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Football: Kiffin, coaching staff head into spring practice looking to improve upon greatest season in school history

Kiffin had to replace both of his coordinators along with two position coaches

Lane+Kiffin.+Courtesy+of+FAU+Athletics
Lane Kiffin. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Lane Kiffin. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Lane Kiffin. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Matt Brown, Contributing Writer

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The Owls coaching staff heads into this spring looking to improve upon the best season in school history.  

After starting the year off 1-3, they amassed 10 straight wins to finish 11-3, their best record since also finishing 11-3 back in 2003 when they were still part of Division I-AA.

That is the longest such streak since the Owls joined Division I back in 2005 and good enough for second longest in the country.

They also won their first bowl game since 2008 in a 50-3 beat down over Akron on their home turf in the Boca Raton Bowl. That 47-point margin of victory was the third largest in all bowl games since 2000.

“When you start winning, people are going to come take your coaches so that’s a good problem to have,” head football coach Lane Kiffin said.

If that’s the case, then the Owls have a great problem this offseason, having the task to replace both coordinators along with two position coaches.

Here we give a rundown of who the Owls have to help them aboard the “Lane Train” in preparation for another season.

Head coach Lane Kiffin

Train conductor Lane Kiffin is heading into his second season as head coach of the Owls full steam ahead.

Before shocking college football fans by accepting the head coaching position at FAU, Kiffin made a name for himself by helping lead the University of Southern California dynasty back in the early 2000s. After his time there as a tight ends coach and wide receivers coach, he guided the Trojans to a 23-3 record as the offensive coordinator from 2005-06.

He then accepted a position as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history at the time. But after a disappointing 5-15 record in less than two seasons, he was fired.

He made his return to the collegiate ranks as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers for one season before returning to USC as their head coach. He posted a 28-15 record overall with the Trojans before being fired on the airport tarmac after a 3-2 start to the 2013 season.

He became an offensive coordinator once again, this time with the Alabama Crimson Tide, where he helped them win a national championship in 2015.

Prior to facing Clemson in the 2016 National Championship, Kiffin was let go of his duties as coordinator to focus on his job as the newly appointed head coach of the Owls.

In just his first season as head coach, Kiffin has already accumulated 11 wins, which is the second most in program history, only trailing program founder’s Howard Schnellenberger’s 56.

That is more wins in his first season than the previous three combined (nine). It’s his most wins in a season as a head coach after previous head coaching jobs at Tennessee and USC.

Overall, Kiffin has a head coaching record of 46-24 in college.

The Owls’ eight-game win improvement, going from three wins to 11, was second in the nation behind Fresno State’s nine-win improvement.

They finished undefeated in conference play, which had only happened just six other times in the previous 22 seasons of C-USA. In another program record, 19 players were named to the C-USA all conference teams, including seven on the first team.

Charlie Weis Jr. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach – Charlie Weis Jr.

The youngest coordinator in Division 1 in football this year, and possibly ever, has some big shoes to fill.

Charlie Weis Jr., 24, is used to that though, as he is the son of former Notre Dame head coach, four-time Super Bowl champ, and longtime NFL assistant Charlie Weis.

He is tasked with taking over an offense that was led by Kendal Briles, who left for the same position at the University of Houston. The offense averaged 40.6 points per game last year, which was eighth most in the country among FBS teams.

Despite being so young, he comes to the Owls with a lot of previous experience. He first started out when he was 18 years old in 2011 as an offensive quality control coach for the University of Florida, where his dad was the offensive coordinator at the time.

He then followed his father to Kansas after he received the head coaching job for the next three seasons to be a team manager, where according to his biography on AtlantaFalcons.com, he “assisted the position coaches in practice by administering and directing drills.”

He then spent that summer with the New England Patriots as a summer volunteer intern, learning under five-time Super Bowl winning head coach Bill Belichick and his staff.

Following this, he was hired to be an offensive analyst for two seasons from 2015-16 for the University of Alabama to help Lane Kiffin, who was the offensive coordinator at the time. He was a part of the staff that helped Nick Saban and company defeat Clemson 40-35 to win the national championship in 2015.

