Florida International U

Positions mostly set as FIU Panthers prep for opener

Chris Flaig (68) gets ready to snap the ball during a Florida International University football practice held at the FIU Stadium on Sunday, August 14, 2016.
Chris Flaig (68) gets ready to snap the ball during a Florida International University football practice held at the FIU Stadium on Sunday, August 14, 2016. mocner@miamiherald.com

Wide receiver Tony Gaiter, a true freshman from Westminster Christian, has made an impression this fall … but not quite enough to crack the two-deep FIU depth chart that was released on Friday.

Other than that, there were perhaps a couple other mild surprises in positional battles as the Panthers prepare for Thursday’s season opener against the visiting Indiana Hoosiers at 7:30 p.m.

Junior Alex McGough, who last year set the FIU single-season records for passing yards (2,722) and touchdowns (21), was the obvious choice to direct the offense for the third straight year.

The battle to be the backup quarterback behind McGough is still open between a pair of redshirt freshmen: Christian Alexander and Maurice Alexander.

At running back, junior Alex Gardner, who led the team in yards rushing (760, with nine touchdowns) and receptions (60), is the starter. His 60 catches are a school record for a running back.

But his backup, Anthony Jones, is much improved and should play a substantial role, according to coach Ron Turner.

“Alex is a little bit bigger and stronger than he was last year,” Turner said of the 5-9, 190-pound Gardner. “And Anthony is a different guy. He’s in much better condition and having a very good camp. Both those guys will be in there.”

Senior tight end Jonnu Smith, who is the team’s top pro prospect, and junior wide receiver Thomas Owens, who numerous teammates said has the best hands on the Panthers, are the top targets in the passing game.

The other starting receiver is redshirt junior Shug Oyegunle, who has just six career catches. He has yet to start a college game.

Gaiter, who impressed several of his teammates in an informal poll taken earlier this week, was beaten out – at least for this initial depth chart – by freshman Stanley Thomas and redshirt freshmen Austin Maloney and Mark Hutchinson.

Among the teammates vouching for Gaiter were linebacker Treyvon Williams and defensive end Fermin Silva.

“The guy that stands out the most is Gaiter,” Williams said when asked to pick the most impressive newcomer at camp. “I’m not going to lie to you. He runs crisp routes. He gets open quite a lot.”

Silva added: “He’s quick and plays with a lot of heart for his size (5-9, 178). He doesn’t let anybody tell him he’s small.”

Turner said Gaiter has impressed him as well and should get opportunities.

Blocking for those skilled players will be a starting offensive line of senior left tackle Dieugot Joseph, sophomore left guard Kai Absheer, senior center Michael Montero, senior right guard Trenton Saunders and sophomore right tackle Daquane Wilkie.

The only still-undecided starting position is at the defensive end position opposite Silva, where junior Newton Salisbury and sophomore John Broome are tied. Seniors Leonard Washington and Imarjaye Albury start at defensive tackle.

There were no surprises at linebacker , where Williams and Davis Colimon flank middle man Anthony Wint.

The cornerbacks are Emmanuel Lubin and Deonte Wilson, and Niko Gonzalez, with nine career starts, won one of the safety jobs.

In a mild surprise, redshirt junior Xavier Hines, the former Miami Belen standout with no career starts, beat out sophomore Tyree Johnson of Carol City. Johnson started six games last year.

The Panthers have veterans in key spots on special teams. Owens and Jones are the punt returners, and Jones and Gardner are the kick returners.

Senior Austin Taylor is the kicker, senior Sam Medlock is the long snapper and sophomore Stone Wilson is the punter as well as the holder.