NCAA Football Preview - F-I-U Golden PanthersAug 26, 2011 - 6:34 PM Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 2010 SEASON IN REVIEW: Despite a misleading 0-4 start that included road losses at Texas A&M, Maryland and Pittsburgh, FIU rebounded and had a breakthrough year in 2010. The youngest program in the FBS cleaned up the Sun Belt Conference, which included a 17-point win over Troy in the league's key game, and while the Golden Panthers made their first ever bowl appearance, they also put themselves in position to do it all over again by prepping 15 veteran starters to return in 2011.
FIU's returners should be hungry for an even better campaign this time around, because last year's 7-6 finish had plenty of blemishes, including a fourth straight loss to rival Florida Atlantic and a one-point setback to Middle Tennessee in the regular season finale. But FIU still had the Sun Belt's best defense, best player in wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, and turned in one of the most thrilling finishes during the bowl season. FIU rallied and hit a field goal with no time remaining to beat Toledo, 34-32, in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, after using a hook-and-ladder to Hilton to keep the final drive alive. Now fifth-year head coach Mario Cristobal has an extension and a core of players inherited from last year that can push the program to further heights this fall.
OFFENSE: Hilton is one of the country's best kept secrets, having already set the school record in all-time total yards (5,602). He is a threat to score any time he touches the ball, and in 2010 he contributed in nearly all phases: receiving (59 catches, 848 yards, five TDs), rushing (282 yards, 9.4 yards per carry, four TDs) and kick returns (28.7 yards per return, two TDs).
FIU has one of the Sun Belt's best quarterbacks in senior Wesley Carroll, whose numbers in 2010 were decent (2,623 yards, 63 percent passing, 16 TDs), although he did throw 14 interceptions. The rushing attack remains in tact from 2010, with the top three rushers returning, including Second Team All-Sun Belt pick Darriet Perry. Now a senior, Perry rushed for 839 yards with 16 touchdowns last year, and he will again have a change-of-pace back behind him in Darian Mallary (679 yards, two TDs) and Jeremiah Harden, who made five starts a year ago.
"The rotation of the four backs it makes it easier on us, because we have fresh legs in there every other play," said Perry. "That's hard for a defense to try to stop four running backs."
The line must replace two all league starters in Brad Serini and left guard Cedric Mack, but have both tackles back in junior Rupert Bryan and Caylin Hauptmann, who was a Third Team All-Sun Belt selection in 2010.
DEFENSE: FIU must replace the defensive unit's most productive player from last season in defensive end Jarvis Wilson (9.5 sacks), but has three quality starters returning. That includes junior defensive end Tourek Williams (13.5 TFL) and junior tackle Joshua Forney (Third Team All-Sun Belt). Sophomore Isame Facane will man the other tackle spot after boosting his weight up to 290.
"Depth is key on the defensive line, you know bangin' every play with offensive linemen, you can get banged up," said Williams, who added that Facane will be very important to the rotation this year. "It gives us another presence on the inside with the defensive tackles. Him being that big and athletic, we haven't had that around here since I've been here."
Junior Winston Frazier (72 tackles, nine TFL) is the only returning starter at linebacker, but the Golden Panthers have juco transfer Jordan Hunt, who should contribute alongside sophomore Larvez Mars, who missed last year with an injury after playing in nine games as a true freshman. FIU must replace the pressure created by Wilson, but should be stable against the run again this year after leading the league in rushing yards allowed (143) last season.
The Golden Panthers have found a gem in junior strong safety Jonathan Cyprien, who had a coming out party in 2010 with 113 tackles and seven pass breakups. He joins veteran free safety Chuck Grace to anchor a secondary that has both corners back from last year's starting rotation in converted wide receiver Junior Mertile (three INTs) and sophomore Jose Cheeseborough, who started all 13 games a year ago.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior Jack Griffin is an FIU hero after knocking through the game-winning field goal against Toldeo in last year's bowl game, but his whole body of work was just as impressive in 2010: 17-of-20 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 40 yards or more and a 50 yarder to boot. The Golden Panthers had three punts blocked in 2010, and if they shore up the breakdowns that cost them last year, they have a punter who can help with field position battles in junior Josh Brisk, who hit eight punts of 50 yards or more last year and placed 18 inside the 20. Hilton is considered to be an elite return man, giving FIU a solid special teams unit overall.
OUTLOOK: FIU's non-conference schedule is not nearly as daunting this year as it was last, when the first four were against BCS conference heavyweights. That's not to say there isn't challenges (at Louisville, UCF), but Cristobal and company are working four winnable non-league games, and have the conference game of the year against Troy at home in late October. A high ceiling has been established for the Golden Panthers in 2011, and there is no question FIU is in prime position to win the Sun Belt and make another bowl appearance.
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