Seniors dominate roster at FIU
MIAMI (AP) -- Mario Cristobal remembers the night things started turning around for FIU.
It was Dec. 1, 2007. The Orange Bowl was mostly empty, there was no national television audience, and the Panthers ended a 23-game losing streak by beating North Texas 38-19. Recruits started taking notice, no longer put off by the stigma of playing for quite possibly the worst program in America.
"We're not the same," Cristobal said.
Not even close. From those dreadful, humble beginnings -- trolley-bus rides to and from the field to a baseball locker room that served as the football changing facility, walks through deep mud on the way to practice, a weight room that was little more than a garage and Cristobal's realization at his first practice that he was bigger than any lineman on his roster -- the Panthers have been climbing steadily in recent seasons.
And now, FIU is the popular pick again to win the Sun Belt Conference, even after seeing star T.Y. Hilton finish his four seasons and head to the NFL.
"I think with every passing year, we continue to get closer and closer to the things that we want to accomplish, the program that we want to be," said Cristobal, who's still FIU's coach despite being mentioned for a number of jobs at bigger schools in recent years.
FIU has been to bowl games in each of the past two seasons, something that most major college teams in the country cannot say. And in the talent-rich state of Florida, the Panthers have the best record since early October 2010, their 15-7 mark over that span matching Florida State and topping every other school in the Sunshine State.
Three straight bowl games would have seemed like a comical notion not long ago. If FIU -- which is headed to Conference USA next season -- doesn't get to one this year, it'll seem like a disappointment.
"I want to make our team the best team in the Sun Belt," quarterback Jake Medlock said.
He'll have his chance.
Medlock, who got some field action last season as the backup for now-graduated Wesley Carroll, takes over as the starter in 2012. He won't have Hilton, the dynamic receiver-returner who played a huge role in FIU's emergence, but he does have a number of talented receivers including Wayne Times, who caught 54 passes for 540 yards and two scores last season.
With Hilton gone, Times figures to be the top receiving option. And Times doesn't mind that big things are expected for FIU.
"It's a good thing to be noticed and know that you're noticed," Times said. "It's what we wanted. We work hard for it, I would say. We put in enough work and for a person to notice, I won't say it puts more pressure on us, but it lets people see more about who we are."
The passing game will be obviously helped by Kedrick Rhodes, who ran for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Rhodes was 34th nationally in rushing yards a year ago, his first as the go-to back in the FIU offense.
"I thought we were going to get here," Rhodes said. "But I didn't think we'd do it this fast."
Where this year's Panthers could truly be special, however, is on defense -- where 10 of 11 starters from last season's 8-5 club return. Defensive lineman Tourek Williams was the Sun Belt's preseason player of the year, and defensive lineman Isame Faciane, linebacker Winston Fraser and defensive back Johnathan Cyprien also got preseason all-conference nods.
And the Panthers have experience as well. Including kickers and snappers, FIU may have as many as 16 seniors in the starting lineup this fall -- many of them been among the group that started looking at the Panthers once that massive losing streak ended.
Their leadership is already paying off, Cristobal said.
"You kind of gain yourself an extra nine or 10 assistant coaches," Cristobal said. "Obviously, I can't call them state employees. That would be illegal. But all of a sudden, these guys are running the drills as you want them run. ... They can literally regurgitate every word, verbatim. They can just blurt out the next word that's coming out of my mouth. That means our message is consistent, and it's sinking in."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)