No. 50: Florida International
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 20, 2012
Remember when you caught a fish this big? It wasn’t this big coming out of the water, of course; it was just a little guy, big enough for eating but not nearly large enough to put on a plaque and hang on the wall. But something happened on the way from the lake to the front door: the fish grew. It went from two pounds to five pounds. Five pounds to a dozen. A dozen pounds to the largest catfish ever seen in these here waters. It nearly took your arm off – no, it was so big you capsized, nearly drowned in the waters, had to fight and thrash for hours to wrestle the biggest fish in the history of the county into your arms and to shore. Exaggeration. Embellishment. Every story can be improved just a little bit. Except here: Florida International really was as downtrodden, forgotten, underfunded and woebegone as the stories made the program out to be when Mario Cristobal first walked through the front door in 2007. At F.I.U., no exaggeration is needed.
17 (7 offense, 10 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 4
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
at S. Alabama
- Nov. 16
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
Now, the biggest question facing F.I.U. in 2011: Can the Panthers live up to the hype? It’s one thing to come in under the radar and another to succeed when everyone thinks you will, as F.I.U. will soon discover. The rest of the Sun Belt will be gunning for the Golden Panthers, who must take on an opponent’s best shot and return the favor. They’re good enough to do so. I’m thinking another win on last year’s mark, leaving F.I.U. at 7-5 in the regular season, just behind Troy on the Sun Belt ladder.
In a nutshell I can’t ignore the widescreen view. The Panthers were a three-win team only two years ago, not to mention an absolute disgrace when Cristobal was first hired. That makes calling an eight-win season a disappointment at least a little ridiculous, right? To be honest, the only issue I have is the idea that in this specific season, F.I.U. was bypassed by three conference foes — each of which came out of relative obscurity. That’s not a good sign in one particular season, but I doubt that it’s a trend. The Panthers are built for the long haul; while teams like Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State and Western Kentucky are on the rise, it’s a little too early to paint them as conference title contenders both today and tomorrow.
High point A strong September in non-conference play. Before capping the month with a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, F.I.U. rolled past North Texas and beat Louisville and U.C.F. by a touchdown apiece. It was Sept. 17, the Panthers were 3-0, and folks were paying attention.
Low point Two of the three Sun Belt losses came by a combined six points: 36-31 to U.L.L. and 10-9 to pesky Western Kentucky. A non-conference loss to Duke came by four points, 31-27. Arkansas State blew the Panthers’ doors off in the fourth quarter of its 34-16 win, yes. But it’s not a stretch to say that F.I.U. could have won at least one additional game in the regular season.
Tidbit From its debut as a program through the 2009 season, F.I.U. went 10-21 in games played in November and December. Over the last two years, however, the Panthers have gone 8-3 over the season’s final two months. What made last season different from any in the program’s past was how the Panthers stormed out of the gate with three wins by Sept. 18; prior to last fall, the earliest F.I.U. had reached three wins since transitioning up to the F.B.S. was on Oct. 11, back in 2010.
Tidbit (Sunshine State edition) There are seven F.B.S. teams in Florida. At the end of the regular season, F.I.U., 8-4, was tied with Florida State for the best record in the state. While F.S.U. won its bowl game after the Panthers dropped theirs, the final standings in the Sunshine State went as follows: F.S.U., F.I.U., Florida, Miami, South Florida, U.C.F. – I give the Bulls the edge based on strength of schedule – and Florida Atlantic.
Tidbit (winning percentage edition) Heading into 2010, F.I.U. was one of two programs with a career winning percentage under 40 percent, joining Kent State, and was the only program in the F.B.S. with a career winning percentage under 30 percent – 26.1 percent, to be exact. After the last two years, the Panthers’ winning percentage has skyrocketed up to 33.1; still last in the F.B.S. – not counting the four new teams – but within striking distance of Kent State’s 38.9 percent clip. If the Golden Flashes merely tread water over their next 50 games, F.I.U. would need to go at least 27-23 to move into second-to-last place.
Former players in the N.F.L.
5 LB Antwan Barnes (San Diego), WR Greg Ellingson (Tampa Bay), CB Anthony Gaitor (Tampa Bay), WR T.Y. Hilton (Indianapolis), CB Nick Taylor (Minnesota).
