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After three years of fertilization, nurturing and hybridization, Florida International officially drops an 'A' from its NCAA affiliation and begins running with the big boys in 2005 as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. The homegrown Golden Panthers will be trying to give head coach and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Don Strock a winner for the first time in his brief tenure at FIU. In Year Four of Strock's developmental plan, 17 starters are back. But something has to be done about the defense, which surrendered over 200 rushing yards per game during last year's 3-7 campaign.
FIU bade adieu to Rashod Smith, the program's first 1,000-yard rusher and the backbone of the running game. However, redshirt freshman Julian Reams already seems poised to grab the baton from Smith. Reams took spring practice by the horns and impressed the staff with his ability to break tackles.
Slowly, Strock is starting to turn Josh Padrick loose behind center. In spring drills, Strock installed the shotgun formation and some three- and four-wide packages for Padrick, who started every game as a sophomore last year. Strock can open up the passing game because two of Padrick's most reliable targets, senior Cory McKinney and junior Chandler Williams, return. McKinney has caught a pass in every game FIU has played, and Williams ranked second to McKinney in catches and yards despite starting just three games last year.
Also, every starter along an offensive line that permitted just nine sacks a year ago is back, headed by center Vic Cernius and guard Ed Wenger.
The first and most formidable task for the Golden Panther defense is to improve the playmaking capabilities of the front four and reduce the workload of the linebackers. The inability to stop the run kept FIU's defenders on the field an average of 80 plays per game last year. Tackle Brandon Higdon must lead the way up front; the 300-pound senior produced 6.5 tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks last season.
The linebacking unit returns all three starters but may be shuffled around to make way for junior Keyonvis Bouie in the middle. Three-year starter Lance Peterson might swing over to the strong side, while Gerrod Bodie and Alexander Bostic III duke it out on the weak side.
Two questions are foremost for the secondary heading into '05: Will strong safety John Haritan, FIU's top tackler for three seasons running, be back from a neck injury that cost him the last two games of '04? And how will Nick Turnbull, a '04 pre-season Division I-AA All-American, handle the conversion from free safety to cornerback?
Senior placekicker Adam Moss had a strange '04 season; he was just 4-of-10 from inside 40 yards but nailed all nine of his boots from 40 and beyond. The punting duties could fall to either true freshman Dustin Rivest, an all-purpose kicker from Tallahassee, or utilityman Chris Patullo.
Williams averaged 21.7 yards per kickoff return in 2004, and Julius Eppinger will again return punts.
The new, fully loaded Division I-A schedule features Texas Tech and Kansas State. Those teams won't pad the Golden Panthers win total, but running with the Red Raiders might help improve FIU's defense down the road. Strock has his hands full this year, as FIU hopes to avoid the I-A cellar.