Kevin Wilson and his Indiana football team will be looking to start the 2016 season on a positive note when they travel to Miami tomorrow night to take on Florida International. Kickoff is set for 7:30 and will be televised on ESPNU. Peegs.com caught up with the radio play-by-play voice of FIU Football, Josh Appel, to get the latest on a Panthers’ team that went 5-7 in 2015.
Q - FIU returns a great deal of experience on production on the offensive side of the ball. How does the FIU offense like to attack people? Talk about the top names to know on that side of the ball.
Josh Appel: FIU really flourished offensively in 2015 and the vast majority of that production is back in 2016. Alex McGough leads the charge at quarterback entering his junior season. McGough had a breakout season last year, setting the single season record for completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. The coaching staff is extremely excited about the strides he's made since he's been in the program. His biggest weapons are Jonnu Smith at tight end and Thomas Owens at receiver.
Smith, an NFL prospect, missed the last four games of 2015 due to injury but he is back and fully healthy. Before his season was cut short he had a reception in 32 straight games, which was one of the longer streaks in the NCAA. Owens burst onto the scene in 2015, tying the school record for touchdown catches in a single season. He had at least one touchdown catch in 6 straight at one point.
With those three guys plus a returning Alex Gardner, who rushed for 9 touchdowns last year, and an offensive line that returns all 5 starters, the offense looks to be in good shape.
Q - What are the biggest things the Panthers need to do on offense to be successful against Indiana?
Josh Appel: The 4-2-5 defense that Indiana runs now with Tom Allen is definitely different and something you don't see from a lot of teams. Last year at USF, Allen's defense was very, very good. In the end, it all comes down to how well FIU's offensive execution is. If FIU can establish a run game early, that'll open up the passing game and allow them to have more success.
Q - On the defensive side of the ball there are a number of starters that need to be replaced and a new defensive coordinator. Talk about the defense FIU will run under Ron Cooper? Who are the names to know on that side of the ball?
Josh Appel: The anchors on defense are the linebackers. All three starters are back, led by last year's leading tackler Anthony Wint in the middle and Davison Colimonn and Treyvonn Williams on the outside.
The losses on defense, particularly in the secondary and on the defensive line, have been a topic of conversation leading up to the season opener. The defensive line lost a combined 16 sacks and only returns one starter, Imarjaye Albury. Albury told me earlier this week he's excited about the strides the group has made to replace the production that they lost. In the secondary, FIU loses its two starting corners in Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon. Those two combined for over 100 tackles, 4 interceptions and 16 pass breakups last season.
Ron Cooper isn't a new face, he just has a new title so not much will change as it relates to scheme. He brings a vast amount of experience to this defense.
Q - With a new coordinator and so many new starters what are the biggest question marks or concerns going into game one against Indiana? What do they need to do to slow down what should be an explosive Indiana offense?
Josh Appel: The biggest question mark is how FIU will replace the production they've lost from last year on defense. I think the key to slowing down IU's offense is controlling the line of scrimmage and generating pass rush. If they can do that, I think they'll be able to come up with stops.
Q - Special teams are always a big part of any game. What do you expect to see from the special teams units for FIU? Who are the players there that people should be aware of?
Josh Appel: FIU lost its best kick and punt returner from last year as well (Richard Leonard) so look for someone else to try and step up at both of those spots. Austin Taylor returns as the placekicker this season. Taylor went 10/14 in field goal tries a season ago.