Following a loss in the Camellia Bowl and a 6-7 record last season, several questions hovered about the state of the FIU football program.
Of course, none of those questions have been answered yet due to the pandemic filled offseason and the emergence of many first-year starters. We’ll get our first look at the Butch Davis’ new-look squad on Saturday against Liberty.
With that said, here are six things to look out for as the season kicks off.
1 — Quarterback room is a puzzle waiting to be solved.
The Panthers are tasked with replacing NFL bound QB James Morgan, and coach Davis still hasn’t found an established leader.
There’s redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins, who started in one game last season, passing for 127 yards and adding 187 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground in FIU’s victory over New Hampshire.
Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager and freshman Stone Norton are also in the race for QB1. Bortenschlager is the most experienced player in the quarterback room, having completed 51.5 percent of his 266 passes for 1,522 yards, 11 touchdown and five interceptions in three years at Maryland.
Davis said they’ll choose a starter during pregame warmups. But expect to see FIU rotate and test out two or three of his signal-callers.
2 — Liberty QB Malik Willis is the ideal dual-threat.
FIU is tasked with containing Auburn transfer Malik Willis, who passed for 133 yards (13-for-21) and rushed for a school-record 168 rushing yards by a QB and 3 touchdowns.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder also recorded zero turnovers in Liberty’s 30-24 win over Western Kentucky.
“You wish that all he could do is run, but he can throw. And that makes it a two-sided weapon that he’s got the ability to throw.” Davis said when asked about Willis.
“If you want to load the box and get seven, eight, nine guys in the box to stop the run, he’s talented enough to take shots down the field and make plays.”
3 — Running back room, headlined by D’Vonte Price, is deep.
After three years of being a backup, running back D’Vonte Price has been handed the keys to the offense and is expected to make big plays.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has averaged a school-record 6.06 yards per carry throughout his career. He’s also 60 rushing yards away from the 1,000-yard mark for his career.
Coach Davis has a high ceiling for Price and says he’s emerged as the leader to the RB group.
“Now, he’s older, he’s more mature, he’s been in games. His confidence, you can see his own personal confidence, the way in which he takes some of those young kids under his wing and tries to coach them during practice,” Davis said.
Behind Price is a loaded group of backs, which includes redshirt sophomores Shaun Peterson Jr and Demarcus Townsend, along with sophomore Lexington Joseph.
Coach Davis emphasized that he wants to keep his running backs “fresh” and will utilize more than one or two of them throughout the game.
4 — RB Joshua Mack is explosive.
FIU’s run defense, which gave up 205.8 rushing yards per gave last season, will have its hands full on Saturday. In addition to having to prevent Willis from making plays with his feet, running back Joshua Mack is also explosive.
Mack rushed for 100 yards on 23 carries (4.3 yards per carry) versus Western Kentucky and is 61 yards away from 3,000 in his collegiate career.
5 — FIU secondary is the team’s biggest strength on defense.
The Panthers were ranked No. 15 in the country in passing yards allowed per game last season with 192.6. And while they’re tasked with replacing NFL cornerbacks Stantley Thomas-Oliver and Isaiah Brown, they have a number of options to form a top secondary in the C-USA.
Twins Richard and Rishard Dames are among the top cornerbacks in all of the C-USA, with Rishard being the third highest graded returning cornerback in man coverage last season.
Freshman Henry Gray, who was ranked as a four-star recruit, should also make an impact early despite not being listed on the two-deep depth chart.
The Panthers are 14-4 under coach Davis when they win the turnover battle, which means if the secondary is able to pick off a couple of passes and ultimately win the turnover battle, they’ll be in an excellent position to come out victories.
6 — Panthers lack depth.
The Panthers will be without “eight to 10” players due to injuries, according to the Miami Herald. And for a team that’s experimenting 14 new starters, depth will be an issue.