Florida International U

FIU Panthers secondary works on forcing turnovers

FIU’s Richard Leonard (3) and Wilkenson Myrtil (38) tackle UCF receiver Jordan Akins in the first quarter at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.
FIU’s Richard Leonard (3) and Wilkenson Myrtil (38) tackle UCF receiver Jordan Akins in the first quarter at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The last man catching footballs fired from the Juggs machine after FIU’s Tuesday morning practice did so with interceptions, not completions, in mind.

Junior safety Wilkenson Myrtil stood in the spot usually occupied post-practice by junior tight end Jonnu Smith.

“The guys who need to work on it understand what they’ve got to do,” assistant head coach/defensive secondary coach Ron Cooper said.

The potential interceptions not made kind of sum up the secondary’s performance the first two games. On the scene to make the play, but getting an outcome that’s not the worst, but not the best.

Central Florida and Indiana completed 42 of 67 passes — 62.7 percent — for 483 yards and three touchdowns. Out of 127 FBS teams, FIU ranks 88th in passing yards allowed per game, 94th in passing efficiency defense, 92nd in third down defense and 99th in yards per completion — rankings that translate as below average.

Both games so far saw FIU’s only two new starters on defense, safeties Myrtil and sophomore Niko Gonzalez, targeted. Myrtil is a converted cornerback and the vast majority of Gonzalez’s freshman snaps came on special teams.

UCF and Indiana didn’t completely ignore senior cornerbacks Jeremiah McKinnon and Richard Leonard. Indiana went over Leonard for completions of 38 and 34 yards, while McKinnon had an interception and two pass breakups.

“The two safeties have really never played safety, so on the whole the first two games, they’ve gotten better and better,” Cooper said. “Rich and Jeremiah have played a lot of football. Our nickel, Mark Bruno, is a redshirt freshman. I’m pleased right now the way it is. We’ve just got to try to get better and take care of what’s important — defending the run and not giving up the big play.”

FIU’s first two games show the capricious nature of turnovers, the Panthers’ sustenance last season. McKinnon got the only one, intercepting a third-down bomb Saturday in the third quarter against Indiana. The potential game-changing plays not finished are what had Myrtil playing late with the Juggs machine.

“We’ve had a couple of balls that we’ve dropped,” Cooper said. “Other than that, the quarterbacks we’ve played the first two games have probably put it in position to where you may have just had to make the great tackles. Turnovers come and go. Hopefully, there will be a string of them here really soon.

“Jeremiah made a great play this past weekend. When you throw it up deep, can you go get it? They had one they threw up deep to Rich, Rich didn’t make it. We’re 50-50. We’ve got to be able to play the deep ball.”

The safeties get an injection of experience and size with 6-1, 218-pound redshirt junior Jordan Davis returning from two games lost to academic ineligibility. Davis started four games over his first two seasons and finished sixth on the team in tackles last year despite starting only one game.

Nothing is so remindful of that statistic than watching Myrtil whiff and Gonzalez slide off on tackle attempts during the 16-yard bubble screen that put Indiana ahead for good Saturday.

“He’ll roll in,” Turner said of Davis. “We’ll rotate those guys. The other guys are playing pretty well, but he gives us a physical presence in there.”

“We’ll see what type of week he has,” Cooper said. “He does have talent and he’s played the game. But those other guys have gotten better, too. We’ll see how much time he can earn.