Arbitrary top five list
Cristobal’s next stop (assuming other moves)
Mario Cristobal (Miami ’93), 24-38 after five seasons with the Golden Panthers. Cristobal and F.I.U. burst onto the national stage two years ago, taking home the Sun Belt in the program’s first winning season of its existence. That was followed by last season’s eight wins, the highest single-season total in program history. The dirty work has all been done by Cristobal, who has only recently received the national recognition for the work he’s done rebuilding one of the nation’s youngest — and certainly its weakest — programs since taking over five years ago. He’s done so by taking his time, identifying and developing talent in his talent-rich home state, which sounds easy in hindsight but was an unbelievable tough hurdle for Cristobal to overcome. He has very strong ties to the Miami area, the place where he was born, played his college ball and began his coaching career. From 1998-2000, Cristobal was a graduate assistant under Butch Davis at Miami (Fla.); those Hurricane teams finished a combined 29-8 and won a pair of Big East championships. From there, Cristobal followed Miami defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to Rutgers, where he coached the offensive line and tight ends from 2001-3. Though he left the school to return to Miami prior to the 2004 season, Cristobal was responsible for recruiting many of the players who would be key to the Scarlet Knights’ turnaround from conference doormat to annual bowl participants. After three seasons back at Miami, first as tight ends coach (2004-5), next as offensive line coach (2006), F.I.U. tabbed Cristobal to replace former coach Don Strock. It’s hard to imagine, but Cristobal has lifted F.I.U. from the bottom of the nation to the top of the Sun Belt. While he entered into heated conversations with Rutgers last winter, Cristobal just signed a contract extension that runs through the 2017 season.
Tidbit (coaching edition) F.I.U. made two staffing changes after last season, both on the offensive side of the ball. Coordinator and quarterbacks coach Scott Satterfield, who left for the same spot at Appalachian State – where he began his coaching career – will be replaced by former New Hampshire coordinator Tim Cramsey. Cramsey spent nine years at U.N.H., working under then-coordinator Chip Kelly from 2003-6. As you’d expect, Cramsey will ramp up the Panthers’ tempo while installing a few of the bells and whistles Kelly has made famous over his time at Oregon. F.I.U. also has a new tight ends coach: Dennis Smith moves up from his spot as the program’s director of player personnel, replacing Greg Laffere.
Players to watch
All F.I.U. needs to do – and it’s easier said than done – is find a way to replace the game-breaking ability T.Y. Hilton brought to the table as a receiver, a runner and in the return game. Again, it won’t be easy. The Panthers know that there’s no one single player on the roster capable of filling a Hilton-like role; however, with the team’s ever-growing talent base, especially when it comes to underclassmen, there are enough options at Cramsey’s disposal to cobble together a good-enough offense in 2012 – but there’s little chance that F.I.U. is going to match Hilton’s impact on special teams.
It’s going to be interesting to see what Cramsey does with an offense already well-versed in the spread. Beyond simply ratcheting up the Panthers’ tempo, getting the team in and out of the huddle in seconds – if the team ever huddles at all, that is – it’s highly likely that F.I.U. stretches the field more so than it did under Satterfield. While this offense won’t resemble Oregon’s in any ways other than in its formations and overall mentality, Cramsey does have several toys to work with; if he can get things rolling, adding a potent offense to go with this defense, the Panthers are going to be very, very hard to beat.
F.I.U. breaks in a new quarterback: Jake Medlock, a sophomore, steps in for Wesley Carroll, a two-year starter. While Carroll did an adequate job last fall, especially when it came to cutting down on his interceptions, F.I.U. can get more out of the position. There’s every reason to think that Medlock, who earned significant snaps in two games last fall, is an upgrade over his predecessor. He certainly has the stronger arm, not to mention above-average mobility, and took very well to Cramsey’s system during the spring.
In fact, Medlock actually replaced Carroll in the starting lineup in the win over Florida Atlantic, throwing for 135 yards and a score to go with 47 yards on the ground, and would have started the rest of the way had he not injured his shoulder against Louisiana-Monroe. He also replaced Carroll earlier in the year against Louisiana-Lafayette, nearly leading F.I.U. to victory before throwing an interception on the Panthers’ final possession. There was some talk that two freshmen, Loranzo Hammonds and E.J. Hilliard, could leapfrog to the top of depth chart during the spring, but Medlock, fending them off, is the clear starter heading into September. Hilliard might have impressed the staff to the point where he’s used in certain situations.
The running game will continue to roll right through junior Kendrick Rhodes (1,149 yards and 8 touchdowns), who finished third in the S.B.C. in rushing despite sharing the workload with Darriet Perry, who has since graduated. Rhodes will take on even more carries this fall, I’d imagine, likely filling the void left by Bobby Rainey’s departure as the league’s best back. While the offense suits this team as a whole, it truly fits right into Rhodes’ skill set; he’s not only a strong runner but a great weapon as a receiver coming out of the backfield (27 receptions for 252 yards). After a nice close to last season and a solid spring, senior Jeremiah Harden should be Rhodes’ primary backup.
