Florida International U

Different fortunes for FIU Panthers’ freshman running backs, same determination

Alex Gardner:  Encourages Napoleon Maxwell to lift the team with his performance.
Alex Gardner: Encourages Napoleon Maxwell to lift the team with his performance. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

While Alex Gardner took over the starting running back job early in the season, Napoleon Maxwell’s game day running was between the locker room and bench area. After Gardner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Maxwell has shown that Gardner might be both FIU’s leading rusher and the second-best freshman running back.

If you expect either freshman running back to bathe in envy or frustration at their different fortunes, you’ll have a longer wait than for your Saturday night table at Joe’s Stone Crab if you insult the maître d’.

“Alex came in and had a great [training] camp,” Maxwell said. “Before Alex and I even got here, we talked about how we wanted to go there, do our thing, whoever gets it gets it, as long as the team’s successful.

“Now that he’s down, he texts me before the game ‘good luck, go get the record,’ all this stuff. We look out for each other.”

What record? Gardner’s FIU single-game record for freshman rushing yards, he set with 138 yards against FCS victim Wagner. Now that’s support.

Maxwell, 3 inches and 11pounds bigger than Gardner at 6-0, 203 pounds, rung up 88 yards (5.5 per carry) and 70 yards (5.0 per carry) against Rice and Old Dominion, respectively, backing up junior Anthon Samuel in Gardner’s absence.

Maxwell’s high school credentials presaged the explosiveness he’s shown on the ground and in Maxwell’s 57-yard tackle-breaking catch-and-run touchdown against Old Dominion.

In addition to averaging 11.9 yards per carry as a senior for St. Petersburg Admiral Farragut High, Maxwell returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged 15.2 yards per reception. That earned him First Team Class2A All-State honors, as well as a three-star rating by ESPN.com, two stars from most other recruiting sites.

That also got him 11 offers from the likes of Georgia State, Ball State and Wyoming, but only one from inside Florida: FIU. And Maxwell knew he didn’t want to be too far from his two siblings, mother and father, and father’s family.

“I’ve never been far away from home,” he said. “I knew my family would miss me and I’d miss my family. I always say people who go away get homesick and want to come back home. I didn’t want that problem — transfer and have to sit out a season. So I just took the safe route.”

When he visited FIU, “it felt like a family,” partially because he knew a few players, including 2013 freshmen Alfonso Randolph and Jonnu Smith.

Maxwell and Gardner’s approach to this season wasn’t just arrogating common to freshmen used to being star players. Running back injuries, including Samuel’s concussion and Randolph’s knee, helped leave the position open for a back with the boogie that the Panthers’ running game lacked in 2013.

Gardner took off while Maxwell struggled, getting into only one of the first seven games.

“The first part of the season, it was hard for me,” Maxwell said. “Trying to learn the plays, moving faster. This game moves a lot faster than high school. Running backs, we do a lot of the same stuff, but you still have to know it.”

Don’t expect FIU’s 3-7 record to turn Saturday’s Senior Day against Middle Tennessee State or Nov.22’s season finale at North Texas into a preview of FIU Football 2015.

“We play whoever gives us the best chance of winning the next game, 100 percent,” FIU coach Ron Turner said.

That approach still put several members of the last two recruiting classes on the field this season, including a pair of very good freshmen running backs.

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