Marshall football: Growing pains aplenty for FIU
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With no team might the concept of the classroom extending to the practice field be more accurate than the Florida International University football team.
Of the 63 players the Panthers use, 50 of them are in their first or second playing years. Twenty-seven of them made their collegiate debut in 2013.
All that adds up to a 1-9 record overall, a 1-5 record in Conference USA and another tough test this Saturday when the Panthers host a Marshall football team featuring the conference's top offense and fighting for the East Division title. The 6 p.m. game will be broadcast on Fox College Sports Central.
FIU Coach Ron Turner, in his first season after spending last year as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterbacks coach, said it's not just about the Panthers learning how to win. It's about a lot of them learning how to be college football players.
"Every day, everything they go through is a learning experience, and we try to draw from that," he said. "We try to be very demanding of them to do everything the right way, but we also try to teach them along the way, knowing how young they are. They're going to get better, but we're going to have to live with their mistakes and live with the things they're doing and hope we can get better every time out."
Turner took over the program in January after the surprising dismissal of former coach Mario Cristobal, who guided the Panthers to the only two winning seasons and two bowl games in Panthers history. Turner oversees a team woefully short on experience.
The top three running backs from last year? Gone.
The top six receivers? Either gone or sitting out the season.
Starting quarterback Jake Medlock also has served the last three weeks as the team's primary punter. Turner said none of his starting offensive linemen played significant minutes last season and the depth issues leak over to the defense.
"We traveled with 25 guys last week on defense and had six defensive linemen healthy to play four positions," he said. "We've been doing that for several weeks. Our guys are getting worn down. They're tired. The effort, the attitude and the want-to are all there. We're just short, man-wise."
And short in several statistical categories. The Panthers are next to last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring offense (10.1 points per game) and total offense (223.4 yards per game). They're 109th out of 123 FBS teams in scoring defense (37.5 ppg allowed) and 79th in total defense (416.7 ypg allowed). Their win is a one-point victory over winless Southern Mississippi and among their losses are a 38-0 setback to the University of Central Florida, a 48-0 loss to Middle Tennessee and a 72-0 loss to Louisville.
The Panthers also lost at home to Football Championship Subdivision team Bethune-Cookman University, 34-13.
This season will be the third consecutive season that starting redshirt senior linebacker Markeith Russell will finish with more losses than wins. While it would be easy for the Panthers to adopt a spoiler role - beating Marshall would hurt the Thundering Herd's chances of winning the East and beating FAU would keep the Owls out of a bowl - he said that's not the mentality they want to take.
"From the beginning of the season, even from the spring and from when the coaching staff first arrived, all our goals have been internal," Russell said. "It's never been about 'them.' It's always been about us and even with the season not going as we planned or as we hoped it to be, we know there are better days to come.
"We're just looking to go out there, accept another challenge and go blow for blow. Our focus is not to knock anyone off their game. Our focus is to win the next challenge."
There are some bright spots on the horizon. The Panthers' top two runners, Lamarq Caldwell and Silas Spearman, are a sophomore and freshman, respectively. Marshall's coaches have pointed out the talent of tight end Jonnu Smith, a freshman who leads FIU with 31 catches and 298 yards. Top wideout T.J. Lowder is a redshirt sophomore.
The key, Russell said, is for those young players to continue developing, even in the face of a disappointing season.
"We see the week as the studying and Saturdays as test day," said Russell, the team's leading tackler with 82. "Each test day, we want to come out with a better result - DBs, defensive linemen and guys on the offensive side grading out higher and higher.
"The final score doesn't say that, and a lot of people aren't going to report that, because at the end of the day, it's all about the 'W.' But as far as our internal and individual goals, it's about getting better every day and that's why we do believe brighter days are ahead of us."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.