Old Dogs: With just one season left, FAU football seniors reflect on their careers.

%28L-R%29+Alex+Deleon%2C+D%27Joun+Smith%2C+Damian+Parms%2C+Andrae+Kirk%2C+Christian+Milstend%2C+David+Lozandier%2C+Tony+Moore%2C+William+Dukes.+%5BMichelle+Friswell+%7C+Creative+Director%5D

Michelle Friswell

(L-R) Alex Deleon, D'Joun Smith, Damian Parms, Andrae Kirk, Christian Milstend, David Lozandier, Tony Moore, William Dukes. [Michelle Friswell | Creative Director]

Andrae Kirk’s family has seen almost every football game that he played during his time at FAU. A Miami native, Kirk chose the school chiefly because he relished the opportunity to stay close to home, near his family.

#19 William Dukes. [ Ryan Murphy | Business Manager]
#19 William Dukes. [ Ryan Murphy | Business Manager]

The product Kirk’s family saw in 2011 was a shabby one. During his freshman year, the team managed just one win and racked up 11 losses in the final campaign for former head coach Howard Schnellenberger, who retired after the season. It was a tough time, especially for freshmen like Kirk and William Dukes, to whom Schnellenberger sold the program.

Schnellenberger was one of the main reasons that Dukes chose Florida Atlantic over Western Kentucky. Dukes, a Fort Lauderdale native, wanted to stay close to home, but his coach was the driving force. He remembers Schnellenberger quite fondly.

“He’s a funny guy,” Dukes said. “I used to hear stories about him. I felt like he was an amazing person, and I knew that he could get me better. I came here just to experience his coaching. That one year helped me. It gave me a lot of wisdom.”

Dukes received wisdom, while Kirk received worry. He found himself a bit bothered, but managed to compartmentalize everything.

“I was worried, because I had never experienced anything like that [losing season],”  said Kirk, who played just one year of high school football at Miami Central. “I just kept playing, I wanted to get better everyday. I never let it hang on me too long.”

The entire program has taken on that mantra. They’ve increased their win total each season since, due largely in part to a senior class that has taken its lumps  over the years.

Tony Moore is a fifth-year senior. A native of Tampa, he became intrigued with FAU because he saw the type of talent that the program was cultivating years before it translated into wins.

“I’ve always been the type of person that wanted to be part of something new instead of something old,” Moore said. “I decided I wanted to be part of rebuilding this foundation that they had started.”

That foundation Moore mentioned is a reference to the two bowl wins that FAU earned under Howard Schnellenberger.

The Owls won a bowl game in 2006 and 2007, but suffered three losing seasons in the years after — including that 1-11 season, which was Moore’s redshirt freshman year.

“From that year, we started getting the right pieces,” he said. “It takes years of time to get the right pieces. We kept inching forward and inching forward.”

And inch forward they did. Schnellenberger retired and Carl Pelini took his place. FAU won three games during the 2012 season — one of which was a 7-3 win over Wagner, a Division 1AA squad. The team looked hapless.

With a full year under his belt, Pelini began to implement his own system and recruit the type of players he preferred. Heading into fall 2013, FAU looked poised to take another step forward.

Because of a terrific junior season, D’Joun Smith is widely considered one of the best cornerbacks in the country — but the senior, Miami native only had one Division 1 scholarship coming out of high school.

“Loyalty,” Smith claimed was the deciding factor in him choosing Florida Atlantic. “FAU hung around. I had recognition from other big schools, but they kept up with me. It was like, ‘Man, we want you that bad that we’ll keep your scholarship.’”

A fight on the football field cost him the final five games of his high school career at American Senior High School. Many programs backed off of Smith, perhaps because of character concerns.

When other, bigger programs came looking for Smith again, he told them he had no intention of changing his mind. Smith calls his pathway to FAU a second opportunity to play the sport he loves and considers it one of the best decisions he has ever made.

During his junior year, Smith knew something wasn’t right. In their second season under Pelini, the team sat at 2-6 and looked dead in the water.

“When you are at the bottom, you have no choice but to go up,” said a laughing Smith. “It can’t get no worse. It can’t get crazier than that. At the time, we had the players, but everybody said it was the coaches. Now we got the coaches, and I guess the players wasn’t [sic] producing. You realized at the top, it wasn’t as good of a foundation as we thought.”

