By: chalifour.eric | 5/11/12, 1:23 PM EDT
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You can read the entire FIU preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 National magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
Sun Belt PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Mario Cristobal, 24-38 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Cramsey | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Orlando
Two people, more than any others, have been instrumental in resurrecting FIU football over the past few years. Entering the offseason, the concern was that the Panthers might be forced to replace both. Yet, after Mario Cristobal turned down overtures from both Pitt and Rutgers to remain the coach, it will now be his responsibility to qualify for a third straight bowl game without the services of star playmaker T.Y. Hilton.
Hilton — who had seven of the Panthers’ 14 receiving touchdowns — is off to the NFL (as a third-round pick of the Colts), and the Panthers struggled at times to score last season when he was sidelined or hampered by a hamstring injury. Even more of the burden this season will fall to runners Kedrick Rhodes (1,149 yards), Jeremiah Harden and Shane Coleman, especially with two-year starting quarterback Wesley Carroll gone.
Cristobal has hinted at replacing Carroll with two players — one a thrower (sophomore Jake Medlock), the other a burner (redshirt freshman Loranzo Hammonds) who came from a high school system similar to FIU’s spread and dazzled with his speed in scrimmages.
There’s plenty of experience in front of and around them. The offensive line returns four starters, including stout left tackle Caylin Hauptmann. Four of the top five receivers are back, including Wayne Times. James Louis, an Ohio State transfer, should help, too. There’s some height and speed, and although no one will be expected to produce over 1,000 yards as Hilton did, there’s enough ability for an effective unit.
Nine starters and most of the key reserves return to a group that ranked No. 14 nationally in scoring defense and was especially stingy against the run.
FIU is athletic up front, anchored by Tourek Williams, Isame Faciane, Greg Hickman and Josh Forney, and with enough depth to keep fresh legs on the field. The speedy linebacking corps returns intact, with senior starters Winston Fraser, Jordan Hunt and Kenny Dillard all capable in pass rush, run support and coverage situations.
Jonathan Cyprien, an All-Sun Belt safety, is a sure tackler and team leader who will look to improve on his interception total. The cornerbacks, Jose Cheeseborough and Richard Leonard, are small but quick, and a solid recruiting class will create competition.
So what’s next? More takeaways, and more consistent pressure without blitzes. This group should be capable of both, especially against a less-than-intimidating schedule.
Hilton’s absence will certainly be felt here. He was a game-changer on returns, averaging a ridiculous 30.4 and 23.3 yards on kickoffs and punts, respectively. Times and Richard Leonard will step in. FIU’s kicker (Jack Griffin) and punter (Josh Brisk) are still around, however. Griffin made 16-of-18 kicks from inside 40 yards. Brisk needs to improve his net average.
Some were surprised that Cristobal stuck around. They shouldn’t have been. The fiery coach, who was born and raised in Miami before starting for the University of Miami, has built something special and seemingly stable in his backyard. Expectations soared after FIU started 3–0 in 2011, with wins against Louisville on the road and UCF at home. And while FIU couldn’t sustain its play, especially after Hilton’s injuries, it enters 2012 poised to exceed the past two seasons’ accomplishments. The schedule is forgiving, the speedy Florida-based talent keeps coming, and the defense has a chance to be dominating.