Kiffin apparently liked what he saw from the young coach as Weis Jr. was shortly hired after the 2016 season to join Kiffin in Boca Raton as the tight ends coach. He never got to take part in spring practice though because shortly after accepting the job, he left to join another former Alabama offensive coordinator and USC head coach in Steve Sarkisian to be an offensive analyst for the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.

While there he helped the Falcons accumulate a 10-6 record and reach the divisional round of the 2018 NFL playoffs. He was then hired back to FAU this past January to be the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

He looks to improve upon an offense that not only led the conference in scoring but also total offense (498.4 yards/game) and rushing offense (285.3 yards/game).

While Conference USA MVP and Associated Press All-American running back Devin Singletary is returning, he is tasked with finding a new starting quarterback, as two starters in Daniel Parr (transfer to Duquesne) and Jason Driskel (retirement) are no longer with the program.

Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach – Tony Pecoraro

While the Owls locked up their offensive coordinator shortly after the departure of Kendal Briles, it took a while to find the replacement of Lane Kiffin’s younger brother, Chris, who left to become the pass rush specialist with the San Francisco 49ers. Less than two weeks before the start of spring practice, it was announced that Tony Pecoraro would take Kiffin’s place, coming over from the same position at C-USA rival Southern Miss.

Pecoraro worked his way up to be the defensive coordinator for two years at Southern Miss.

He started out in 2002 as a student assistant for Florida State working with the quarterbacks. He then became a graduate assistant at Webber International from 2004-05 before being promoted to his first full time coaching position working with the defensive line while also serving as recruiting coordinator.

Later, he returned to Florida State where he was the defensive quality control coach for three seasons. He then earned his first defensive coordinator position, serving as such at North Alabama for two seasons, leading them to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Division II Playoffs.

Pecoraro also served as defensive coordinator at Alcorn State for four seasons, earning two Southwestern Atlantic Conference championships in his time there before becoming defensive coordinator at Southern Miss prior to being hired at FAU.

While at Southern Miss, Pecoraro helped the defense finish 20th in the nation in total defense, allowing just 331.9 yards per game. They also gave up just over 24 points per game, ranked 45th in the country.

He will have a lot of momentum going with the Owls after what Kiffin did in his brief year with the program.

In just one year, Kiffin, according to his bio on FAUsports.com, helped the Owls defense rise “from a total defense rank of no. 124 to no. 63 nationally. In total, FAU was ranked in the nation’s top third in five categories: passes intercepted (second), pass efficiency defense (20th), red zone defense (23rd), team sacks (24th), and scoring defense (34th). FAU also was ranked No. 57 in rush defense as compared to 119th the previous season.”

The defense as a whole had 20 interceptions, a single-season program record, and tied for second most in the country.

Pecoraro will have the opportunity to work with last season’s Conference USA single season tackles leader, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. He’ll also work with two other first team all-conference players in safety Jalen Young and cornerback Shelton Lewis.

Wilson Love. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Assistant head coach/Head strength & conditioning coach – Wilson Love

Wilson Love is headed into his second spring season with a new title. Along with remaining the head strength and conditioning coach, he was promoted to assistant head coach.

After graduating from Alabama in 2013, the three-time All-SEC Academic selection defensive end remained with the Crimson Tide as a graduate assistant in 2014. He was then hired as the Tide’s assistant football strength and conditioning coach for two seasons where he worked under the highly acclaimed Scott Cochran.

Kiffin brought him away from Alabama last year to be the head strength and conditioning coach where he implemented the “Fourth Quarter” program. It must have helped, as the Owls 11 victories came by an average margin of over 26 points a game, with only one of those victories being within single digits.

Love seems to be with FAU for the long haul, as Kiffin reported that he turned down a “big offer” to coach elsewhere and that he stated he “can’t leave you guys.”

Eric Mathies. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Defensive line/recruiting coordinator – Eric Mathies

Eric Mathies has two decades of coaching experience under his belt. He first started back in 1998 as a coach at Murray High School in Kentucky, where he helped the Tigers advance to the second round of the playoffs where they finished with a 7-4 record.

