Duke kicks off the 2012 season on Saturday night against the FIU Golden Panthers. Coming off an 8-5 season, FIU is poised to compete for their third straight bowl berth and another Sun Belt Conference Championship. All 11 defensive starters return for the Golden Panthers, who will feature a veteran lineup in all phases for Head Coach Mario Cristobal.
To dig deeper into this FIU team, BDN was able to go behind enemy lines to hear from FIU Student Media Sports Director Brandon Wise. His firsthand insights give a great look into the FIU program. Thanks for joining us, Brandon!
BDN: Coming off of two straight bowl appearances and with 17 starters returning, FIU has a lot of momentum heading into this season. What are the expectations for Head Coach Mario Cristobal and the Golden Panthers in 2012?
Expectations are very high this season and it comes as a bit of a surprise to me. There are five kids that have been named to watch lists, even though there is no more T.Y. Hilton. But this defense is one of those that doesn't come around very often. Nearly every position has a returning starter and most of those are seniors. The defense is going to make or break this team.
BDN: On offense, FIU will have to replace both QB Wes Carroll and star WR T.Y. Hilton. Can you give us a brief scouting report on the 2012 Golden Panther offense?
I really see this offense going as far as Kedrick Rhodes can carry them. Even with Carroll and Hilton last year, this team only averaged 214 passing yards per game. For as much as this team has the appearance of a spread wide open passing game since the quarterback never runs under center, they run the ball a ton. Rhodes broke the school record rushing yards in a season with 1,194. He could be in for an even bigger year.
The new quarterback, Jake Medlock, got some time last season and there is still a lot of skepticism about how he will handle his new role this season as the full time starter. Even though many of the players on the team have reiterated how much of a leader he has been already on a senior laden lineup. He will be given the opportunity the start the season, and Cristobal has mentioned the large gap between him and backup quarterback Loranzo Hammonds.
At Wide Receiver, there will be some question marks. Without Hilton in the lineup, there is obviously going to be much less explosiveness. I think that the receivers this year will be more possession guys, meaning its going to be on Medlock's shoulders to deliver strong throws to open guys,
BDN: With 10 starters returning this year, FIU will feature one of the most veteran and athletic defensive units in the Sun Belt Conference. Who are the key playmakers for this defense? How do you expect opponents will try to attack the Golden Panthers?
Key playmakers would be guys like Tourek Williams, who many have considered by many to be the top NFL ready prospect in the conference. He has great size and speed to the quarterback. Also, Jonathan Cyprien will be expected to make a lot of play in the secondary. The senior has been a solid contributor for the last two years, but now its his time to be THE guy. Now leading off of that, the one weakness I see is the pass defense. Last year, the run defense was stifling against opponents, especially against Duke where the leading rushers had 33 yards. The problem lies in the secondary where Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon were able to burn past guys Sam Miller and Richard Leonard.
BDN: Duke emerged with a narrow 31-27 victory in Miami last year, despite being out-gained by 184 yards. How do you expect this year's matchup to play out?
This year is really intriguing to me where you have a team on one hand that's last win of the season came against FIU and you have the other team that's looking to go out of the Sun Belt on a high note. This game is going to come down to whether Kedrick Rhodes or Sean Renfree exploits the opposing defense. I think that this game comes down to a field goal at the end and Duke starts out with a victory this year, 21-20.