FIU took annother small step forward last season, finishing with five wins, the most since 2011. Even more is expected this season, as Ron Turner's team is hoping a veteran offense and a manageable schedule will result in the Panthers' first bowl invitation in five seasons.
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Previewing FIU’s Offense for 2016
Quarterback Alex McGough enters his third year as the starter and leads a unit that has nine starters returning from 2015 — a season in which McGough threw for 2,722 yards and 21 touchdowns with just eight interceptions.
Every skill position returns a playmaker from 2015. Running back Alex Gardner is back after a season in which he eclipsed 1,200 yards from scrimmage (760 rushing, 442 receiving) and scored 10 touchdowns. He’s joined by a pair of talented pass-catching threats in tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Thomas Owens.
Along the offensive front, Michael Montero leads a veteran group that needs to improve its run blocking to allow the Panthers to see offensive continuity.
The knock on FIU’s offense is the lack of the big play, which needs to change in the 2016 season. Given the unit’s experience, big-play capability (or lack thereof) could be the difference.
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Previewing FIU’s Defense for 2016
The strength of the defense is at safety, where Niko Gonzalez and Tyree Johnson bring playmaking ability and experience to the back end. That experience offsets the losses of talented cornerbacks Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon.
Anthony Wint led FIU with 88 tackles in 2015, and Treyvon Williams and Davison Colimon return from injuries to give the Panthers a strong corps of linebackers. Look for Vontarius West to be a playmaker after gaining much needed experience last season.
FIU will have to find newcomers to establish a pass rush with three of four starting defensive linemen gone. Imarjaye Albury, a senior, is the lone returnee on the line; the onus is on FIU to find young talent to step up at the defensive end spots.
The Panthers hope to avoid the injury bug and establish a pass rush. If they’re able to do so, the athleticism is there to make plays. Again, with so much experience on offense, the defense needs to be good, not great. Last year, they weren’t good.
Previewing FIU’s Specialists for 2016
FIU’s special teams unit was solid in 2015. Placekicker Austin Taylor is back, as is punter Stone Wilson. Numbers weren’t bad across the board, but given that C-USA had some of the nation’s best in the kicking game, continued improvement is a must. FIU needs to find someone to replace Leonard, who was a do-it-all return guy. Look for Anthony Jones to emerge as the primary option early, but head coach Ron Turner will try out several people in an attempt to get that explosive factor that Leonard brought to the table.
The goal for this season can be summed up with one word: consistency. If FIU can be consistent, the schedule sets up for seven or eight wins. However, if both sides of the ball are inconsistent, FIU could be staring at a three- or four-win season.
McGough has to take the next step as a leader and find ways to win close games. FIU’s offense could be one of the surprises of C-USA in 2016 — if all returning parts continue to build chemistry and take care of the football. Defensively, it’s all about the pass rush. If FIU can establish solid ends, the talent is there in other spots to see the defense improve. Without a rush, young cornerbacks are going to have a world of trouble against C-USA receivers.
The Panthers’ schedule sets up to give them momentum and confidence heading down the stretch. After opening against Indiana and Maryland, the next five games don’t feature an opponent projected to be in the top 100 out of 128 FBS teams. They need to take advantage.