FIU was probably ahead of schedule in Butch Davis' first season, winning eight games and posting a plus-.500 record in league play for the first time since going 5-3 in the Sun Belt in 2011. Davis has done an excellent job of recruiting and developing inherited talent, but there are some big holes to fill in 2018.
Previewing FIU Football's Offense for 2018
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FIU has to replace its statistical leader at each skill position. Quarterback Alex McGough and running back Alex Gardner both exit the program after serving as four-year starters, and leading receiver Thomas Owens is also gone, leaving a number of sizable holes for the Panthers.
That is where the bad news ends, however. Both the running back and wide receiver positions return a lot of depth and skill, providing plenty of promise for 2018.
The offensive line features multiple returning starters, led by tackles Kai Absheer and Daquane Wilkie, which will help quarterback James Morgan -- a graduate transfer from Bowling Green -- stay upright. Morgan's top targets will include Florida transfer C.J. Worton, Austin Maloney and Bryce Singleton.
Running back is the deepest position on the team with Napoleon Maxwell and Shawndarrius Phillips joining D'vonte Price as guys who can tote the ball effectively. Maxwell averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season.
Previewing FIU Football's Defense for 2018
FIU will have to make significant strides to improve a pass defense that was especially vulnerable down the stretch. There will be some new life in the back end of the defense with young players moving in to take over for defensive backs who were experienced but not all that talented.
The Panthers lost their two top linebackers -- Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint -- from the 2017 squad, so Davis has moved promising junior Sage Lewis from outside to inside linebacker while also moving standout end Fermin Silva to outside backer to get some of the team's best players on the field.
Davis was able to make these moves because he believes his defensive line is stocked with talent. Jordan Wood is a high-caliber transfer from Georgia Tech who will take the lead at defensive end, while the middle of the front will be strong with returnees Milord Juste and Anthony Johnson being joined by junior college transfers Teair Tart and Tayland Humphrey.
In short, the best way for the pass defense to get better is for the defensive line to dominate up front and limit available time for the opposition.
Previewing FIU Football's Specialists for 2018
Special teams will be a strength of the Panthers and can be a viable weapon to flip field position and win games. Jose Borregales was one of the league's most consistent placekickers last season, connecting on 15-of-18 field goal attempts. He did not miss a kick inside 40 yards. Couple that production with punter Stone Wilson, who will look to improve his 41.0-yard average, and there are strong returning legs for the Panthers. Singleton burst onto the scene last fall as an electric kick returner.
While it will be a difficult road to get back to eight wins -- considering the losses at the skill positions and throughout the back end of the defense -- if the young talent recruited by Davis can mature quickly, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Panthers can flirt with a winning record in 2017. FIU benefits from a schedule that features five of the first seven games at home, as well as key C-USA East rivals Florida Atlantic and Marshall coming to Riccardo Silva Stadium in November.