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Butch Davis is a year ahead of schedule at FIU

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FIU doubled its win total, then signed the best recruiting class in the conference. Not bad, Butch.

UTSA v Florida International Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

UCF went 13-0 and claimed a share of the national title. FAU won 11 games and its first Conference USA title. FIU lost by a combined 113-41 to these two in-state rivals ... and then out-recruited them both.

Head coach Butch Davis’ performance this past season was overlooked a bit, in part because of what UCF and FAU were doing. But he doubled FIU’s win total, from four to eight, in his first season back in Miami, and after signing the fifth-best class in Conference USA (per the 247Sports Composite) on short notice last February, he signed the best in 2018.

Granted, uncharacteristically good recruiting doesn’t automatically mean improvement. San Jose State signed a top-65 class in 2015, for instance, and has gone just 12-26 since. But Davis has a track record of nailing local recruiting and then deploying the new talent properly. And besides, he didn’t even wait to fill the two-deep with his own recruits before making a difference.

Davis inherited an experienced squad and did quite a bit with it: FIU improved from 96th to 75th in Off. S&P+, from 117th to 93rd in Def. S&P+, and from 118th to 43rd in Special Teams S&P+.

They were probably a little bit lucky to win eight games — they were 4-1 in one-possession finishes, and postgame win probability suggested they should have been closer to 7-6. Oh well. Things got better, and recruiting hasn’t fully kicked in yet.

A second-year setback wouldn’t be unheard-of, though. On offense, the Panthers must replace their starting quarterback (Alex McGough, without whom FIU’s offense tanked in a 28-3 bowl loss to Temple), leading rusher (Alex Gardner), best wideout (Thomas Owens), best tight end (Pharoah McKever), and best offensive lineman (guard Jordan Budwig). On defense, they will be without seven of their top 10 havoc guys, including two linebacker starters and all four starting defensive backs.

After bringing back the most returning production in the country last year, FIU is in the bottom five this time around. That tends to all but guarantee regression, and S&P+ is predictably cold on the Panthers. But a host of newcomers will give them a fighting chance at exceeding projections:

  • Quarterback James Morgan, who started 13 games over two years at Bowling Green, comes in as a graduate transfer.
  • Running back Anthony Jones isn’t a newcomer, but he missed 2017 with a knee injury, and his 2016 per-carry stats exceeded Gardner’s in 2017. Plus, incoming freshmen Demarcus Townsend and Shaun Peterson Jr. were both mid-three-star recruits.
  • Davis signed six three-star receivers this year — including Cadarius Gaskin, the highest-rated high schooler in FIU’s haul — and redshirted another last fall.
  • Offensive lineman D’Antne Demery was a three-star JUCO.
  • Defensive end Jordan Wood was a nearly-four-star Georgia Tech signee in 2016 but transferred to FIU and is now eligible.
  • Defensive tackles Teair Tart and Tayland Humphrey are four-star signees out of junior college.
  • Linebacker Donovan Georges and safety Jamal Anderson were both mid-three-star recruits, and Davis redshirted mid-three-star safety Dorian Hall last year, too.

Davis played a ton of 2017 signees in smaller roles last fall to get their feet wet for 2018. If that tactic works, and quite a few newbies thrive, the Panthers could prove S&P+ quite wrong.

Offense

2017 FIU offensive radar

Coordinator Rich Skrosky’s philosophy seems pretty clear at this point: don’t move backward. You don’t always have to move forward very far, but avoid negative plays at all costs. In last year’s FIU preview, I called his attack a “high-caliber dink-and-dunk,” and I’ll stick with that.

When Skrosky was at Ball State, quarterback Keith Wenning completed 64 percent of his passes at just 11.1 yards per completion, and the Cardinals ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 35 for three straight years. And in Skrosky’s first year at FIU, McGough completed 65 percent of his passes at 12.1 yards per completion, and while the run game wasn’t very good, the Panthers still improved by 21 spots in Off. S&P+.

When McGough got hurt against Temple, then-sophomore Maurice Alexander came in and suffered a bit of a deer-in-headlights moment — his first seven pass attempts resulted in one completion, two sacks, and two interceptions, and he got sacked five more times from there. In two years and 126 passes, he’s thrown eight interceptions to just two TD passes.

Alexander could fare better in a full-time starting role, but he’s got lots of competition. Junior Christian Alexander, sophomore Malik Tyson, and three Davis signees — Morgan, redshirt freshman Kaylan Wiggins, and incoming freshman Caleb Lynum — will have their say.

Bowling Green v Miami Ohio
James Morgan
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

McGough spread the ball around pretty well; eight different players were targeted at least 23 times each, and five of them return. But he still had a favorite: Thomas Owens had 35 more targets, 25 more catches, and 573 yards more than anyone else in the receiving corps. And he missed the last four games.

In Owens’ absence, we got a glimpse of FIU’s future receiving corps. One then-junior (Julian Williams, who had also missed four games), three sophomores (Tony Gaiter IV, Austin Maloney, and Darrius Scott), and two freshmen (Bryce Singleton and Shermar Thornton) all made contributions, and FIU averaged 42.7 points per game in its first three games without Owens. None of these players were as efficient as Owens or McKever, but they were quite explosive.

