Florida International U

What’s FIU’s key to success? It starts with strength up the middle on offense and defense

FIU senior quarterback James Morgan describes expectations for this season

Florida International University Senior quarterback James Morgan 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 Senior quarterback James Morgan speaks to the media during fall practice at the FIU practice field in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

Call them “The Significant Seven.”

If you want to understand FIU’s optimism for 2019, simply draw a straight line down the middle of the Panthers’ roster, where you will find seven standout seniors.

Start with 6-4, 215-pound quarterback James Morgan, a Bowling Green transfer who was named Conference USA’s Newcomer of the Year last season. Morgan set an FIU record in 2018 with 26 touchdown passes while throwing for 2,727 yards. He was also a big part of FIU setting a program record with nine wins (9-4).

Behind Morgan are two running backs — Anthony Jones of Miami Central and St. Petersburg’s Napoleon Maxwell — who are finally healthy after missing much of their careers because of injuries. Already, however, they have combined to score 27 career touchdowns.

Completing the offense’s list of “down-the-middle” standouts is center Dallas Connell, a third-year starter on the offensive line. Connell, a 6-3, 300-pounder from Jacksonville, was a crucial part of the 2018 blocking unit that set an FIU record with just eight sacks allowed.

Connell, a second-year center who started at right guard in 2017, said Morgan’s relationship with the offensive line has continued to grow.

“James is a great guy — we hang out all the time,” Connell said. “He loves us, and we love him. He knows he needs us to protect him so he can sling ‘todders.’ ”

Todders is Connell slang for touchdowns but, by any name, FIU fans certainly want more scores in 2019, and the Panthers will need to have success on the ground to make that happen.

Maxwell, who missed the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons because of knee injuries, led FIU in rushing yards (684) and touchdowns (seven) last season. He has 13 career touchdowns.

Jones missed the entire 2017 season because of a knee injury and then made a miraculous recovery last year after he was the victim of a shooting. He finished with 338 yards and five touchdowns in six games last year.

As for FIU’s defense, it is centered on middle linebacker Sage Lewis, a 6-1, 240-pounder from Miami Monsignor Pace who set FIU’s tackles record last year with 132.

“That kid has set the bar extremely high,” FIU’s co-defensive coordinator Jeff Copp said of Lewis, who is the preseason Defensive Player of the Year in Conference USA. “There’s a reason why he’s getting those accolades. We have to keep him healthy because he’s the focal point of our defense.”

Lewis, 10th in the nation last year in solo tackles, has impressed Connell with his work ethic.

“He wants to be great so bad,” Connell said, “that he is great.”

The final two puzzle pieces for the middle of FIU’s defense are safety Olin Cushion and tackle Teair Tart.

Cushion, a former state champ at Miami Central who gets overlooked because of his small stature at 5-8 and 175 pounds, became a starter last year, finishing third on the Panthers in tackles.

“Olin will hit anything that moves,” FIU coach Butch Davis said. “He’s one of the least-appreciated players. [Some people don’t see] how smart he is and his football instincts.”

Tart, a 6-3, 290-pounder from Philadelphia, spent his first two years after high school at a pair of junior colleges. At FIU last season, he played in 12 games but made just two starts.

But even with limited playing time, Tart led FIU with four sacks, and much more is expected of him in 2019.

Connell, who goes up against Tart every day in practice, has noticed a major improvement in his teammate.

“Teair is a talented guy, but I don’t think he realized how much harder this level is as opposed to [junior college],” Connell said. “But the other day, I saw him in the film room, analyzing an offensive lineman’s giveaways, his run/pass ‘tells.’ He’s gotten a lot better.”

So there you have it — “strength up the middle” is not just a baseball thing with catchers, second basemen, shortstops and center fielders. It actually means a lot to the FIU Panthers and how they have built their 2019 team.

And beyond the seven aforementioned players, there’s one more guy who is at the middle of everything, and that’s Davis, who is 17-9 in his two years as FIU’s coach, including a win last season in the Bahamas Bowl.

Panthers wide receiver Maurice Alexander put it best when he was recently asked to compare Davis to previous coach Ron Turner, who went 10-30 at FIU before he was fired in 2016.

“It’s a huge difference,” Alexander said. “All you have to do is look at the wins and losses.”