That “foundation” started with Pelini, who resigned amid severe controversy on Oct. 30  of last year. Athletic Director Patrick Chun approached Pelini with sworn affidavits claiming that he had smoked marijuana.

Smith and the rest of the team received text messages requesting that they head to the Oxley Center, the on-campus athletics complex, immediately. There, they were informed of Pelini’s situation.

The school later absolved Pelini of all surmised drug charges, then relieved him of his duties. Pelini has since said that he has experienced blacklisting within the coaching profession.

“If that foundation ain’t good, no matter what it is, it’s gonna crumble. But then you get [interim head] coach [Brian] Wright to come in, he tries to live a righteous life, and you see this big turnaround,” said Smith, who mentioned the team’s comeback win over Tulane as a turning point for the team.

Wright took over once Pelini left. Somehow, he managed to keep the team focused on winning a game that took place just three days after its former head coach left the program. The team won their next three games to end the season at 6-6. Never before had FAU won four consecutive football games.

Chun hired current head coach Charlie Partridge in December to take the job long-term, and when Partridge chose to keep Wright around, the team immediately began to gel.

“Offensively, that was a big plus,” said redshirt senior tight end Alex Deleon.

Deleon showed up to an FAU campus that had no football stadium. FAU’s history of tight ends (they have one in the NFL right now — Arizona Cardinal Rob Housler) and the opportunity to be pioneers were vital factors when Deleon was choosing the school that he would like to play for.

He saw FAU as an opportunity for his class to leave its mark.

“Guys from Alabama, schools like that, they can never say they’ve been the first,” Deleon said. “Yeah, they’ve won a national championship, but they weren’t the first. By the time I leave here, I expect to say I was the first to win the conference.””

As far as personal goals are concerned, Deleon just wants to make an impact wherever he can. “I tell myself everyday I want to be a playmaker without the ball. Whether that’s blocking in the run game, blocking in the passing game, or special teams, I just want to bring that winning tradition that was started back.”

That type of winning mentality is what Deleon credits for the program becoming steadily better during his time here. He and several other players mentioned the family dynamic of the team has contributed as well.

On any given Monday evening this summer, you could find a few FAU football players carousing and enjoying themselves at Strikes. Deleon can’t bowl (“It looks good, but it’s going in that gutter”) but does acknowledge that activities like that go a long way toward bringing the team together.

David Lozandier, a senior linebacker from Miami (North Miami to be exact — he made sure I knew so), revealed that the team also bonds by playing cards and competing on “Madden.” They’ve even created their own card game called “Four Squares.”

He claims the family aspect of Partridge’s program reaches even farther than the team itself.

“There’s more of a connection. When I say a connection, I mean not only the players, but the staff. And the people who work around us in the facilities, and the student body,” said Lozandier.

He chose FAU because two former teammates recommended that he come. One is Randell Johnson, who graduated from FAU in the spring of 2013 and now plays for the Buffalo Bills. The other is Nexon Dorvilus, a tight end who also graduated this past spring.

Relegated to special teams for much of his first three years, Lozandier is now in position to compete for the starting linebacker job. He’s already thinking of his post-career aspirations.

“I’ve got a couple of options. I can attend law school — I’m thinking about becoming a lawyer,” he said. “I am thinking about joining the Navy Seals program, or being a teacher, or a coach. I want to serve and help people, especially going back to my neighborhood. I wasn’t privileged to come from other great circumstances so I want to go back to my neighborhood.”

All of the seniors have bought into the new system that Partridge has implemented. They trust him and they like his personality. They appreciate how transparent he has been.

“He’s full of energy,” Deleon said, as his coach rolled over a table to maneuver around a cramped interview room. “He’s a detail oriented guy, great recruiter, great coach. His door is always open. When it comes on that practice field, it’s about business.”

Time will tell if Patridge is able to get his FAU tenure off on the right foot. The team has some talent, and one could argue that all the turmoil they have seen is just as vital to molding a program that knows how to win. Dukes is certainly looking at the glass half full.

“We went through a lot of adversity last year,” he said. “I think we have a major bond right now. We’re here to help each other. I feel like it’s going to be a great year.”