For the first time since 2010, Butch Davis will return to the sidelines as FIU’s new head coach. The Panthers went 4-8 last season but did finish .500 in Conference USA games. Davis is a veteran coach who is returning to his Florida roots, and he’s inheriting a team that returns 15 starters. The offense has playmakers in place but the success to this unit will fall to an offensive line that hasn’t gotten the job done. The defense has plenty of experience in place, now it’s just a matter of putting it all together. No one is expecting Davis to make FIU a contender in his first season, but don’t be surprised if these Panthers get back to a bowl game and/or pull off an upset or two this fall.
Previewing FIU Football’s Offense for 2017
New offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky walks into a favorable situation in his first year leading FIU’s offense for Butch Davis. Quarterback Alex McGough and running back Alex Gardner are both fourth-year starters who bring a wealth of game experience into the 2017 season. McGough threw for 1,891 yards last season, but his touchdown-to-interception ratio (13-to-11) must improve. If he struggles, don’t expect Davis to wait to make a change.
Gardner is a dual threat for the Panthers, having rushed for 930 yards and six touchdowns last season while also catching 30 passes out of the backfield. Anthony Jones is also a backfield weapon. He rushed for 562 yards as a sophomore, including 128 in a win at UTEP and 121 in a win vs. Marshall. The top pass-catching target in 2017 will be Thomas Owens, who had 47 catches for 652 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016.
The biggest question is along the offensive line. The Panthers return a wealth of experience, but the unit has struggled in recent years. Kai Absheer moves from guard to left tackle while experienced players such as right tackle Daquane Wilkie and center Neil Mars return. If play doesn’t improve along the line, Davis could inject some young talent into the mix after a successful recruiting season. Look for freshmen Cody Bowes and Willa Pierre to be among those young guys in the mix early.
Previewing FIU Football’s Defense for 2017
Davis tabbed Brent Guy, a former head coach at Utah State, as his defensive coordinator. Guy’s task is to get the Panthers’ defense — which allowed 34.8 points per game in 2016 — to play with a mean streak.
Much like the offensive side of the football, there is plenty of experience and few holes to fill in terms of starting production. The youth brought in from the strong recruiting class will provide instant depth while pushing the veterans.
The top returning players on defense include end Fermin Silva, cornerback Emmanuel Lubin and linebackers Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint. Williams and Wint both recorded more than 100 tackles in 2016. Safeties Niko Gonzalez and Xavier Hines have developed chemistry in the secondary.
If there is an area of concern for the Panthers, it is right in the middle of the field, where the team lost its top three defensive tackles and standout linebacker Davison Colimon. There is plenty of talent at the linebacker position to make up for Colimon’s absence, but the interior defensive line will have to develop quickly for FIU’s defense to be successful. The Panthers recorded only 17 sacks in 2016 to rank 11th in Conference USA.
Previewing FIU Football’s Specialists for 2017
The return game for FIU is solid with Gardner back as a kick returner and Owens back as one of Conference USA’s top punt returners. That’s where the good news ends. Placekicker Austin Taylor graduated, and punter Stone Wilson has lacked consistency. He averaged only 37.6 yards on his 61 punts and downed only 12 inside the 20-yard line. That loss in the field position battle was crucial in several close losses last season.
On paper, FIU has a solid outlook heading into the 2017 season. Davis is a proven winner, and the Panthers have one of the nation’s most experienced rosters taking the field. The new staff also landed an outstanding recruiting class in his first two months, which could provide instant depth.
The two areas crucial to immediate success are improvement along the offensive front and more consistency from the punting game. If FIU can improve in those two areas, the team could be in position to go to its first bowl game since the 2011 season.
National Ranking: 113
C-USA East Prediction: 6
(Alex Gardner photo courtesy of FIU Athletics)