Florida International U

FIU Panthers’ hopes of climbing hinge on Tony Gaiter and Maurice Alexander. Here’s why

When FIU wide receiver Tony Gaiter IV watches teammate Maurice Alexander run, it reminds him of a certain country with numerous Olympic gold medals in track and field.

“I tell him all the time,” Gaiter said, “[Alexander] has a little Jamaican in him.”

Gaiter, a possession-type receiver, and Alexander, who leads the nation with a 28.7-yard average on punt returns, have known each other since they were young boys playing Pop Warner for the Florida City Razorbacks.

Now they are key components for the FIU Panthers (2-3, 0-2 Conference USA), who will host the Charlotte 49ers (2-3, 0-1) in a league game on Saturday night.

Gaiter, a fourth-year senior who played his high school ball at Westminster Christian, has been mostly a backup at FIU, starting just 17 of his 40 games so far, including twice this season.

But, in a 44-0 win over Massachusetts this past Saturday, Gaiter scored a touchdown and set his career highs with seven catches and 103 yards.

FIU coach Butch Davis credits the improvement to the 5-9 Gaiter’s determination to lose weight this past summer, going from 185 pounds to 175. As a consequence, his 40-yard-dash time has improved from 4.65 to 4.51, Davis said.

“All the success he is having is 100 percent his devotion to making himself better,” said Davis, who joked that it seems like Gaiter has been at FIU seven years.

Just five games into this season, Gaiter already has 19 catches for a team-high 274 yards, which surpasses his numbers from all of last year (24-for-227).

His career highs were set in his sophomore year, when he caught 34 passes for 314 yards.

“Yeah, ice cream — I cut that out of my diet,” Gaiter said when asked about his eating habits. “I would like to get my 40 time to 4.4.”

Meanwhile, Alexander, a quarterback in his prep days at Booker T. Washington, was switched to wide receiver last year, when he averaged 14.6 yards per punt return.

This past Saturday, Alexander ran 90 yards for a punt-return touchdown. It was his second punt-return score since he first was used in that capacity last year, and it was the second-longest punt return in FIU history, trailing only current NFL star T.Y. Hilton’s 97-yarder.

Gaiter wasn’t on the field for Alexander’s latest big play … but he nearly was.

“I was almost on field with him,” Gaiter said of Alexander, Conference USA’s reigning Special Teams Player of the Week.

“That’s my roommate. If he scores, I score. I was really happy for him. I was running with him stride for stride.”

Alexander said he had been told last week by FIU coaches that the U-Mass punter kicks mostly line drives and not to expect much in the way of return possibilities.

“But when I saw [the ball] bounce,” noted Alexander said of his. touchdown, “I said, ‘I’ve got some action.’”

FIU quarterback James Morgan was ready to take the field when he witnessed Alexander on the run.

“I still don’t know how he did that, but he’s such a spark for our team,” Morgan said. “That was my favorite possession of the game.”

A first-year coach

Charlotte, in its first year under coach Will Healy, is 0-3 against FBS teams this season, allowing an average of 51 points in those contests.

The 49ers have lost to Appalachian State, 56-41; to Clemson, 52-10; and to Florida Atlantic, 45-27.

On the positive side for the 49ers, their offense has looked good at times. Even against national power Clemson, 49ers running back Benny LeMay ran 18 times for 81 yards.