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FIU Panthers Survive Injury-Riddled Season; Look Ahead to Being Healthy

Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire

Considering the plethora of injuries the FIU Panthers suffered through, the 2015 football season wasn’t a bad one. Narrowly missing out on bowl eligibility at 5-7, the Panthers were in the conversation all the way to the end. But two lopsided losses to close out the season against the division’s two top teams put an end to the campaign.

“The way we finished the last two weeks was very disappointing but probably more frustrating than disappointing because I know what kind of team we had coming in (to the season),” head coach Ron Turner said. “I thought we had a chance to compete at a high level in this conference.”

The Panthers did remain competitive until injuries set them back. At 4-3 it looked like a bowl berth was in the making. But three losses over the last four games closed that door. “We did some good things throughout the year,” Turner explained. “To finish that way was frustrating. But we weren’t the same team at the end of the year, or in the middle of the year than we were at the start of the year.”

Turner said that the last three or four weeks was like spring ball all over again because of injuries and new faces stepping up. He said that the Panthers weren’t even running the same offense, and in some cases the same defense, as they were running at the start of the season. But the team handled the adversity with poise and determination throughout the season. Turner noted that about 30 players missed time during the 2015 season, yet the team continued to battle. He jokingly suggested that the biggest area for improvement moving forward is health. Staying healthy would be a big step in the continued development of the program, which improved on last year’s 4-8 mark.

The Panthers will look forward to the healthy return of several players next year. Among them are running backs Napoleon Maxwell and Collin Olsen, two of the many casualties of the 2015 season. Sophomore running back Alex Gardner remained healthy enough in 2015 to break the school single-season record for receptions (60) and yards (445) by a running back.

Sophomore quarterback Alex McGough set single-season school records this year with 2,722 passing yards and 21 touchdown passes.

Good young receivers return as well. Thomas Owens, who will be a junior, tied the school single-season record with eight touchdown receptions. It tied the mark set last season by tight end Jonnu Smith, who will be a senior leader in 2016. He, too, missed some games this season with an injury.

24 October 2015:  FIU tight end Jonnu Smith (87) takes a reception 41 yards in the third quarter as the FIU Golden Panthers defeated the Old Dominion University Monarchs, 41-12, at FIU Stadium in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

24 October 2015: FIU tight end Jonnu Smith (87) takes a reception 41 yards in the third quarter as the FIU Golden Panthers defeated the Old Dominion University Monarchs, 41-12, at FIU Stadium in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

The Panthers basically return the entire offensive line, which will be a huge plus heading into the 2016 schedule. Three started as freshmen because of injuries and gained valuable experience this season. Daquane Wilkie started all 12 games on the offensive line while Chris Miller and Kai Absheer saw extensive playing time as well.

However, the Panthers will still have to replace their defensive line. But talented youngsters such as Fermin Silva, Anthony Johnson, John Broom, and Imarjaye Albury appear capable.

Anthony Wint will bolster a corps of linebackers with experience. He’s expected to move inside to his more natural position at mike linebacker. The secondary will miss graduating seniors Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon. Freshmen Emmanuel Lubin and Kenyatta Anderson will be among the very young talent that must pick up the slack.

All in all, it shapes up to be another interesting season for the Panthers in 2016, as they battle for honors in the Conference USA East Division.

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