Football: Building a program

In his third season, head coach Charlie Partridge is installing a new culture in Boca Raton

Charlie+Partridge+was+fired+on+Sunday%2C+Nov.+27.+Mohammed+F+Emran+%7C+Staff+Photographer

Charlie Partridge was fired on Sunday, Nov. 27. Mohammed F Emran | Staff Photographer

Brendan Feeney, Sports Editor

Throughout the past decade, success has been hard to find for Florida Atlantic football, on and off the field.

One of the program’s lowest points occurred just three years ago when the school fired former head coach Carl Pelini in 2013. Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis initially resigned after admitting to illegal drug use, according to Athletic Director Patrick Chun.

However, the school withdrew the resignation and fired Pelini when they discovered that he failed to timely report the conduct of a staff member.

That debacle happened in the only year the Owls managed to avoid finishing the season with a losing record since their consecutive bowl wins in 2007 and 2008. They finished 6-6.

In the other five seasons since their last bowl appearance they have posted a combined 14-45 record.

Entering his third season as FAU’s head football coach, Charlie Partridge is attempting to change the status quo. His team is coming off two straight 3-9 seasons, but the future appears to be a lot brighter than most can remember.

“We spent the last few years building a foundation that we believe in,” he said, “It means building one that can sustain success on and off the field. One that players make good decisions in all aspects of their life.”

On the Field

The changes have been a lot more noticeable during play. While the team has put up consecutive three-win seasons, the record fails to reveal the improvement it has made.

The Owls came within a touchdown or less of victory in four of their defeats from a season ago, including a one-point loss against Rice and two overtime defeats. Their second overtime loss came against the then-No. 8 ranked University of Florida Gators in Gainesville.

“The Florida game I like to talk about because the result is not what we were going up there for,” Partridge said, while noting the team wasn’t content taking the nationally-ranked Gators to overtime. “We went up there to win.”

The following week saw the Owls finish the season in winning fashion, defeating Old Dominion 33-31 in Virginia.

There is reason to believe that the success found during the last two weeks of the 2015 season will carry over to this fall. The biggest is a combination of youth and experience.

A season ago, FAU started 16 true-freshman, the most in the NCAA. Four of them linebackers Ocie Rose and Azeez Al-Shaair, safety Jalen Young and long snapper Casey Winner were named to Conference USA’s All-Freshman Team.

Al-Shaair, who led the team with 94 tackles, earned a spot on USA Today’s Freshman All-America Team. He followed now-junior offensive lineman Reggie Bain, who 247Sports named a freshman All-American in 2014.

“Azeez’s passion for this game is felt by our players every day,” Partridge said. “Older players and players that were in his [recruiting] class, and now the freshmen that are younger than him.”

Four other members of the team have earned national attention since Al-Shaair. Senior defensive end Trey Hendrickson sits on the Bednarik Award watch list for the best defensive player in the country.

Redshirt senior defensive tackle Shalom Ogbonda is on the Wuerffel Trophy watch list for his contribution of community service, academic and athletic achievement.

Another form of fresh experience comes with new offensive coordinator Travis Trickett. The former head coach at Samford University brings a “no huddle, no mercy” fast-paced offensive attack which recorded the seventh-most yards per game in the Football Championship Subdivision in 2015.

Though Partridge utilized a run-heavy offense during his first two years at FAU, he’s had an eye on the pass-happy Trickett since the former’s days at Arkansas, where his team competed against Samford.

“We played against him and I was impressed by the combination of things he did that day and he’s got a great energy about him, players feed off of that,” Partridge said.

Off the Field

While the changes on the field may be more noticeable, the paradigm shift is felt most away from the gridiron.

Preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year Trey Hendrickson notices trust building and said the team has gotten closer since Partridge’s arrival.

“It’s more like a family now than it was ever before,” he said. “It was a bunch of individual talent before but I feel since coach Partridge has taken the program we’ve really become more of a unit all together rather than just a guy balling out here and there.”

While that current family feel is a step in the right direction, it must be continued. With college football careers usually lasting no longer than four years, players like Hendrickson won’t always be present to keep the family together. Therefore, when recruits come to Boca Raton on official visits, they each must feel the same togetherness to want to join the program.

“It’s not even really about the visit, it’s about the culture,” Partridge said of his normal recruiting visits. “One of the things that happens here, and sometimes it’s hard for some to understand, is decisions that make our student-athletes smile, but also decisions I have to make that they won’t like, all of them are from a place of love. We operate in that world here.”

“You’re a part of this program, this family, you are unconditionally loved by the head coaches, staff and everyone. Sometimes that means we’re going to come down on you very hard because we expect great things from you. That’s not something you can just create in a 48-hour visit, it’s got to be a culture they feel the entire time they come around.”

Partridge’s culture has been felt by his recruits.

According to 2016 recruit James Charles, “Coach Partridge, you can call him a family man, and a family man is the most dangerous man because he’ll do anything for the family to protect them.”

Fellow recruits running back Devin Singletary and wide receiver John Mitchell felt the same support. Singletary flipped from the University of Illinois for FAU on National Signing Day because of that family feel that came with the Owls compared to other schools.

“FAU showed me love,” he said.

That feeling of community spread to other aspects of life.

According to Mitchell, “When you go down there it’s like a family. They coach you more than football.”

Just like a mother or father, the coaches worry about grades as much, if not more, than football.

Freshman wide receiver Antonio Hadden chose to begin his football career at FAU when he signed with the school this past spring. He said the effort his coaches put toward players getting a degree stuck out and was one of the key reasons he enrolled at the school.

When Partridge first took over, he noted the team had an average GPA of “2.4 and change.” This past spring, the team’s GPA jumped to a program-record north of 2.9, thanks to 46 players posting GPAs over 3.0, also a team record.

Ean Biancardi, another fresh face from the team’s 2016 recruiting class, took notice of the academic focus before ever taking a class.

“I think the academic support the football team receives is great,” said the freshman, who met with professors and academic advisers during his visit.

Biancardi, Hadden, Mitchell, Singletary, Charles and the rest of the 2016 recruits are in a position only felt by the 2015 class, one that only knows a life at FAU under Charlie Partridge. They are in a position that FAU has rarely offered: a chance to win on and off the field.

“We’re much more stable, we’ve had very few distractions and we’ve been playing a lot of young players,” Partridge said. “We’re building with young players and guys we can develop. This is a project and I knew when I came here it was going to take some time.”

Entering his third season, fans will expect more than a three-win season. Instead, they will be hoping for the team’s first bowl game since 2008. Though Partridge is ready to see improvement, he won’t define success by wins.

“The biggest thing I want to see is our kids work to improve every day,” he said. “I’m not going to put a number of wins on it … we need to believe and trust each other and then get better as a football team every day and with that the wins will take care of itself. I just want to see daily, weekly, monthly improvement by this team and that’s what I’m looking for … I’m excited about where we are, we’re right on schedule, there’s a lot of really good things happening.”

As freshman tight end recruit John Raine said, “when I first got there, it felt like home. They’re building something special and I want to become part of it.”

Brendan Feeney is the sports editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @feeney42.