The offensive line is the Sun Belt’s best. It’s also one of the nation’s most experienced lines despite losing right guard Curtis Bryant to graduation; the four returning starters hold 80 combined career starts. The tackle pairing will remain the same, with all-S.B.C. lock Caylin Hauptmann on the left side and Rubert Bryan on the right. The Panthers will shuffle a bit inside, with Giancarlo Revilla moving from center to left guard and Shea Smith to center. With these spots set in stone, all F.I.U. needs to do is locate a starting right guard. While junior David Delsoin held the edge heading into the summer, F.I.U. could also turn to senior Dave Istanich, who has seven career starts under his belt. If Istanich gets the nod, F.I.U. will start five seniors up front.
Ten returning starters off the Sun Belt’s best defense. The same defensive coordinator – Todd Orlando – in back-to-back years for the first time since 2008. A better knowledge of what teams like Louisiana-Lafayette look to achieve offensively. Some very promising freshmen and sophomores battling for the chance to break into the rotation. Overall, enough youth to expect further growth throughout the season. In every way, shape or form, no matter how you cut it, this defense is going to carry F.I.U. to the Sun Belt crown.
The Panthers did lose one starter, however. No big deal: F.I.U. will replace end James Jones with juniors Paul Crawford (19 tackles) and Greg Hickman (34 tackles, 11.0 for loss, 5.0 sacks), two former reserves who combined to make four starts last fall. F.I.U. can team Hickman and Crawford – Hickman’s the starter, barring injury, with Crawford one of the top reserve linemen – with senior Tourek Williams (32 tackles, 13.0 for loss, 4.5 sacks), who was recently projected to be the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year by a media vote. The idea of putting Hickman and Williams on opposite sides of the line should keep opposing offensive coordinators awake at night – and should do the same to offensive tackles and quarterbacks.
The Panthers’ end play is positively outstanding. It’s also one reason why F.I.U. can actually line up and play a team like Louisiana-Lafayette straight up, with four down linemen, rather than alternating schemes in an effort to rattle the Ragin’ Cajuns’ passing game. The Panthers augment the superb end crop with tackles Andre Pound, Isame Faciane (32 tackles, 8.5 for loss), Jerrico Lee and Joshua Forney – the same quartet as last season, and a group very much on the rise as it gains more experience under Orlando. Faciane, who has added about 50 pounds over the last two years, will be the best interior lineman in the S.B.C. by year’s end. One player who might have worked himself into the conversation with a strong spring was redshirt freshman Lars Koht, though it’ll hard for the rookie to earn a substantial role with the Panthers’ returning experience.
I have one problem with Williams being recognized as the league’s preseason player of the year: I would have voted for linebacker Winston Fraser. Scratch that: I would have voted for linebacker Jordan Hunt. As up front, F.I.U. is loaded along the second level. It begins with Fraser (108 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4.0 sacks), a senior – or does it begin Hunt (85 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 4.0 sacks)? No matter how you cut it, no team in the S.B.C. can match the Panthers’ one-two punch; both can run, hit, rush the passer and drop in coverage as well as any linebacker in the conference. This pair is joined by senior Kenny Dillard (31 tackles), though F.I.U. does often start with a five-defensive back set. You don’t often see Fraser and Winston step off the field.
The fun continues in the secondary. After taking some lumps earlier in his career, senior strong safety Jonathan Cyprien (81 tackles) anchors a pass defense that has made great strides over the last two seasons. The Panthers’ depth at safety provides Orlando with several options in the secondary: Cyprien is joined by junior Terrance Taylor (40 tackles) and sophomore Justin Halley, a pair that split time at free safety last fall. Another option is Chuck Grace, who missed most of last season due to injury; he seemed to be back at his old tricks during the spring, displaying the range that made him the starter heading into last September.
The same four cornerbacks will roam on the outside: juniors Jose Cheeseborough (59 tackles) and Sam Miller (63 tackles, 2 interceptions), senior Junior Mertile and sophomore Richard Leonard. While the Panthers’ secondary lacks the star power you find along the front seven, it’s safe to call the pairing of Cheeseborough and Miller one of the two or three best in the Sun Belt. In addition, having a senior like Cyprien at strong safety solidifies the back end of the defense.
F.I.U. has two areas of concern: offense – just overall, with the new coordinator, quarterback and the like – and the return game. No longer will the Panthers dictate field position. Instead, this team will become pedestrian on kick and punt returns overnight. While players like Leonard, who is expected to handle punts and share duties on kickoffs, have enough speed to make plays, no player is going to match Hilton’s production. In other special teams areas, F.I.U. returns one of the most consistent kickers in the country in senior Jack Griffin. F.I.U. also brings back senior punter Josh Brisk.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver F.I.U. knows what it’ll get from seniors Wayne Times (54 catches for 540 yards) and Jacob Younger (21 for 286): reliability. That’s a valuable commodity for any offense, and doubly so for a team like F.I.U. searching for answers in the wake of Hilton’s departure. But neither Times nor Younger is going to be like Hilton, either burning a secondary deep or turning a bubble screen into a long gain; that doesn’t make either less valuable, but it does leave F.I.U. looking for a big-play spark from a crop of fairly unproven receivers.
