MIAMI (Miami Herald) - In the springtime, as they say, hope springs eternal across the college football landscape.
But so does change.
FIU's annual metamorphosis began in earnest Thursday. The Golden Panthers formally opened their Sun Belt title defense with the first of day of spring practice.
For FIU, there was no hiding from its new reality.
Hours before the Panthers strapped on the helmets for the first time since December, members of their graduating class went through a battery of athletic tests for NFL scouts at FIU's pro day.
No better way to remind the team that Anthony Gaitor, Brad Serini, Toronto Smith and Greg Ellingson — the cornerstone of FIU's historic 2010 season — are among the seven starters not returning .
Over the next four weeks, FIU coaches will get an unrelenting first look at the rising sophomores, juniors and seniors vying to fill those spots.
"The competition is going to be intense," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. "It's going to be hard core. It's going to be Panther football, and it needs to be the next step in our progression."
That next step includes reassigning roles, not just with X's and O's, but also in terms of leadership.
"I see myself, and the whole team, we're all stepping up as leaders," said senior linebacker Winston Fraser, who was third on the team with 72 tackles last year. "We're all trying to take that role, so as a team, we can collectively get better."
The defense's reset button has been hit at the top. Todd Orlando donned the whistle for the first time as FIU's defensive coordinator, replacing Geoff Collins, who directed the conference's best statistical unit a year ago before relocating to Mississippi State.
That's not to say Orlando is assuming a barren cupboard. Seven starters are back, and new talent has arrived.
Expected contributors Tevin Blanchard, Richard Leonard, Jordan Hunt and Elijah Maxey all got a jump on their fellow Class of 2011 recruits by enrolling at FIU in January. They practiced for the first time Thursday.
Meanwhile, the new year means new positions for at least two defensive linemen. Tackle Jordan White has switched to the offensive line and worked at right guard Thursday. Defensive end Isame Faciane bulked up to 285 pounds and is projected to play at defensive tackle.
On the offensive side, Giancarlo Revilla and Donald Senat are in the running to succeed Serini at center, while Caylin Hauptmann — FIU's starting left tackle — is getting reps at guard in case injuries shuffle the line.
Elsewhere, wide receiver Ariel Martinez — who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 of the 2010 season — received a medical redshirt and is back for another senior season.
No longer on the roster: tight end Dudley LaPorte, who was informed by the NCAA this week is he is out of eligibility, cornerback Khambrel McGee and linebacker Aaron Davis.
Finally, walk-on Blaine Dalton, the former Missouri quarterback dismissed from the team before his freshman year after a DWI arrest, also practiced Thursday.
"There's a new standard [they] must uphold," Cristobal. "There's a new level of expectation from within. It's about work and it's about team and pushing to get better. I think the mentality of this football team is where we need to be."