He then joined the collegiate ranks in 1999 with Midwestern State where he remained for four years as an assistant coach. While there, he had a multitude of tasks as the defensive line coach and head strength and conditioning coach. He also handled recruiting duties.

Mathies left for Tennessee State in 2003 for two seasons, where he once again worked with the defensive line while also handling recruiting.  

He departed in 2005 to join Western Kentucky, where he would remain for eight seasons until 2012. He coached the defensive line for all eight seasons, where he helped Quanterus Smith earn the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012 after he accumulated 12.5 sacks that season (the third most in the nation).

Mathies was promoted to recruiting coordinator in his final three seasons, where he had a top two recruiting class in the Sun Belt all three seasons, according to Rivals.com.

He followed head coach Willie Taggart to USF in 2013, where he remained the defensive line coach all three years along with recruiting coordinator during his final season before departing for FAU.

Mathies joined the Owls staff in January 2017 as defensive line coach before being named recruiting coordinator by the end of spring practices.

In his first season, he led the line from being ranked No. 81 the prior year to No. 24 in the nation in sacks with 38 for the year. Each starter on the defensive line earned Conference USA honorable mention for their play.

John Garrison. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Offensive line/run game coordinator – John Garrison

John Garrison joins the Owls after three seasons as the offensive line coach/run game coordinator at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He pulls the switcheroo with last year’s o-line coach Garin Justice, who ended up at UNLV after his anticipated hiring at Arizona fell through.

Garrison brings seven years of experience coaching offensive line to a team who just produced one of the best rushing offenses in the country last season that rushed for nearly 4,000 yards at an average of 6.01 yards per rush.

In his last season at UNLV, the offensive line allowed a school-record 10 sacks while also paving the way for 240 rushing yards per game, good enough for 15th best in the country.

He will attempt to duplicate the success without center Antonyo Woods and left guard Roman Fernandez though, as they have graduated. They are two of three Owls starting offensive lineman named to first team all-conference last year along with rising redshirt senior Reggie Bain.

Jaron Fairman. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Special teams coordinator – Jaron Fairman

After being named player development assistant in spring of last year, Jaron Fairman was promoted to special teams coordinator in January of this year.

He comes with prior special team’s experience from his time at Fairman College back in 2008 where he served special team’s assistant along with wide receivers coach for three seasons. He then briefly spent time at both Western State College and Crespi High in 2010 and 2011, assisting with special teams before he served as an offensive graduate assistant for three seasons at USC until his arrival at FAU.

He is the first ever assistant in the program’s 18-year history to be solely assigned to work with special teams.

He has his work cut out for him though with the departure of both his placekicker Greg Joseph, and punter Ryan Rickel.

Joseph, the 2017 Lou Groza Award semifinalist, leaves the Owls with a multitude of records. Not only does he have the longest field goal make at 54 yards, but he is also the programs field goal and PAT kicks leader.

Coming back though is kickoff return man rising redshirt junior Kerrith Whyte. He set a school record against Louisiana Tech when he became the first ever player to return a kickoff for a touchdown in over 800 kick returns after he went 98 yards to the house in the second half.

Not only did that week’s C-USA special teams player of the week return two kicks for 128 yards, but after the season, he was also named honorable mention all-C-USA as a kick returner.    

Fairman will use this spring practice not only to replace his punter and placekicker but also to improve upon the No. 8 kick return defense, along with No. 16 in net punting and No. 23 in punt return defense.

Gary Harell. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Wide receivers – Gary Harrell

Gary Harrell is entering his second season as the Owls wide receivers coach.

Prior to his arrival in Boca Raton, he made several stops along the way, including five seasons as head coach at his alma mater Howard University.

His collegiate coaching experience started off back in 2002 at Howard, where he spent three seasons as the wide receivers coach. He then departed to take over as wide receivers coach at Texas Southern for another three seasons. He left to become the quarterbacks coach in 2009 for one season at Morgan State.

Harrell later left for the position of offensive coordinator for one year at Bowie State before returning to his alma mater to become the head coach for five seasons. He accumulated a record of 20-36 as head coach before joining the Owls in 2017.   

