QUARTERBACKS | C+
Three Alexanders and an Anderson. Wait, that doesn’t include redshirt freshman Bud Martin. It does include freshmen Christian Alexander and Maurice Alexander, as well as Pitt senior transfer Trey Anderson. But this job belongs to sophomore Alexander McGough as it has since FIU stopped shifting quarterbacks in Game 6 last year. McGough’s natural leadership and gumption didn’t overshadow a flabby 50.4 completion percentage or 14 total turnovers. Experience should help with release speed and accuracy. Aside from McGough’s experience, Anderson’s 53 passes comprise all the live-game college throwing. Stay healthy, my friends.
RUNNING BACKS | A
Too bad FIU doesn’t run a wishbone. Each of the Panthers top three running backs, fifth-year senior Anthon Samuel and sophomores Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell, could start for most Conference USA teams. Gardner’s back and bigger after his season-ending shoulder injury. Samuel stepped in and looked like the near-1,000-yard runner he was at Bowling Green. Late in the season Maxwell, 6-0, 203, came on so strong, it reminded you he might be more durable than Gardner while being the same level of runner. Expect FIU to throw in fast freshman Anthony Jones just to give opposing defenses a different look.
RECEIVERS | C+
Aside from junior tight end Jonnu Smith, established as one of the nation’s best tight ends, there’s more question marks here than in a Riddler costume contest at Florida Supercon. Can sophomore Dennis Turner make full use of his speed this year? How will swift 6-4 Shawn Abrams (last game: Neptune Beach Fletcher vs. Apopka, 2012 FHSAA playoffs) look when it’s all the way live for the first time in three years? Same thing for Juwan Caesar, who hasn’t played since 2011 at Coral Park High? Will freshman Anthony Jones generate instant electricity or need time to warm to the task? Can sophomore Thomas Owens move the chains? Can fifth-year senior Clinton Taylor? The wideouts can run. Can any of them catch?
OFFENSIVE LINE | C-
This unit reads, left to right, with increasing uncertainty. Redshirt junior Dieugot Joseph’s an improving left tackle. Then, it starts getting dicey. Losing preseason All-Conference USA guard Jordan Budwig to shoulder surgery hurts. Michael Montero might be in there. Or he might be starting at center over former right tackle Aaron Nielsen. Somebody’s talent must flower on the right side, juniors Trenton Saunders and Edens Sineace or an underclassman such as redshirt freshman Kai Absheer. Otherwise, FIU will become the offensive version of “The Fugitive’s” one-armed man.
DEFENSIVE LINE | A-
If any of the tackles — redshirt junior Imarjaye Albury, fifth-year senior Lars Koht or senior Darrian Dyson — can force any kind of double-team, teams blocking them will feel like the City of Miami Beach fighting rising coastal waters. Teams will double at least one of FIU’s preseason all-conference defensive ends, Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine, if not both. That doesn’t leave many blockers for anybody else coming to the party. FIU’s shortcomings against big, power backs who get downhill quickly start here, however.
LINEBACKERS | B+
Your only chance for escape is to run at them. Don’t try to run away. They will chase you down and hit you like a balloon payment. Properly guided by the discipline of experience, this swift, aggressive bunch could be Conference USA’s best linebacker group. And they only got faster when redshirt sophomore defensive back Vontarius West, FIU’s top-rated 2013 recruit, got moved forward. Junior middle linebacker Treyvon Williams runs things, but sophomore outside linebacker Anthony Wint’s the biggest difference-maker. FIU’s defense wasn’t the same during Wint’s knee injury as before or after. Senior Davison Colimon occupies the other outside spot with Jordan Guest as an able backup for him or Wint.
SECONDARY | B
The speed and coverage ability of FIU’s corners open a plethora of options for defensive coordinator Matt House. Quarterbacks avoiding Conference USA preseason Defensive Player of the Year Richard Leonard mean senior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon will be busier than a Red Lobster waiter on a Friday. Good thing he has improved his ball skills. Leonard, McKinnon and former state high school sprint champion Wilkenson Myrtil remain fast. Replacing DeMarkus Perkins’ violence and Justin Halley’s ball magnetism at safety remain the defense’s biggest tasks. Jordan Davis and 5-8 Shemarke Spence, the long and the short answers, should start the season there, with Deonte Wilson fighting to get past them.
SPECIAL TEAMS | B-
FIU’s most dependable means of gaining yardage: Richard Leonard’s kick and punt returns. This year, field position might come from maladroit attempts to avoid Leonard. Ron Turner put junior kicker Austin Taylor on scholarship, indicating the kicking job remains his. Otherwise, why waste a scholarship on such a fungible position? Taylor’s average in accuracy (68th out of 114 last year) and distance. Jose Laphitzondo, who had never played football and sprayed punts all over the stadium, beat Chris Ayers for the punting job last year. Freshman Stone Wilson should be able to do the same.
COACHING | C+
The first two years of Ron Turner, sold as an elite coach of quarterbacks and offense, featured some of the nation’s most erratic quarterback play and worst offensive football. Time to not stink. The improvements in game management under Turner haven’t materialized enough. Nobody knows the effect of the Matt House-Josh Conklin Pitt-FIU defensive coordinator swap. In Year 3, with normal injuries, we’ll see how well they have recruited, although the current staff with former miami Booker T. Washington High coach Tim Harris Jr. should be Turner’s best in that facet. Another year of overall progress is necessary.