They’re all back, and they’re joined by a pretty ridiculous set of freshmen. If the Panthers have a half-decent quarterback, this receiving corps could make him look good.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Florida International
Bryce Singleton
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A good running game can also make a new QB look pretty solid, but that might be too much to ask. It was last year, at least. The FIU run game fulfilled its primary obligation — don’t move backwards (11th in stuff rate) — but didn’t do much beyond that. The Panthers ranked just 100th in Rushing S&P+.

Experience will help. Gardner is gone, but last year’s primary backups, Shawndarrius Phillips and Napoleon Maxwell, each posted better averages than Gardner, Jones is back, and if D’Vonte Price is fully up to speed, he could be a game-changer. He averaged 7.9 yards per carry last year but only earned 17 carries as a true freshman. His high school film was downright hilarious.

Between these four backs and the two three-star incoming freshmen, the competition will be stiff, at least.

The line does lose Budwig, but that’s it. Seven linemen have combined for 100 career starts (tackles Daquane Wilkie and Kai Absheer have 61 between them), and if Demery is the real deal, that’s all the better.

Defense

2017 FIU defensive radar

The bad news: when you lose as much production as FIU is in the back seven of its defense, regression is almost guaranteed.

The good news: it’s almost impossible for FIU’s pass defense to get worse. The Panthers ranked 124th in Passing S&P+ and allowed a 65 percent completion rate despite playing few truly good passing teams.

The last five games were a disaster.

  • FIU pass defense, first 8 games: 64% completion rate, 10.8 yards per completion, 11 TD, 5 INT, 133.3 passer rating
  • FIU pass defense, last 5 games: 67% completion rate, 12.6 yards per completion, 13 TD, 2 INT, 160.1 passer rating

Among those last five opponents were UMass (82nd in Passing S&P+), Temple (91st), Old Dominion (120th). FIU let them pass like they were Missouri (163.1 season passer rating) or Ohio State (160.2).

There weren’t any specific injuries that would explain this — of the seven defensive backs who made at least 10 tackles last year, they combined to miss just one game. And now the top four are gone, including a solid run-supporting safety in Niko Gonzalez, and the two DBs (safety Bryce Canady and corner Brad Muhammad) with any sort of nose for the ball.

Corners Richard Dames was one of a few true freshmen to crack the rotation on defense, and upperclassmen Emmanuel Lubin and Isaiah Brown have flashed potential. But Canady and Gonzalez will be missed — as inefficient as FIU was, the Panthers prevented big plays well, and Canady was an especially big reason for that.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Florida International
Fermin Silva
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard for me to worry too much about the front seven. Coordinator Brent Guy must replace four of his top six linebackers, but junior Sage Lewis is a keeper, and with his LBs Coach hat on, Guy could begin unlocking the potential of a host of recent star recruits — sophomore Jamal Gates, redshirt freshmen Brandon James and Romelo Brooks, etc.

The linebackers will also have a ridiculous line eating up blockers for them. Wood, Tart, and Humphrey join a line that already had a lot of options. End Fermin Silva (14 TFLs, seven sacks) is one of C-USA’s best, and tackle Anthony Johnson is a rare pass rushing threat from the interior (8.5 TFLs, seven sacks). Counterparts Jermaine Sheriff and Milord Juste, also seniors, combined for another 7.5 TFLs.

One of two sophomore ends (Noah Curtis or Kevin Oliver) will probably need to beak through and replace the departed Newton Salisbury, but FIU has the deepest set of DTs in the conference, and that might have been true before adding two four-star JUCOs.

Special Teams

FIU didn’t get much out of its return game in 2017, but Special Teams was still a net plus (44th in Special Teams S&P+) because of Jose Borregales, who as a freshman made every kick he took under 40 yards. He was a sure thing, and FIU’s got him for a while. Punter Stone Wilson is fine, and if one of these star freshmen wanted to come in an liven up the returns, that wouldn’t be awful. But with Borregales, another top-50 finish here feels likely.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Indiana 58 -12.5 23%
8-Sep at Old Dominion 114 -3.8 41%
15-Sep Massachusetts 102 -2.6 44%
22-Sep at Miami 13 -32.8 3%
29-Sep UA-Pine Bluff NR 33.0 97%
13-Oct Middle Tennessee 83 -7.4 33%
20-Oct Rice 128 5.9 63%
27-Oct at Western Kentucky 90 -10.7 27%
3-Nov Florida Atlantic 31 -19.0 14%
10-Nov at UTSA 104 -7.0 34%
17-Nov at Charlotte 126 -0.2 50%
24-Nov Marshall 62 -12.2 24%
Projected S&P+ Rk 120
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 99 / 120
Projected wins 4.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -13.4 (124)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 83 / 91
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / -4.8
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 46% (57%, 35%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.5 (1.5)

S&P+ is indeed not fond of this team this year. Recent history (which is part of the formula) hasn’t been kind to the Panthers, obviously, and there really is a lot of turnover to account for. Despite playing eight teams projected 83rd or worse (and only one higher than 58th), S&P+ projects only about a five-win season.

I’ll be surprised if the Panthers fall that low. James Morgan could provide a nice security blanket in replacing McGough, and while Thomas Owens was awesome, FIU already got a jump start in replacing him. Plus, FIU is getting dinged hard for losing so much of its secondary, but that wasn’t an incredibly successful unit anyway.

You can see the infrastructure coming together. FIU appears to be investing in its program, and Davis is recruiting like gangbusters. If the Panthers can eke out a bowl bid while developing all of these impressive freshmen and sophomores, that will set the table for a very interesting 2019.

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