Freshman Stone Wilson is FIU’s punter, not a fictional pulp detective, despite his name (we’ll get to that later).
Like a Mike Hammer or Shell Scott, Wilson got called in to clean up a mess. Just past midway through Chapter One of a possible four, he’s making progress on the case.
Handling most of the punting and some kickoff duties, Wilson has helped make FIU respectable in both categories. Wilson and redshirt junior Chris Ayers’ net punting average, 39.03, shows a healthy improvement on last year’s 34.51 net punting average by Ayers and Jose Laphitzondo.
Also, Wilson has dropped seven of his 26 punts inside the 20-yard line.
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“My ambition is to win all-conference,” Wilson said. “As a freshman, that would be cool.”
FIU coach Ron Turner said: “Extremely, extremely confident. Which is a really, really, really good thing.”
Wilson began playing soccer at 3 years old and Pop Warner football at 6. He recalls stepping forward when the Pop Warner coach asked his players, “Who can kick?”
Around 14 or 15, he was still punting and kicking when a friend of his father pointed out that colleges hand out football scholarships for those skills, too. Wilson thought that sounded like a good deal.
He also thought it sounded good when Billy Miller, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaching assistant, suggested he transfer to IMG Academy from Venice High, where he felt animosity from the coaches.
“Probably one of the greatest decisions I made,” Wilson said. “If I didn’t go there, I probably wouldn’t be in college playing ball.”
He might not be at FIU. Miller joined IMG Academy as its special teams coordinator in 2014. He talked up Wilson, ranked in the top 15 nationally among punting recruits, to a certain former Buccaneers quarterbacks coach and now college head coach who happened to be looking for a punter. Turner had seen Wilson punt at one of FIU’s single day camps.
“Billy recommended him very highly,” Turner said. “Billy’s somebody I would trust. I don’t think he [would] recommend him if he didn’t think he could play.”
FIU had needed to recruit a punter since Turner’s first year. Turner values special teams enough for FIU to be one of the few FBS programs with a dedicated special teams coach. But punting has been Greek theatre, ranging from comedy to drama to tragedy.
The best 2013 punter, quarterback Jake Medlock, transferred after the season. FIU recruited Jake and long snapper Sam Medlock’s brother, Luke, a quarterback and all-state punter in 2014.
While Luke Medlock redshirted, a football rookie and Honors College student Laphitzondo did most of the punting. His 40.7 yards-per-boot gross average bettered Ayers’ 35.3, although Ayers’ kicks sacrificed average for placement — six of 23 punts inside the 20 as opposed to Laphitzondo’s five of 59.
Laphitzondo remains at FIU as a student. Luke Medlock transferred. And Wilson wanted a place to play.
“I have big ambitions to go pro. I thought, wherever I’m more likely to get the starting position, that’s where I should go,” he said. “It’s been mutual to who wants who. They understood what I wanted in a college atmosphere, unlike other colleges looking for a recruit to place on the depth chart somewhere. They understood where I was coming from.”
Turner said: “It was an area where we’ve got to get better. It was obvious to everybody. And we’ve improved it. I give Chris [Ayers] a lot of credit. He’s really done a great job, being focused, staying confident. He’s matured a lot.”
Now, about that name …
“I’m not entirely sure where my parents [Kent and Gretchen Wilson] came up with it,” Wilson said. “They said my dad just made it up one day, and it stuck with him. They ended up naming my brother Steele. My mom was completely against the idea, but she ended up sticking with it after a while.”
HOMECOMING DRY SPELL
Saturday might bring FIU’s first homecoming victory since the 2010 season, when the Panthers beat Louisiana-Monroe 42-35 in two overtimes.
Since then, the Panthers blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to a 3-9 Atlantic Coast Conference team (2011 Duke, 31-27 loss); blew a 17-point lead, then fell inches short of the game-winning touchdown on the last play to an 8-4 team with a win over an ACC team (2012 Middle Tennessee, 34-30 loss); blew a scoreboard clock while losing to a 2-10 Conference USA team (2013 Alabama-Birmingham, 27-24 loss); and got blown out by the eventual 13-1 Conference USA champion (2014 Marshall, 45-13 loss).
FIU is 5-8 on Homecoming in its history.
Old Dominion comes in at 3-3 overall and 1-1 in Conference USA.