Weekly Preview: Florida International
Image Credit: DC Sports Box
Opponent: Florida International Golden Panthers (0-0, 0-0 Conference USA)
Game Date/Time: Saturday, August 31, 2013; 12:30 PM ET
Venue: Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium (Capacity: 54,000)
TV/Radio Broadcasts: Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, Terrapin Sports Radio Network, ESPN3
All-Time Record: 3-0 Maryland
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The Florida International Golden Panthers enter 2013 in a new conference with a new head coach and a new offense. They return 5 of their starters from 2012 on both sides of the ball, and only one of those is an offensive starter. They have never really provided Maryland much of a threat when the two teams play each other, and the Terps won their last meeting 42-28 in 2010.
The FIU offense is moving from a fast-paced spread offense under head coach Mario Cristobal to a pro-style offense under new head coach Ron Turner. Starting quarterback Jake Medlock ran a similar offense in high school, and he will definitely be the Golden Panthers’ best offensive weapon. In that spread offense last season, Medlock threw for 2,127 yards, including 13 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions.
The problem with the FIU offense doesn’t lie in its quarterback. It lies more with the running backs and the offensive line. The running game has to be the focal point of a pro-style offense, and FIU is struggling to find a running back who can carry the load. Kedrick Rhodes was supposed to be that back before he was dismissed from the team in July following an arrest for discharging his firearm on campus. The new starting running back will be transfer student Jakhari Gore, who has never played more than part of a game at the collegiate level. He has 8 carries in his career for 25 yards in 2011 when he was a member of the LSU Tigers. The offensive line is an all-new group, and Ron Turner may be forced to start true freshmen due to the lack of talent on the line.
The FIU defense should be better than the offense, simply due to the lack of experience on the offensive side on the ball. The defense is returning 4 of its starters from 2012, and will continue to run a multiple 4-3 set under new defensive coordinator Josh Conklin. The defense will be built on speed in order to slow down the high-powered offenses of Conference USA. The defensive line is probably the best unit on this defense, and has size in the middle and speed on the ends.
The Golden Panthers are projected to win anywhere from 1-4 games in 2013, but do have a lot of team speed that could surprise some people. They are in a transitionary period with their offense, and their defense lost a lot of key starters. But for a team like Maryland, FIU is a squad that you have to watch out for. They’re fast, they’re young, and they’re unproven. They’re playing with house money, and no one expects them to do anything. For some teams, that gives them all of the relaxation they need to play even better.
Last week I was able to interview FIU football writer Pete Pelegrin and ask him a few questions about this year’s squad. I’d like to thank Mr. Pelegrin for his professionalism and insightful responses.
BSL: A lot of people don’t know much about Florida International. It’s a relatively small program in a state that sees domination by Florida, Florida State, and Miami. I’ve always thought it was a bit of a blessing and a curse for coaches at FIU because while they get to play in one of the best recruiting-rich areas in the country, they’re also overshadowed by larger programs. How is FIU trying to carve a niche in the football world of Florida?
Pelegrin: By mostly recruiting locally and achieving success with those athletes. As you know the state of Florida has an abundance of good football players that are recruited by almost every team around the nation. Not all those good players can play on BCS teams and FIU has been successful in years past getting some of those great Florida athletes. Some examples of that are four of the seven the former FIU players currently in the NFL: Antwan Barnes (N.Y. Jets), last year’s rookie sensation T.Y. Hilton (Indianapolis Colts), the first pick of the 2nd round of this past NFL Draft, Johnathan Cyprien (Jacksonville Jaguars) and rookie Tourek Williams (San Diego Chargers) who you will hear about this coming season. There is a ton of talent in the state of Florida. FIU has also expanded its recruiting to Georgia, Texas, Nebraska and California in years past.
BSL: The Golden Panthers got a new head coach this season in Ron Turner, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterbacks coach. How has a coach who has spent the last 8 seasons in the NFL re-adjusted himself to the college coaching ranks, and how have the players responded to the coaching change?
