The Golden Panthers, in their first year of the Mario Cristobal era, have scored a whopping two touchdowns in three games, one of which came late in an already-decided game against Miami. It hasn’t been much better on defense, where the Golden Panthers are allowing 36 points and more than 415 yards per game while struggling against both the run and the pass.
A big part of those struggles is how young the Golden Panthers are. Last season, FIU played 17 true freshmen. That trend has continued so far this year, with 13 true freshmen seeing time. When the Golden Panthers face Kansas on Saturday at 6 p.m., they’ll start five freshmen, including four true freshmen.
The one freshman starter who redshirted last year is walk-on quarterback Wayne Younger (6-foot-3 178 pounds). Calling Younger a dual-threat would probably be stretching it a bit – he is a solid runner who picked up 108 yards on the ground the past two weeks. But he hasn’t shown he can be a threat through the air, completing just 42.6 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Arguably the offense’s top playmaker is at running back, where junior A’mod Ned (5-9 184) is averaging five yards per carry. He had 18 carries for 87 yards against Miami next week, and led Broward County in rushing as a high schooler. Julian Reems (5-10 205) will carry the ball when Ned needs a breather.
The Golden Panthers will start two true freshmen at wide receiver with Greg Ellingson (6-3 200) and Jason Frierson (5-8 160). Ellingson was a good all-around track athlete in high school, while Frierson was among the Miami Herald’s top-25 Miami-Dade recruits. Both run in the 4.5 (seconds in the 40) range.
Ellingson has started each game so far this year, but Frierson will start his first game and is expected to step up production – none of FIU’s receivers have more than four catches this year.
If the Golden Panthers have had one bright spot offensively, it would probably be on the offensive line. After allowing seven sacks in the first game, FIU has allowed just one sack in the last two weeks against Maryland and Miami. The anchor of the line is right tackle Xavier Shannon (6-0 295), who has started at least one game at every one of the five positions on the offensive line. FIU has also gotten solid play from newcomers Roland Clarke (6-4 305), a former defensive tackle, and true freshman center Brad Serini (6-4 275).
Defensively, FIU seems to send a different blitz on every down. It has been high-risk, high reward – the Golden Panthers have had 23 tackles for loss by 16 players this season, but they’ve struggled to stop teams from putting up points.
As part of that philosophy, the Golden Panthers sacrifice size for speed at several positions, especially on the defensive line. Dan Chacreton leads FIU with three tackles for loss, but lacks ideal size (6-3 255). His linemates, defensive tackle Reggie Jones (6-2 267), and defensive ends Audric Adger (6-2 230) and true freshman Cody Pellicer (6-3 235).
Scott Bryant (5-10 220), leads the linebacking corps, and is second on the team with 23 tackles. Michael Dominguez (5-11 215) is the right-place, right-time type – he has 21 tackles, two for loss, two recovered fumbles and an interception on the year.
Safety Alonzia Phillips, a walk-on track athlete who has been clocked at under 10.5 seconds in the 100-meter dash, leads the Golden Panthers with 24 tackles. He plays with an unspectacular group, including safeties Ashlyn Parker (5-11 206) and Cory Fleming (5-11 187) and cornerbacks Lionell Singleton (5-10 174) and Robert Mitchell (5-11 195). Singleton, who is tough against the run, has 2.5 tackles for loss on the year.
The Panthers have been solid on special teams – Chris Abed is 2-2 on field goals, including a 42-yarder. Chris Cook is averaging nearly 41 yards per punt.
The Sun Belt appears to be on the upswing a bit this year, which doesn’t bode well for the Golden Panthers. If they can make some inroads in recruiting, they certainly have the location to succeed. Cristobal, a former Miami assistant coach, may be the guy to take them there, but it won’t be this year, and it won’t be this game.