QUARTERBACKS | B
Judging all of this against the rest of Conference USA, the Panthers are in good shape at QB with Alex McGough, a 6-3, 220-pound junior from Tampa. McGough — his name rhymes with boo — doesn’t deserve jeers. He started 11 games as a freshman and 12 as a sophomore, improving across the board in his second year. He set the FIU single-season records for yards (2,722) and touchdowns (21) last season while cutting his interception total from 10 to eight.
RUNNING BACKS | B
Alex Gardner, a 5-9, 190-pound junior from Jacksonville, rushed for a team-high 760 yards and nine touchdowns last season. His average per rush went down a tick, from 4.2 to 4.1. But with 853 yards this season, Gardner would break the FIU career rushing record. He also caught a team-high 60 passes for a 7.4 average and one touchdown. Sophomore backup Anthony Jones, from Miami Central, ran for 247 yards last season, averaging 5.1 per rush. It’s a solid 1-2 punch.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS | B-
FIU has two reliable targets in senior tight end Jonnu Smith and junior wide receiver Thomas Owens, but the Panthers need more. Smith is considered the third-best pro prospect in Conference USA. FIU was 4-4 with him last season and just 1-3 after he was lost to a knee injury. Owens, a 6-1, 195-pound junior, had no catches in seven games as a freshman and then emerged last year with 51 grabs for 638 yards and eight touchdowns. Can FIU find a third reliable target?
OFFENSIVE LINE | C
Center Michael Montero, a senior from Miami Columbus, made second-team All-Conference USA last year. FIU has seven other linemen with at least some starting experience, so depth should not be a problem. But there were too many breakdowns last year, including seven sacks allowed against FAU and the running game getting shut down in losses to Louisiana Tech and UMass. And that was before the team’s late-season collapse.
DEFENSIVE LINE | D
FIU allowed more than 450 yards six times last season, and now it must replace defensive ends Michael Wakefield (35 starts) and Denzel Perine (24 starts). Tackles Lars Koht (15 starts) and Darrian Dyson (10 starts) are also gone. New defensive line coach Paul Volero, who coached Washington State’s linebackers before coming here, has a lot of work to do. He will build around tackle Imarjaye Albury, who has 23 career starts.
LINEBACKERS | B-
Anthony Wint, a 6-0, 225-pound junior, led FIU with 88 tackles last year and also had 5 1/2 tackles for losses. Senior Davison Colimon, who tore a pectoral muscle in last year’s opener, has 16 career starts. Junior Treyvon Williams, also back from injury, has 11 career starts. This could be the strength of the defense.
DEFENSIVE BACKS | C-
The Panthers are short on back-end proven talent. The best of the bunch might be junior safety Niko Gonzalez, who had two interceptions last year. Sophomore safety Tyree Johnson, who was a turnover machine at Carol City High, started six games as a freshman and could develop. Sophomore cornerback Emmanuel Lubin has great role models — his brother (E.J. Biggers) and his stepbrother (Louis Delmas) have played defensive back in the NFL.
SPECIAL TEAMS | B-
Stellar kick returner Richard Leonard is gone, but the Panthers — who have a tradition of finding standouts at the position — are hoping sophomore Anthony Jones is next. Senior kicker Austin Taylor made 10 of 14 field goals, and sophomore punter Stone Wilson had a 40.5 average. Jose Borregales, a freshman from Booker T. Washington, made 13 of 14 field goals last year, and he also punts. He could challenge soon.
COACHING | C
This is a veteran and impressive staff. Although the credentials are there, the results haven’t caught up — at least not yet. This is FIU’s fourth season under coach Ron Turner, who turns 63 on Dec. 5 and has yet to produce a winning record with the Panthers. In three years at FIU, Turner is 10-26, including 5-7 last year. Turner brought in veteran coach Kirk Doll as the special teams coordinator and promoted Ron Cooper to defensive coordinator.