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dvotnetKentucky FIU Football

FIU’s D’Vonte Price averaged 6.8 yards per carry in 2020.

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a 12-part series previewing Marshall’s opponents for the 2021 football season.

HUNTINGTON — Perhaps no college football program got hit harder by COVID-19 in the 2020 season than Florida International University’s.

The Panthers were denied more games due to COVID-19 issues than they played, and when they did play, it was with a patchwork lineup that never had any chemistry or cohesion.

It turned a team that was expected to be one of Conference USA’s East Division favorites into one of the worst teams in the country at 0-5 on the season, including a loss to an FCS school.

Needless to say, FIU coach Butch Davis is eager to turn the page.

The good news for Davis and the Panthers is that the NCAA reprieve for student-athletes means that several of his veterans from 2020 are returning for the 2021 season, hoping to build on what they thought had started in 2019.

Offensively, the key is to find a quarterback who can take some pressure off the rushing attack. Finding stability at the quarterback spot is a must if the Panthers are to turn around an offense that struggled to gain just 281 yards per game last season.

A freshman might be able to step into the role and grow under Davis, who returns some options with Kaylan Wiggins and Max Bortenschlager. However, neither player has impressed when given opportunities, which leaves the door open for a younger player to step in.

There are some targets returning to the mix, most notably Shemar Thornton, who missed last year with a torn ACL, and Bryce Singleton (14 catches, 150 yards in 2020). Tight end Rivaldo Fairweather might also be a factor.

If the passing game can at least keep the defense honest, there is a rushing attack that could give the opposition some trouble, led by running back D’Vonte Price (116.2 yards per game, 6.84 yards per rush in 2020).

Price leads a sizable backfield, joining with Shaun Peterson to forge what could become a power attack for the Panthers.

The offensive line has to improve its pass protection, but if the run production is on par with last season, there is room for optimism. The offensive front is led by tackle Lyndell Hudson and guard Sione Finau while the interior got a boost with Kansas transfer Api Mane.

Defensively, there are plenty of talented players in the mix, led by linebacker Jamal Gates, but success will be contingent on the offense at least sustaining drives.

The FIU defense was on the field way too long last season, and it led to the unit wearing down late in allowing 423 yards and 32 points per game.

Defensive lineman Davon Strickland is arguably the top talent for the defense, and he has help across the front from Jason Mercier.

Gates is one of Conference USA’s top defenders at the second level, and the back end of the defense features four top tacklers from a year ago with brothers Rishard and Richard Dames giving ample experience. Rishard Dames is slotted into one cornerback spot while Richard Dames is at one safety spot.

For FIU to turn things around, the Panthers could get help from their special teams to provide a spark, and they have the personnel to potentially do so with punter Tommy Heatherly and kick returner Lexington Joseph being one of C-USA’s best.

FIU’s schedule features winnable games early to build confidence, such as games against Long Island and Texas State, but three straight road contests at Texas Tech, Central Michigan and the C-USA opener against rival Florida Atlantic will be tough.

A midseason open date provides a crucial juncture with the final six games all being conference contests. If FIU is at the .500 mark or better going into its Oct. 16 bye week, the Panthers are likely headed to a bowl game.

If not, it might mean a bowl-less season, which could translate to bye-bye Butch.

Contact Nick Scala at 304-348-7947 or nickscala@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @nick_scala319.