Things started miserably this season for the Florida International Panthers. After an 0-4 start, Coach Ron Turner was let go and replaced by Defensive Coordinator Ron Cooper on an interim basis.
Cooper coached his final game on Saturday, a 42-28 loss at Old Dominion. Despite the setback, there are some positive things to point toward in 2017.
After the rough beginning, the Panthers responded to Cooper, winning their next three games. Saturday’s loss left him with a 4-4 record in his eight games. FIU finished the season at 4-8.
Two weeks ago, FIU hired former Miami and North Carolina Coach Butch Davis for next season. Cooper will likely not be part of Davis’s staff for next season, but that is not for certain. What is certain is that Davis will bring in some of his most trusted assistants to implement his offensive and defensive philosophy.
Saturday’s loss to the Monarchs reveals some of the things they will need to work on to improve on this year’s 3-8 record. It all begins at quarterback for an offense ranked 77th in Division I.
Alex McGough, who missed the final three games with an injury, is likely to go into spring practice as number one. He will be a senior and with the exception of far too many critical interceptions, played reasonably well, throwing for 1,900 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Battling for number two and three on the depth chart with be Christian Alexander and Maurice Alexander. They are not related, but what they do have in common, besides their last name, is their youth. Both are freshmen.
Both stepped in to replace McGough with Maurice receiving the most playing time. Maurice had two touchdown passes and six interceptions, including one of each on Saturday.
Christian threw 4 TD passes without an interception in his brief appearances under center. Maurice had 1 TD and 5 INTs
Leading rusher Alex Gardner, who ran for 877 yards, is a junior. He had five 100-yard rushing games. Sophomore Anthony Jones had more than 500 yards on the ground and averaged five yards per carry.
The receiving core of Thomas Owens, Stantley Thomas and A.J. Branisel will return. Someone will need to step up to replace senior Jonnu Smith.
The defense, ranked 84th in Division I, will be a priority for Davis and his staff. Even if improvements come in increments, any improvement should have them playing competitively in Conference USA.
With 6-6 teams qualifying for bowls, that is not an unreachable goal for FIU in 2017. Two more wins next year will make them bowl-eligible.