In his first year, he helped then-freshman Willie Wright earn C-USA all-freshman team nods with 56 receptions for 657 yards and six touchdowns.

He does have to replace the production of Kalib Woods though.

After being suspended the first six games of the season and not receiving any playing time until the team’s ninth game, Woods went off in the final six games of the season. In those six games, he caught 24 passes for over 600 yards and four touchdowns.

Keynodo Hudson. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Cornerbacks – Keynodo Hudson

Keynodo Hudson joined the Owls in January 2017 as cornerbacks coach after serving as a defensive administrative assistant with the USC Trojans from 2011-16. While there, he helped in an off-the-field role that included recruiting, where he assisted the Trojans in securing six straight top two recruiting classes in the Pac-12, according to 247sports.com.

Prior to his time at USC, he was the defensive coordinator at Mainland High school in Daytona Beach, Florida from 2007-10, along with serving as a coach for the secondary at the University of Charleston from 2004-06.

He helped first-team All-Conference USA member rising senior Shelton Lewis grab four interceptions along with a team-high eight pass breakups. Fellow cornerback rising junior Chris Tooley also added four interceptions.

Wes Neighbors. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Safeties – Wes Neighbors

Neighbors takes over a position left by Corey Batoon, who left in December to become the defensive coordinator at Hawaii. He joins his brother Connor Neighbors, who was named the assistant football strength and conditioning coach in February 2017.  

The former Alabama safety got his first gig of his coaching career as a student assistant at his alma mater from 2011-13. During this time, he focused his efforts on special teams and running scout practices.

He then moved to defensive intern for one year before eventually becoming a defensive graduate assistant (2014-15) where according to his biography on FAUsports.com, he “assisted the defensive coordinator, worked with the linebackers and helped to develop Butkus winner and All-American Reuben Foster and All-American Reggie Ragland.”

Neighbors will have the help of rising senior Jalen Young, who had seven interceptions last season, tied for second most in the FBS.

Kevin Smith. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Running backs – Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith didn’t have much coaching experience prior to being named running backs coach last season. He was more known for his playing time at UCF, where he ran for a then-C-USA record 29 touchdowns in his last season as a Knight.

He was subsequently drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2008 in the third round, where he played for five years before returning to his alma mater as a coaching intern in 2015. He was then promoted to quality control administrator until he came to FAU as running backs coach, his first stint as a full-time assistant.

Needless to say, it turned out better than expected, as he helped Devin Singletary run for nearly 2,000 yards and 32 touchdowns, breaking his own TD record set back in 2007. Singletary’s 32 rushing touchdowns are the third most all time in a single season, trailing only Barry Sanders (37) and Montee Ball (33).

The running back trio of Singletary, Gregory Howell, Jr., and Kerrith Whyte were the leaders of the No. 6 rushing team in the nation with 285.3 yards per game. The Owls also scored an FBS-high 52 times on the ground.

Clint Trickett. Courtesy of FAU Athletics

Tight ends – Clint Trickett

The former Florida State quarterback Clint Trickett returns for his second season coaching the Owls. After serving as quarterbacks’ coach for two seasons at East Mississippi Community College, Trickett followed his former quarterback De’Andre Johnson to the Owls after current offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. left to join the Atlanta Falcons.

In his first coaching experience at the FBS level, Trickett helped then-sophomore Harrison Bryant earn second team All-Conference-USA honors. Bryant was third on the team with 32 total receptions while catching five touchdowns.

Trickett returns three of his four tight ends, who caught 46 balls last year, which is 20 percent of the team’s production in the air.

Matt Brown is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @mattyb407.

1 Comment

One Response to “Football: Kiffin, coaching staff head into spring practice looking to improve upon greatest season in school history”

  1. Bruce Hadin on March 19th, 2018 12:04 pm

    It looks like Coach Kiffin has put together not only a winning team but a super staff. I know you guys are going to get after your opponents. I was just thinking of the Mike Tyson quote:” Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Good luck and have a great season.
    Respectfully,
    Coach Hardin

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