Lack of depth has been the biggest problem for the FIU Panthers this season, but the coaching staff hopes to find good in what’s going on.
FIU played eight offensive linemen in the season-opener against Liberty, seven versus Middle Tennessee State and six when they faced Jacksonville State. After a two-week COVID hiatus that lasted from October 23rd to November 13th match versus FAU, the Panthers gave reps to just six o-lineman once again.
Most recently, FIU played the same five offensive lineman — Miles Frazier, Obinna Nwankwo, Stone Finau, Lyndell Hudson Jr. and Shane McGough — for all 85 snaps versus Western Kentucky.
“We should have the ability to play 8, 9, 10 guys [on the offensive line],” said offensive line coach Joel Rodriguez.
Preparing the offensive line for games has also been a major challenge, as there simply aren’t enough players available to run a traditional practice. The Panthers started the season with around 105 players, including scout team members. But that number has progressively dropped to the 70s, 60s, 50s and after the loss at WKU, became less than 45.
“Where the lack of depth and the lack of numbers has hurt is in when you try to go to your scout team stuff,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t have two different practices, offensive and defense, happening at the same time.
“You have to consolidate that, so your second-team defense really may be your scout team offense and vise versa. We have to be very judicious in the way we do practice and what plays we practice against what looks.”
Ideally, practices leading up to a game on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday would give players around 100-125 snaps versus the scout team — between blitz period, 7 on 7, team period, etc. However, that hasn’t been the case for FIU in 2020.
“We’ve only been able to get in probably less than half of those reps in a given week,” Rodriguez said. “Unfortunately, you’re forced to do a little bit of two things: cut your game plan way down because you can’t practice all that stuff, or be willing to go into the game knowing that you have some stuff that you may call knowing that it wasn’t repped out in practice.
“That’s where the lack of execution, the lack of efficiency and the inconsistency shows up on gameday. There’s no way to get your team ready to play physically during the week. All you’re really hoping for is that your team isn’t hurt, which is sad.”
FIU’s offensive line has given up 19 sacks through five games after allowing just 14 last season — which tied for the fifth-lowest in the country and first in C-USA. But while it may not show now, having to start inexperienced and younger offensive lineman could help the unit be exponentially better next season.
When projected All-Conference left tackle D’Antne Demery went down with injury, it opened the door for Frazier and senior Dontae Keys to get meaningful reps. Frazier, a true freshman who was expected to redshirt, started versus WKU and has garnered the team’s second-best pass-block grade, per PFF. Keys, who transferred in from FCS NC A&T, has started at both right and left tackle this season despite having missed the training camp.
Hudson, who played very little as a redshirt freshman last season, has thrived at right tackle and is FIU’s highest-graded offensive lineman this year.
“He’s probably playing the best football of his career right now,” Rodriguez said of Hudson. “He’s playing as close to an All-Conference type player as a redshirt sophomore.”
Nwankwo, a redshirt senior that sat out last season, has given up zero sacks at right guard and is the Panthers’ highest-graded pass and run blocker. Redshirt junior Mershawn Miller has also been versatile in 2020, recording plenty of reps as a right guard (96) and center (46).
With the goal set on repeating the offensive line’s success from the 2019 season, Rodriguez is open to having all of his senior offensive linemen come back for another season. And on the recruiting trail, FIU has garnered commitments from three-star OG Jalil Muhammad (6-foot-3, 280-pounds), three-star OT Kareem Harden (6-foot-5, 290-pounds) and three-star OG Levontre Daniels (6-foot-2, 324-pounds). The transfer portal will also be vital in filling out next year’s roster, not just for the o-line.
If FIU can return a number of its senior o-lineman while continuing to develop their other experienced players and incoming freshmen through a normal offseason that would feature fall camp, training camp and spring game, they’ll be set for success in 2021.
“If guys come back and are healthy, we should be as deep as FIU has ever been next year.”