By: Steven Lassan | 6/3/11, 1:41 PM EDT
Order Your CFB
You can read the entire FIU preview in Athlon Sports' 2011 National magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
Sun Belt PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Mario Cristobal, | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scott Satterfield | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Orlando
As a growing program looking to raise its profile, Florida International touts every player who has a shot at the pros. In the case of wideout T.Y. Hilton, however, the Panthers will gladly wait. The Sun Belt Player of the Year, who recorded more than 1,100 yards from scrimmage as a junior, returns to provide explosiveness on the outside to an offense that returns a deep backfield. The Panthers will split the carries among four capable runners, paced by Darriet Perry, who relies on his vision and balance and gets stronger near the goal line. Darian Mallary is the speed back.
The offensive line loses two starters but still has Rupert Bryan at right tackle, and better depth than the group that allowed only 20 sacks while FIU rushed for 4.7 yards per carry.
All this talent means that Wesley Carroll should also improve in his second season at quarterback. The Fort Lauderdale native and Mississippi State transfer held his own against high-level competition early and then was accurate down the stretch, completing 80 percent of his passes during the final three regular-season games. That, after he cost FIU a game against Florida Atlantic in October, throwing three interceptions.
Gone is the Panthers’ do-everything linebacker, Toronto Smith. So is the team’s leader in sacks, Jarvis Wilson. And so is the ball-hawking safety Anthony Gaitor. All three were all-conference performers on the Sun Belt’s top defense.
The improvement in 2010 was across the board. FIU allowed 4.6 yards per carry, down from 5.4; it allowed 6.7 yards per pass, down from 8.3; and it had 33 sacks, up from 20. It got opponents off the field, cutting third down conversions from 42 percent to 35 percent.
Even without three of its departed stars, the defense was often dominant against the offense in the spring, largely due to the development of several players on the line. Tourek Williams (six sacks from the end spot) and tackle Josh Forney return and will be counted on to produce.
With Smith gone, FIU will need new leadership at linebacker, but head coach Mario Cristobal has made that a priority in recruiting, and several players (Winston Fraser, Kenny Dillard, Markeith Russell) have had experience.
It’s a good thing the Panthers didn’t punt as much last season, because Duquesne transfer Josh Brisk had a net average of 31.0 yards, with too many returners getting loose. The good news for FIU is that their own returner, Hilton, was even tougher to tackle. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Kicker Jack Griffin is back after a solid season, which included two field goals in the final 3:18 of FIU's 34–32 win over Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl.
Cristobal inherited a winless team, one saddled with NCAA sanctions. Last season, after dealing with tragedy (running back Kendall Berry was stabbed to death on campus), and then losing four games to BCS conference programs, Cristobal rallied his team to the program’s first winning season — and then, first-ever bowl victory. That success and consistently strong recruiting classes have made the former University of Miami lineman, at age 40, a hot coaching candidate around the country. For now, he has a roster that can contend in the conference again, and the Owls could have a better overall record, with a much less daunting out-of-conference schedule. Much will depend on Carroll’s efficiency, and whether the defensive line can apply consistent pressure.