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Football: FAU looks to pair new talent with established playmakers

The Owls hit the field planning on building off a 2017 C-USA championship season

Jason+Driskel.+Alexander+Rodriguez+%7C+News+Editor
Jason Driskel. Alexander Rodriguez | News Editor

Jason Driskel. Alexander Rodriguez | News Editor

Jason Driskel. Alexander Rodriguez | News Editor

Wajih AlBaroudi, Contributing Writer

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FAU heads into spring football with preseason expectations at an all-time high for head coach Lane Kiffin’s Owls following a school-record 11 wins and a 2017 C-USA Championship.

Here is a look at the positional breakdowns and things to watch out for in the Owls’ spring practices and scrimmages.

Quarterback

Redshirt junior De’Andre Johnson was Florida’s Mr. Football in 2014 after a dominant season playing for First Coast High School in Jacksonville. Johnson transferred to FAU last season after stints at Florida State and East Mississippi Community College.

Johnson missed most of the 2017 season due to blood clots, but he has since been fully cleared for football activities.

Sophomore Chris Robison signed with Oklahoma after a prolific high school career in Texas — but an off-field incident led to the Sooners cutting him loose in August 2017. If Robison wins the job this spring and maintains it in fall camp, his first career collegiate game would be against his former team in Norman, Oklahoma.

Johnson is a dual-threat quarterback who can take off and make plays when the pocket collapses whereas Robison is more of a traditional pocket passer.

Whoever becomes the starting quarterback for the Owls will have large shoes to fill; former FAU quarterback Jason Driskel led C-USA in passing efficiency last season (153.5).

Running backs

Junior Devin Singletary returns after a phenomenal 2017 season where he led FBS in rushing touchdowns with 32 and was fourth in FBS rushing yards with 1920.

Singletary capped off last season with the C-USA MVP award and became the first FAU player to earn AP All-American honors with his third team nomination.

Singletary’s unique running style mixes both elusiveness and power. When he hits the open field, defenders are put on their heels because the running back can use his short burst quickness to go around them, or lower his shoulder and run through them.

Last season Singletary forced 83 missed tackles and rushed for 1,154 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus.

Depth behind Singletary is something to watch this spring following the departure of Greg Howell.

With redshirt junior Kerrith Whyte Jr. being the only proven backup, Singletary may be tasked to carry the rushing load even more this spring.

Wide receivers

Slot receiver Willie Wright blazed on to the scene last season as a freshman for the Owls, leading the team in receiving touchdowns (6), receiving yards (657), and receptions (56).

Former FAU offensive coordinator Kendal Briles manufactured touches for Wright in multiple ways last season: sending the speedy receiver out on vertical routes to stretch the field, tossing the ball out on bubble screens to get him the ball in space, and giving him handoffs on end-arounds to force defenses to play sideline-to-sideline.

The Owls look to find perimeter receivers to pair with Wright to replace the production of Kamrin Solomon and Kalib Woods. The duo combined for 1,007 yards and five touchdowns last season. Woods was named the 2017 C-USA Championship game MVP as he hauled in an FAU single-game record 208 receiving yards on six grabs.

Junior Kyle Davis transferred to FAU in January 2018 and figures to be a large part of the Owls’ passing game. Davis signed with Auburn as a four-star recruit coming out of high school, but was dismissed from the Tigers football team last October after violating team rules.

Miami native and junior Jovon Durante is another new face on FAU’s offense after transferring from West Virginia last summer. Durante hauled in seven touchdowns over his first two collegiate seasons for the Mountaineers.

Senior DeAndre McNeal caught 23 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns last season and will compete for a starting position this spring.

With a blend of highly touted transfers to go along with returning playmakers like Wright, the wide receiver unit looks to be one of the strongest areas on the team heading into this spring.

De’Andre Johnson. Alexander Rodriguez | News Editor

Must-Watch Matchup Battles

Tracking the most important position changes this spring.

Quarterback: Two former four-star recruits compete this spring to gain an edge in becoming the Owls’ signal caller in 2018.

Offensive line: There will be three new starters up front for FAU following the departures of Roman Fernandez, Antonyo Woods, and Jakobi Smith.

Defensive line: The Owls look to plug in a new defensive tackle into a talented unit that saw all four starters receive All C-USA honors in 2017.

Wide receivers: FAU begins the search to find playmakers on the outside to pair with sophomore slot receiver Willie Wright.

Special teams: FAU’s new-look kicking game will debut this spring due to kicker Greg Joseph and punter Ryan Rickel having exhausted their eligibility.

Tight ends

Junior Harrison Bryant was a redzone weapon for the Owls last season. He finished second on the team in touchdowns with five scores.

Something to watch this spring will be how first-year offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. implements Bryant into his offense.

Last season Bryant often found success lining up as an H-back rather than tight to the line. It remains to be seen whether Bryant will play more of an inline role this spring.

Kiffin showed confidence in Bryant by not signing any tight ends to the 2018 recruiting class.

Junior John Raine appeared in 11 games last season, catching six passes for 50 yards.

Raine is expected to be the primary backup to Bryant this spring.

