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From the Bird’s Nest: FIU Looks to Repeat

This is the fourth in a series previewing Louisiana’s 2011 opponents.  Today:  Florida International

FIU PANTHERS

Location:  Miami, FL

Stadium:  FIU Stadium (18,000)

2010 Record:  7-6 (6-2 SBC)

Coach:  Mario Cristobal

Record: 16-33 (5th season)

Last meeting with Louisiana:  2010  FIU 38 Louisiana 17

FIU opened the 2010 season 0-4, losing to four teams from AQ Conferences.  After seven games, FIU was 2-5.  Then the Panthers went on a roll, winning four straight, including a road thrashing of Troy before dropping a one point finale to Middle Tennessee.  FIU went to its first ever bowl game and won the Little Caesar’s Bowl, giving the Panthers their first winning season in the FBS.  Coach Mario Cristobal begins his fifth season in Miami.  He and his staff have recruited very well the last three years, winning some battles against the Florida Big Three and are looking for their second straight Sun Belt title and bowl game.  They return seven starters on each side of the football.

Fifth-year senior Wesley Carroll returns at quarterback.  The Mississippi State transfer set team records for passing yards and touchdowns last season.  Carroll is expected to be even better with another year under Cristobal’s system.  Carroll threw for 16 touchdowns last year, but hopes to cut down on his 14 interceptions.  Carroll doesn’t put up the numbers of other quarterbacks in the league, but he manages the game well and shows maturity and poise on the field.

FIU returns their top four ground gainers from a year ago.  Darriet Perry led the way last year with 839 yards and a school record 16 touchdowns.  But Perry is one of four Panthers who had good moments in the backfield as the Panthers averaged 187 yards per game rushing a year ago, good for second in the Sun Belt and in the top 30 of the FBS.  Cristobal will again use all four backs, giving Perry a chance to stay fresh.

But if you’re going to talk about the playmaker on this team, you’ll look to perhaps the best playmaker in the entire league in wideout T. Y. Hilton.  Hilton catches passes.  Hilton runs from the end spot.  Hilton runs out of the Wildcat.  Hilton is also the team’s school record holder for All-Purpose Yards (5,602) and kick returns for touchdowns (four).  He is, quite simply, the most exciting player in the Sun Belt Conference.  Hilton, who has a three year old son, flirted with the idea of entering the NFL draft but decided to return for his senior season.  He will get his degree in December.

The Panthers lost some offense at wide receiver, but have plenty of players with experience returning.  Junior Wayne Times, who caught 28 passes last season, is the most experienced returning receiver.  Jonathan Faucher returns at tight end.

The Panthers lost three starters from the offensive line, including all-conference center Brad Serini.  The two tackles, including rising junior Caylin Hauptmann (6-4, 311) are back.  The Panthers O-line gave up the fewest sacks in the league last season.  They’ll be hard pressed to duplicate that feat this year.

New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando comes to FIU from UCONN where he spent the last six seasons as Randy Edsall’s defensive coordinator.  Orlando inherits seven returning starters from a defense that led the Sun Belt in yards allowed and points allowed in 2010.  FIU returns starters on the defensive line, including tackle Joshua Forney and end Tourek Williams who had six sacks last year.  But Cristobal is really high on converted tackle, sophomore Isame Faciane (6-5, 285) who Cristobal believes can be a star in the Sun Belt.

Winston Fraser is the only returning starter at linebacker.  He’ll man the middle.  FIU is loaded with speed at that position and look to have some depth, with their returnees plus two junior college signees.  This position will have the most competition…and the most question marks, entering the season.

FIU’s secondary will be solid, with the return of second-team all-conference safety Jonathan Cyprien.  Chuck Grace, who split time as the starter at the other safety position, also returns.  Jose Cheeseborough and speedy Junior Mertile will man the corners.

FIU’s Jack Griffin was solid as the placekicker last season.  FIU also returns punter Josh Brisk, but the Panthers were next to last in the country in net punting a year ago, so there will be competition there this fall.

FIU opens the season Thursday night, Sept. 1, with a conference game against North Texas in Miami.  Their non-conference slate is a bit more manageable this year with trips to Louisville and Akron and home games against UCF and Duke.  In the Belt,  FIU gets Troy, FAU, UL  and UNT at home.  They’ve got tough road trips to MT, WKU, ULM and Arkansas State.

Outlook:  FIU is the pick among the coaches to repeat as league champions, and they return some very good players to help them accomplish that goal.  The road schedule in conference is tricky, however and you can bet Troy has FIU in its sights after being embarrassed by the Panthers at home last season.  If FIU is going to repeat, they’ll have to earn it.

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