fine for me,” he said. “But blocking was like a different world. Being in the box, blocking defensive ends and linebackers instead of corners and safeties, it was kind of hard at first. But once I got more reps, I got better.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ FIU (4-2, 2-0 Conference USA), which hasn’t left the county since winning at Old Dominion on Sept. 8, will play yet another home game on Saturday night when it faces Rice (1-6, 0-3). Rice has lost six straight games, all by double digits.
▪ An FIU win would give the Panthers their first 3-0 start since joining Conference USA in 2013.
▪ FIU’s Jose Borregales is the league’s Special Teams Player of the Week after kicking a school-record 53-yard field goal last Saturday against Middle Tennessee.
▪ FIU quarterback James Morgan, who has passed for more than 300 yards in two consecutive games, was one of eight QBs honored this week by the Davey O’Brien awards committee.