Offensive line

One of the biggest positional battles to watch this spring is the offensive line. Last season the Owls paved the way for 3,994 rushing yards (No. 4 in FBS) and 52 touchdowns (No. 1 in FBS).

FAU will have a brand new interior offensive line after Jakobi Smith, along with All-Conference performers Roman Fernandez and Antonyo Woods, graduated last fall.

Communication will be something first-year offensive line coach John Garrison harps on this spring with his three new starters in the middle.

Offensive line play is reliant on all five up front knowing each other’s tendencies and habits. And with three new starters in the middle, there will be some growing pains to work through this spring to become a cohesive unit.

Some players that will be competing for a starting role this spring are redshirt juniors Richard Williams, Will Tuihalamaka, and Tarrick Thomas.

Bookend tackles in redshirt senior Reggie Bain and junior Brandon Walton will anchor the Owls’ offensive line this spring.

Defensive backs

The Owls’ ballhawking secondary led FAU to swipe 20 interceptions last season (tied for No. 2 in FBS). The DB unit remains largely intact heading into spring and is going to be relied on again for blanket coverage and playmaking ability.

One of the reasons FAU DB’s had so much success last season is they often had the benefit of playing from ahead, forcing teams into must-pass situations.

Senior safety Jalen Young picked off seven passes (tied for No. 2 in FBS) and led FAU’s DB unit with 77 tackles in his first-team All C-USA campaign last season.

Junior cornerback Chris Tooley played the ball aggressively last season, as he reeled in four interceptions on the year.

Senior cornerback Shelton Lewis returns to the field following a 2017 first-team All C-USA season where he led the Owls in pass breakups with eight on the year.

Sophomore safeties Zyon Gilbert and Quran Hafiz both contributed as freshmen to what was a stellar FAU defensive backfield last season.

Gilbert started his freshman year strong in 2017, leading the team in solo tackles through the first four games (18), but his playing time started to slide come midseason. He looks to prove to the coaching staff he is capable of consistency over the course of a full season.

Gilbert still finished second in the DB unit with 52 tackles last season.

Hafiz racked up 36 tackles in 2017, with four of those stops coming from behind the line of scrimmage.

Redshirt senior Andrew Soroh transitioned to linebacker by necessity last season after Gilbert won his starting safety job early in the year. Soroh took the challenge in stride, having the best season of his career in a versatile hybrid safety/linebacker role.

Soroh was an All C-USA honorable mention in 2017.

Senior nickelback Herb Miller returns to the field this spring after recording 35 tackles and four pass break ups in his junior season.

Devin Singletary. Alexander Rodriguez | News Editor

Linebackers

Senior Azeez Al-Shaair flew all over the field last season, as he was third in the FBS with 147 tackles. Al-Shaair also added three sacks in his first-team All C-USA season in 2017.

Junior Rashad Smith led FAU with 12 tackles for loss in 2017 and was tied for the most sacks on the team with six.

For most of the 2017 season the Owls played in a nickel defense — meaning a fifth defensive back took the place of a third linebacker on the field, thus leaving Al-Shaair and Smith as the lone starters of their unit.

Some names to look out for that will compete to earn playing time behind the two aforementioned linebackers are redshirt senior Kain Daub and senior Khantrell Burden.

Daub transferred to FAU from Florida State last season and is far and away the biggest linebacker of the group, standing at six-foot-four and weighing 240 pounds.

If Daub can finally put it all together, it will be hard for the coaching staff to keep his size and athleticism off the field.  

Defensive line

Last season, the Owls defense line wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. The entire front four received All C-USA honorable mentions in 2017.

Three of four starters return this spring — the only departure being defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni.

FAU’s high-scoring offense didn’t just help the defensive backs in 2017, it also benefited the defensive line.

By playing with a lead, FAU’s defensive linemen were able to pin their ears back and rush the passer more frequently than in previous seasons.

Redshirt senior defensive end Hunter Snyder was tied for the team lead in sacks last season with six. Eight of his 57 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage.

Senior defensive tackle Steven Leggett was a run-stuffer inside for the Owls in 2017, taking up blocks so linebackers could make plays. He had five and a half tackles for loss in 2017.

Redshirt sophomore defensive end Leighton McCarthy notched nine tackles for loss and four and a half sacks for the Owls in his 2017 season.

Defensive tackles that could take over this spring in Taleni’s absence are redshirt senior Ray Ellis, junior William Davis, and junior Kevin McCrary.

Special teams

The Owls’ special teams unit will be brand new this spring with changes at coordinator, kicker, and punter.

First-year special teams coordinator Jaron Fairman will rely on sophomore Vladimir Rivas to replace the reliable Greg Joseph.

In his final year of eligibility, Joseph nailed 15-of-21 field goal attempts and earned All-Conference honorable mention honors.

FAU does not currently have a punter listed on the roster.

Kerrith Whyte Jr. is expected to retain his role back deep for the Owls this spring after receiving an All C-USA honorable mention as a kick returner in 2017.

Wajih AlBaroudi is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @WajihAlBaroudi.

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