Football is back to the South Florida college scene as the FIU Panthers returned to Alfonso Field at FIU Stadium on Tuesday, March 19 for the first practice leading towards the 2014 season.
This will also be the second season under Head Coach Ron Turner after a tough season with only a single win over the 2013 campaign.
“I don’t know if it is easier [than last spring] because there is always a challenge,” Turner said. “You have always got to work at it. The guys understand what is expected of them.”
The team that was one of the youngest in the nation last year still has only a small amount of senior leadership. One of those guys is wide receiver T.J. Lowder.
“I feel like today we took a big step as a team,” Lowder said. “We are way more ahead than we were last spring. I think it is more of a fresh start because it is a new group since the seniors left from last year. They gave us a big boost from last year and now is a fresh start.”
He also admits that the incoming freshmen will need to have an impact this season, and he is there to help.
“We are going to have to show them the ropes when they get here and they are going to need to catch up,” Lowder said.
One freshman, who graduated early from Dillard High School in Miami, Bud Martin, will be practicing for the Spring with the football team. Martin had a 20-yard throw to tight end Jonathan Pavlov, on day one of spring practice, and he is one of two spring ball freshmen quarterbacks along with Alex McGough. McGough who threw a 25-yard ball to wide out Fred Porter was described by FIU Athletics Pete Pelegrin to have the stronger arm, while Martin was more accurate.
Martin thinks that coming out in Spring has its advantages.
“Learning the plays and the playbook in Spring and getting together with the whole team. It makes it easier to become part of the team before the season even starts,” Martin said. “I don’t know if it is an advantage but I just wanted to graduate early and play in the Spring, so I guess you could say that it is one.We are all just out here to compete.”
The position of quarterback is one of the most questionable for the Panthers in 2014. The starter from the majority of the 1-11, 2013 season in Jake Medlock, has found a new home at Valdosta State University in Georgia.
The quarterbacks on the roster for Spring 2014 are E.J. Hilliard who is the only quarterback on the roster with experience at the college level. This is followed by Akil Dan-Fodio, who ran the second team on day one, is described by Pelegrin as the most comfortable in the Pro-style offense that Turner runs. The two freshmen bring up the bottom of that list.
“That [competing for the starting job] is what we are all here for,” Martin said.
“Whoever the best player is will start under center game one,” Turner added. “If one of those two freshmen are the best player than they will start but I have no idea. They are going to play well because they are going to have some very stiff competition. Whoever is performing the best is going to play. I don’t get caught up in whether a guy is a walk-on, true freshman or senior, I don’t care about any of that stuff. I just care if the guy is going to play.”
The Panthers also have brought in new coaches to the staff for the second year of the Turner era. Randy Melvin is now leading the defensive line since Andre Patterson left for the same job with the Minnesota Vikings. Turner previously worked with Melvin when they were both on staff for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under coach Greg Schiano.
Some other coaches that are new Panthers in 2014 are Kerry Dixon II, who now is the head of the runningback core comes over after being at Florida Atlantic University. Rob Harley is in charge of the linebackers after spending the previous two years with the Spartans of Michigan State University and special teams has brought in Shannon Moore to lead after being with the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State University for eight years including being the special teams coordinator and the tight ends coach. Turner commented on the response of the players to these new coaches.
“I think it has been outstanding,” Turner said. “They [the players] have really bought in to what they [the coaches] have been doing and what those guys have been doing. I think that he [Melvin] is doing very well, very well. He has his own personality that is different than the guy before him but all of them are and I think that they [the players] look at him and respect where he has been but still when he gets here he has to do what he needs to and the guys respect his knowledge. They respect what he brings to the table and he has a very serious demeanor but they know he cares.”
The Panthers will practice tomorrow, Saturday, March 22 to end the first week of Spring ball and will go for a total of four weeks. The Spring will wrap up on Saturday, April 12 with the annual Blue versus Gold game at FIU Stadium with a kickoff at 11:00 a.m.