If FIU quarterback Alex McGough gets smacked in the huddle, it’s usually by senior tight end Jonnu Smith.
It’s not at all a violent act but merely a non-verbal message: throw me the ball.
“You always know where Jonnu is on the field,” McGough said. “And he makes sure you know where he is, too, which is great.
“He doesn’t tell me anything. He’s always just slapping my arm. Just making sure his presence is known.”
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FIU, which opened fall practice on Wednesday, hopes to make its presence felt in the world of college football this fall, and the Panthers will have a couple of big-time opportunities to do so in the first two weeks of the season.
They host Indiana on Sept. 1 and then play a second consecutive Big Ten team on Sept. 9, when they host Maryland.
FIU’s non-Conference-USA schedule also includes a trip to Massachusetts on Sept. 17 and a home game against UCF on Sept. 24.
“It’s a tough schedule, but it’s an exciting one,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “We’ve got two Big Ten teams right off the bat, but they are both at home and both at night. Hopefully, we can get a great crowd to support what we believe is going to be a good team.”
This is Turner’s fourth season running the FIU program, and so far his record doesn’t look good at 10-26.
But Turner, who turns 63 on Dec. 5, has made incremental improvements since finishing 1-11 in his first year. FIU went 4-8 in 2014 and 5-7 last season.
And with seven of its 12 games at home, the Panthers are optimistic this year could be even better.
They are banking on their returning starters — nine on offense, six on defense (including a 2014 starter who is back from injury) — and their kicker and punter.
“We’ve got a lot of good guys coming back,” Smith said. “We’re a very experienced team.”
That experience includes Smith, the top tight end in FIU history in career catches (136) and yards (1,495).
McGough, a 6-3, 220-pound junior, is also a veteran, as this will be his third year as the starter. His career numbers include 4,402 yards, 35 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions and a 58.6 completion percentage.
Other standouts include junior linebacker Anthony Wint and senior center Michael Montero, who were named, respectively, first- and second-team preseason All-Conference USA by Lindy’s Magazine.
Lindy’s, though, picks FIU to finish fourth in the seven-team East Division of the conference, and that low ranking has a lot to do with a defense that closed 2015 by allowing an average of 44.3 points in the Panthers’ final four games.
New coordinator Ron Cooper, who was FIU’s first-year defensive backs coach last year, is now in charge of stopping opposing offenses.
Turner, like every other football coach in the nation at this time of year, is optimistic things will get fixed.
“I see confidence,” said Turner, when asked about 2016 and his team’s goals. “I think I would be selling these guys short if I just said [we want] a winning record. They want to go after more than that. They believe they can.
“It has taken them a few years to get there, but I see a different confidence level, a different talent level. I see a different football team.
“This team I saw [Wednesday] — in just one day — is a good team that is in very good football shape. They had a tremendous summer.”