Pelegrin: Judging by camp Turner has adjusted well, but as we all know the ultimate decider on that will be the won-loss record. Turner and his staff bring a plethora of NFL and college coaching experience. The players have responded and seem to take to the coaching they are getting in camp. One thing that keeps coming up about the staff when you speak to the players is the phrase, “NFL experience” when they talk about the coaches. The players like that the coaches have coached in the NFL before they got to FIU, especially after seeing their former teammates, Cyprien, Hilton, Williams, etc. reach the NFL recently.
BSL: The FIU offense is led by Junior QB Jake Medlock. What can Terps fans expect to see from him, and how good are the weapons around him?
Pelegrin: Medlock is a good passer who is finally healthy after some past injury-plagued seasons. Medlock has a big arm, however, the skill players around him are relatively inexperienced despite being good athletes. As has been the case on FIU teams since they started playing football in 2002, there is plenty of speed on both sides of the ball. There are a variety of receivers: deep threats, possession receivers and even tight ends that can stretch the field. The only thing they are lacking is game experience. The return to the pro-style offense has helped the team, especially the running game. It is the type of offense Medlock ran in high school.
BSL: What can Terps fans expect to see style-wise from the FIU offense and defense? How much change has Ron Turner implemented to the previous systems in the off-season?
Pelegrin: The offense changed from a spread under the previous coaching staff to the pro-style. For the spread to truly work you need 4 or 5 T.Y. Hiltons (extremely talented, fast, elusive receivers). Also the offensive line has 5 new starters so that will be a work in progress and I think the pro-style will help the green O-line better than the spread. Defensively, FIU uses a base 4-3 but gives multiple looks. The defense is expected to be the strength of the team with two NFL prospect defensive linemen in Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman. In fact, scouts from about every NFL team have been at FIU practices all month long and also during spring ball looking at the D-line. The linebackers are inexperienced and young. The secondary has some playmakers such as Richard Leonard and Sam Miller, but have to make up for the loss of Cyprien to the NFL.
BSL: What are the overall expectations for FIU this season, following a 3-9 campaign in 2012 under Mario Cristobal?
Pelegrin: If you read all the preseason prognostications, FIU is expected to win 1 to 3 games this season as the Panthers lost 30 seniors after last season. Turner was not able to recruit until late because it took so long to hire him. When he took over Turner told the team that it was a fresh start and that regardless of whether you were a freshman or a senior he is going to play the best players. He has stuck to that as evidenced by freshman left guard Jordan Budwig who is about to crack the starting lineup. I hate to sound cliched but I think FIU is going to take it on a game-by-game basis to see who gets regular playing time and how the lineups are adjusted. I think it would be a tremendous accomplishment if the Panthers win 5 or 6 games this season considering the loss of so many seniors and late hire of Turner.
Zack’s Keys to the Game:
- Establish the running game – The Terps’ offense, despite having a lot of talented receivers, will live and die with the running game. The offensive line has to be able to create holes for Brandon Ross and Albert Reid to get to the inexperienced second level of the FIU defense.
- Protect C.J. Brown – The offensive line also has to protect C.J. Brown enough so that he can get the ball out to his talented receivers. He will likely see most of his passes come out of the shotgun which will make the line’s job a bit easier, but he needs time to read the field and can’t get knocked around a lot in his first game since 2011.
- Put FIU away early – Letting a team like FIU hang around longer than they should is a recipe for disaster. After a nail-biter win against William & Mary in their season opener last year, the Terps should know how bad it is to play down to your opponent.
- Pressure Jake Medlock – The Terps’ defensive line needs to be able to get pressure on the FIU quarterback and not let him use his arm to his advantage. Against an inexperienced offensive line, this should be a reasonable task to accomplish.
- Stop the run – The Terps were one of the best teams in the country at stopping the run last season. If they can shut down the FIU rushing attack, that pro-style offense stops working.
- Control the game – Mike Locksley’s offense is built on the running game and ball control. Even though he will mix in a few spread looks for C.J. Brown, this offense is at its best when it is moving the ball consistently and eating up clock. Turnovers have to be at a minimum, and ball control should be the priority. The defense has to be able to limit the big plays on defense, and hold the FIU offense to field goals if and when they reach the red zone.