One player to watch is junior Willis Wright (10 for 133), a former big-time recruit who seems close to a breakthrough season. Junior Glenn Coleman (14 for 128) and sophomore Dominique Rhymes (9 for 112) are also going to serve in key roles this fall. If F.I.U. doesn’t land adequate production from this group, it would open the door for one of the team’s talented incoming freshmen to make an immediate impact. February’s class, the finest in school history, included two receivers with B.C.S. conference offers in DeAndre Jasper and Jeremy Smith and a third, Adrian Jenkins, who held offers from several of the MAC’s top programs.
Even with the top set and several returning contributors ready to occupy larger roles, the incoming crop of receivers are going to have every chance to break into the rotation. Here’s another player to keep in mind: Jairus Williams, a junior, has the frame to become a valuable weapon in the red zone. He’s raw, but Williams could make an impact in certain situations.
Game(s) to watch
The only sure win during non-conference play comes at home against Akron. But it’s easy to see F.I.U. knocking off both Duke and U.C.F. — the latter less so, of course — even if both games come on the road; I don’t see the Panthers getting the better of Louisville, both because the Cardinals are a better team and because there’s no way they sleep on F.I.U. twice. Most likely, F.I.U. heads into conference play at 2-2. From there, games against Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy, Western Kentucky and Arkansas State will decide the final conference standings. Clearly, there’s no team in the S.B.C. that F.I.U. can’t handle. The key will be starting strong: F.I.U. will cruise to the S.B.C. crown if it opens conference play with wins over the Cajuns and Red Wolves.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell When it comes to the Sun Belt, the only thing that can stop Florida International is Florida International. This is what happens when you combine the league’s best offensive line, best defensive line, best overall defense and best running game: you get the best team in the Sun Belt. No other team is as complete, even if the Golden Panthers are slanted heavily towards the defensive side of the ball. No other team has such senior leadership – especially where it counts, up front offense and in the front seven on defense. No other team in the S.B.C. can match the program’s clear and obvious climb over the last two seasons. Others disagree, it seems; to me, F.I.U. is clearly the Sun Belt’s best team in 2012.
So can F.I.U. be the random B.C.S. buster that pops up every September? No chance. For one, I do think that the Panthers are going to lose two games during non-conference play – and three losses is a possibility, as while Duke is an A.C.C. also-ran it is certainly good enough to top F.I.U. at home. And the newfound depth in the S.B.C. is probably going to hand F.I.U. a conference loss; I see the Panthers as the conference’s undisputed leader, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll survive Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and the like unscathed. Overall, the issues for F.I.U. center on offense and special teams. Even with a new coordinator and a solid line, I do worry that F.I.U. drops the ball once or twice during the regular season. Until Medlock and company get on the same page, you’ll never know exactly how much scoring F.I.U. will get on offense every week. That’s an issue, as is replacing Hilton in the return game. These are not crippling concerns. If not a 10-win team, F.I.U. should win at least eight games in the regular season. Expectations are high, and for good reason.
Dream season While not a B.C.S. buster, F.I.U. knocks on the door with an 11-1 regular season. The lone loss comes to Louisville; every conference win comes by 14 or more points. The Panthers’ defense ends the year in the top 10 nationally in every major category.
Nightmare season F.I.U. opens 1-3, beating only Akron, and then drops games to Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette to start S.B.C. play. The year is over at this point, though F.I.U. rebounds to win four of its last six. A 5-7 finish would be enormously disappointing.
In case you were wondering
Where do Florida International fans congregate? Start with FIUGoldenPanthers.com, the lone independent site, and also take a trip to Panther Rage, where you can find coverage of F.I.U. recruiting. Then check out former Miami Herald beat writer Pete Pelegrin’s The Prowl, the university’s official sports blog.
Florida International’s all-name nominee CB Jose Cheeseborough.
Through 75 teams 294,325.
Who is No. 49? The original site of tomorrow’s institution, where it was housed for the first four years of its existence, is about 57 miles away from its current location.
Tags: Caylin Hauptmann, E.J. Hilliard, Florida International, Greg Hickman, Isame Faciane, Jack Griffin, Jacob Younger, Jake Medlock, Jonathan Cyprien, Jordan Hunt, Jose Cheeseborough, Kendrick Rhodes, Mario Cristobal, Rubert Bryan, Sam Miller, Sun Belt, Tim Cramsey, Todd Orlando, Tourek Williams, Wayne Times, Willis Wright, Winston Fraser
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