Florida International U

What’s the strength of the FIU Panthers’ defense? Here’s what one assistant coach says

FIU Head Coach Butch Davis talks about players post season conditioning efforts

Florida International University Head Coach Butch Davis speaks to the media during fall practice at the FIU practice field in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.
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Florida International University Head Coach Butch Davis speaks to the media during fall practice at the FIU practice field in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

The FIU Panthers averaged 34.6 points per game last season, tied for first in Conference USA. FIU’s defense, however, ranked just sixth in the league, allowing 25.2 points.

FIU also ranked seventh in sacks with just 23.5 — just half the amount of league-leading UAB.

The strength of the defense, according to co-coordinator Jeff Copp, is the secondary.

Senior cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver, a converted wide receiver, led the team with 10 pass-breakups and may have a pro future with his length (6-2). Senior Ike Brown, another tall corner at 6-1, has played 28 games at FIU, including 11 starts.

Safeties Dorian Hall and Olin Cushion, who combined to start 24 games last year, have been productive. Cushion, a 5-8 senior, was third on the team in tackles, and Hall, a 6-4 sophomore, tied for the team lead with three interceptions.

In addition, the twins — Richard and Rishard Dames — are ferocious hitters who figure to force their way on the field either at corner or at safety. They combined for five interceptions last year.

“Our secondary,” Copp said, “is extremely deep and blessed with talent.”

The Panthers also boast the preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year in senior middle linebacker Sage Lewis. Senior defensive tackle Teair Tart, who led the team last year with four sacks, is another standout.

FIU, however, needs more production and depth at outside linebacker and on the defensive line overall.

Last year, the Panthers used as many as 11 defensive linemen in a game, but their depth has since taken a hit. Much-hyped seniors Tayland Humprhey and Josh Little transferred out of FIU, and Anthony Johnson and Jermaine Sherriff graduated.

Among returnees, junior ends Kevin Oliver (two sacks) and Noah Curtis (1.5 sacks) need to take the next steps in their collective development.

Coach Butch Davis expressed faith in redshirt junior Andrew Tarver, who had four tackles in five games last year. The defensive tackle has played 18 total games during his FIU career.

Copp mentioned four other linemen who could provide depth, including Jason Mercier, a sophomore end.

“Jason has totally changed his body since his freshman year,” Copp said.

In addition, sophomore tackle Rashad Colson — who has yet to register a collegiate tackle — had a “tremendous spring,” according to Copp. Junior tackle and Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Woods, who had 12 tackles in 10 games last year, was injured in the spring and didn’t play but has since returned.

“Seeing him run around was outstanding,” Copp said of Woods.

Sophomore end Davon Strickland is a “young guy we are extremely excited about,” Copp said.

At outside linebacker, Jamal Gates (three starts) and Rocky Jacques-Louis (two starts) have the most experience, but Daniel Jackson (zero starts) is also a factor.

But, Copp said, “We have to develop depth at linebacker beyond our top three.”

THIS AND THAT

FIU has added two games with UCF, visiting the Knights next year and getting a home game in 2022. UCF leads the series 4-2.

The Panthers beat UCF 15-14 in 2015, but the Knights became a national power soon after that, going 25-1 the past two years. In the past two meetings, UCF has outscored FIU by a combined score of 114-31.

Conference USA awarded FIU with the 2018-2019 SAAC Cup, an award given to one member school per year for its overall sports program in areas such as academic excellence, community service and career development.

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