2014 CFN Preview - FIU Golden Panthers
FIU QB E.J. Hilliard
FIU QB E.J. Hilliard
Posted Jun 9, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - It can't be any worse than last year. Ron Turner has work to do. (Getty Images)

FIU Golden Panthers

Preview 2014

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By Rich Cirminiello
- 2014 FIU Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
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Head coach: Ron Turner
2nd year: 1-11
10th year overall: 43-72
Returning Lettermen
Off. 27, Def. 22, ST 5
Lettermen Lost: 14
Ten Best FIU Players
1. TE Jonnu Smith, Soph.
2. S Justin Halley, Sr.
3. CB Richard Leonard, Sr.
4. WR T.J. Lowder, Jr.
5. QB E.J. Hilliard, Jr.
6. RB Lamarq Caldwell, Jr.
7. OT David Delsoin, Sr.
8. CB Randy Harvey, Sr.
9. DE Michael Wakefield, Jr.
10. LB Luis Rosado, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Bethune-Cookman
Sep. 6 Wagner
Sep. 13 Pitt
Sep. 20 Louisville
Sep. 27 at UAB
Oct. 2 Florida Atlantic
Oct. 11 at UTSA
Oct. 18 Marshall
Nov. 1 Rice
Nov. 8 at Old Dominion
Nov. 15 Middle Tenn
Nov. 22 at North Texas

It can't possibly get any worse than last year. Well, at least that's the hope around campus.

The Panthers were anything but golden in 2013, losing all 11 games against FBS opponents. Even worse, most of the contests were not even close, making many wonder why former coach Mario Cristobal was ever canned at the end of the 2012 campaign. Was it really just two years ago that this program was appearing in back-to-back bowl games, while looking as if it could be a perennial postseason threat? In a shockingly short period of time, Florida International has essentially been reduced to a startup program.

FIU will be Ron Turner's responsibility for a second year. He and his coaching staff landed a large class of 26 high school players in February, all of whom will get a shot to play early in their careers. On a team that lost by an average score of 37-10 last fall, absolutely no one's job will be safe when summer drills begin in August.

The Panthers became a modern-day historical rarity in 2013 by averaging less than 10 points per game. While there are no quick-fixes for such a necrotic attack, there is tepid optimism that baby steps can be accomplished with the help of baby-faced playmakers. Most of last season's key contributors, such as QB E.J. Hilliard, leading rusher Lamarq Caldwell and top pass-catchers Jonnu Smith and T.J. Lowder, played as underclassmen.

Frighteningly, Turner's defense is almost as feeble as his offense. The Panthers got bullied around the field in 2013 with a unit that was senior-laden. Now, two new defensive tackles and the program's best linebacker and corner will need to be replaced. At least in the early going, FIU will lean on a seasoned secondary that's getting back S Justin Halley and CB Richard Leonard, who missed all of last season to academics.

Turner is well-travelled, having held more than a dozen NFL and college jobs since his coaching career began in 1977. He'll need to call upon all of his past experiences to gradually turn things around at Florida International. The Panthers played with all of the competiveness of an NAIA squad last season. But it was also just two years ago that they were upsetting Louisville and UCF, en route to an 8-5 campaign. Turner will have to drive home the latter message to keep spirits afloat at arguably the worst of the FBS programs.

What to watch for on offense: E.J. Hilliard's learning curve. The Panthers know their young quarterback can make plays, with his feet and his arm. But now he has to start delivering on the potential. Yes, he needs more help in the form of improved pass protection and fewer dropped passes. Still, Hilliard is the new man in charge now that Jake Medlock has transferred, and he'll be expected to operate Ron Turner's pro-style attack with more pop and far greater effectiveness than a year ago.

What to watch for on defense: The new men in the middle. Throwing on the Panthers could be a little dicey, with Richard Leonard, Justin Halley and Randy Harvey roaming around the secondary. It'll be up to the new tackles to make opponents think twice about simply running the ball right up the gut. Florida International gave up 5.3 yards per carry in 2013, a number that could actually go higher now that underrated interior linemen Greg Hickman and Isame Faciane have exhausted their eligibility.

This team will be far better if … it has more success on the ground. Florida International wants to run the ball to set up the pass, but it never had a chance last year. Poor blocking and large deficits contributed to a ground game that normed 79 yards per game and an FBS-worst 2.1 yards per carry. If the Panthers can even reach three yards per carry, everyone in blue and gold is going to benefit, including a defense that spends far too much time on the field trying to catch its breath.

The Schedule: All things considered, with eight games in Miami, there's not much to complain about. There aren't two road games in a row and there aren't any really rough stretches, even though Pitt and Louisville come to to Miami in back-to-back September weeks. There's no complainin; FIU starts out the year with Bethune-Cookman and Wagner. Marshall and Rice are home games, and getting Middle Tennessee at home helps. Going to UTSA, Old Dominion and North Texas won't be easy, and only getting one week off isn't a break, but overall, it's a decent slate.

Best Offensive Player: Sophomore TE Jonnu Smith. Toward the end of last season, Smith became the preferred safety valve for young QB E.J. Hilliard. Hilliard is back, and he's going to be looking for No. 87 plenty this season. Smith has soft hands and the wheels to create mismatches with linebackers and safeties. And after just one season of activity, he's on the verge of becoming one of the most dangerous pass-catching tight ends in Conference USA.

Best Defensive Player: Senior S Justin Halley. Halley is the leader of a Panther secondary that actually has a chance to be pretty good in 2014. The senior will once again bring experience and flexibility to the defense. He has the size to support the linebackers against the run, yet he also led FIU in interceptions and pass breakups. A year after earning honorable mention All-Conference USA, Halley is eyeing additional personal accomplishments in his finale.

Key players to a successful season: The offensive linemen. The Panthers need to evolve on both sides of the ball, but it's particularly important that the offensive skill position players are given an opportunity to do their thing. The O-line got abused in 2013, which thwarted the potential of the backs and the receivers. The front wall, which brings back all of last season's starters, must protect Hilliard, while creating a little more daylight for backs Lamarq Caldwell and Silas Spearman.

The season will be a success if ... the product on the field is more competitive than it was a season ago. Forget the record. The Panthers might start 2-0 against Bethune-Cookman and Wagner, and then not win again all season. The record is kind of irrelevant for a school that went 1-11 last year. After losing games by an average of 27 points in 2013, it'll count as progress if FIU can reduce that margin this fall … regardless of what the final mark says.

Key game: Oct. 4 vs. Florida Atlantic. The Shula Bowl has become the most important game of the year for both of these local south Florida rivals. The game, which plays homage to former Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, has been dominated by the Owls, who won in Boca Raton last November, 21-6. Holding serve at home would provide a nice boost for Turner, who can ill-afford to lose any ground to Florida Atlantic rookie head coach Charlie Partridge.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Points scored: FIU 444 – Opponents 117
- Yards per rush: FIU 2.1 – Opponents 5.3
- Sacks: FIU 15 - Opponents 52

- 2014 FIU Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players