Florida International U

FIU Panthers defense turning the corner with turnovers

FIU Jeremiah McKinnon (7) brings down Wagner ballcarrier Tyler Loftus (18) on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014 in Miami.
FIU Jeremiah McKinnon (7) brings down Wagner ballcarrier Tyler Loftus (18) on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014 in Miami. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Turnovers kill. Not getting turnovers kills. There is no more stark difference for FIU’s defense this year than demonstrating the former a year after demonstrating the latter.

After five games, the Panthers tie with Virginia for the national lead in fumbles recovered (10); they recovered just seven in 12 games last season. Their seven interceptions — the same number they managed all last season — rank 11th in the nation. The Panthers are No. 2 in the nation in forced turnovers with 17, exceeding the 14 total turnovers they recorded in 2013.

The Panthers tied a school record by getting six turnovers in each of their two wins this season, over Wagner and Alabama-Birmingham. Their lone win last season, against Southern Mississippi, came after getting four turnovers.

“All through fall camp, all through spring, every time the ball’s on the ground, we’re trying to scoop it up, whether that’s a 7-on-7 drill or a team drill,” FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said. “We made a big focus of it last spring and fall camp. Guys got graded on how many dig attempts, raking the ball. We made a huge emphasis on it. I think what you’re seeing is when you see guys flying to the ball and getting hats on the ball, good things happen.

“I know in every program it’s an emphasis, but we really did put a focus on grading it hard in spring and fall camp.”

Junior defensive end Michael Wakefield said rankings on the turnover board were “very competitive. It’s more like a job.”

Saturday’s first takeaway came after UAB blew an overhand lateral to running back Jordan Howard as he swung out to the left. Officials whistled the play dead as an incomplete pass while senior defensive end Giovanni Francois pounced on the ball. When a replay check clearly showed the throw went backward before it got to Howard, officials reversed their call and FIU was awarded the ball.

“In practice, every ball that’s on the ground, no matter what it is, we have to pick it up,” Wakefield said. “If it’s a fumble, we have to pick it up. Incomplete pass, we have to pick it up. We carried things from practice into the game.”

Drills hone talent. Six of FIU’s seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries came from players who didn’t see the field a year ago or rarely played. He also praised coaching, singling out linebackers coach Rob Harley, who spent the previous two seasons at Michigan State.

“Personnel’s a big deal. We did some things with the scheme as far as how we were playing the linebackers to play the run a bit more aggressively,” Conklin said. “Bringing coach Harley in was good for us, brought some good ideas as far as how to fit the run. So that helped us out a ton.

Conklin said experience has helped players as well, citing redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard and junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon.

“We have good young players,” he said. “We said that last year. It just takes some time for them to mature.”

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