BOCA RATON – FAU’s offensive line provides clarity to a side of the ball that has little of it elsewhere.
Coach Lane Kiffin can direct his attention to the quarterback, running back and receiver competitions. Because with four returning contributors and a former five-star recruit upfront, there won’t be much of one there.
Brandon Walton, a standout at right tackle, is moving to the left tackle spot vacated by Reggie Bain.
Filling Walton’s shoes will be onerous, but it’s hard to find a better option at the Group of Five level than Calvin Ashley, who transferred to FAU from Auburn following the spring.
Junior Diaz is back at center to take a second shot at his walk-off season. The NCAA granted Diaz, who classified as a senior last season after transferring from Tulane, a sixth year of eligibility.
Promising guards Nick Weber and B.J. Etienne will flank Diaz on his right and left side, respectively.
One concern here is the coaching turnover. With first-year man Jeff Norrid in tow, that makes four offensive line coaches in three years – Garin Justice left for UNLV, John Garrison to NC State, and Mike Summers to, well, a sunny, South Florida retirement.
Norrid, who was an offensive analyst for Alabama, Auburn and Arkansas before filling the same role for the Owls last season, is in his first on-field coaching position. And he’ll have plenty of talent to mask any early hiccups.
The other concern for the Owls’ offensive line is their depth. There isn’t much game experience behind the current starters, and the second-team offensive line frequently struggled during spring practices.
OwlAccess.com Preseason FAU OL Breakdown
Brandon Walton (6-5, 300, Sr.): Possessing a rare combination of precise footwork and hand placement, balance and a Hulk-esque punch in pass protection, Walton’s made his job look easy over the past couple seasons. He was FAU’s best lineman a year ago, and there’s no reason for that to change now. Walton shook off a bumpy start at his new position in the spring to excel the rest of the way. Expect that same dominance this fall.
Doug Johnson (6-7, 320, R-Fr.): Likely the heir to the left tackle spot once Walton graduates, Johnson played in two games last season but retained his redshirt.
B.J. Etienne (6-3, 310, R-So.): Etienne’s as steady as pass protectors come. An offensive tackle at St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne converted to guard for the Owls and brought his fleet feet with him. He started nearly every game last season as a redshirt-freshman. While Etienne isn’t known for powering guys in the dirt, per se, his ability to keep pass rushers at bay takes enormous pressure off the quarterback and play caller.
Deon Humphrey (6-3, 310, R-So.): The walk-on was named one of FAU’s most improved offensive players in the spring, but he’ll have to continue on that trajectory to hold off some of the incoming freshmen.
Junior Diaz (6-2, 300, R-Sr.): Named to the Rimington watch list, an award given to the nation’s top center, Diaz is pivotal to the Owls’ interior run game. Diaz’s shorter stature – his listed height of 6-foot-2 is a bit generous – allows him to get under opposing D-linemen’s chest plates, moving them directionally to create gaps for running backs to cut back into. His presence as the line’s communicator – responsible for calling out blitzes or changes in protection – will also help Norrid through the kinks of his first on-field coaching season.
Jake Jones (6-0, 290, R-Jr.): Another walk-on who always seems to be either on or near the two-deep, Jones also earned most improved honors in the spring and was among the top walk-on honorees.
Nick Weber (6-3, 295, R-So.): He was simply too good to keep off the field last season. A walk-on, redshirt-freshman in 2018, Weber pushed then-starter Antonio Riles into an unconventional rotation system: Riles would play a drive or two, then Weber, or vice versa. Weber moves extremely well and plays with a nasty streak that energizes his teammates.
Ean Biancardi (6-5, 280, R-Jr.): Biancardi played more frequently as a redshirt freshman than he did last season. Remaining healthy is the biggest key for the redshirt junior. When healthy, Biancardi is athletic enough that he could become the Owls’ jack-of-all-trades, serving as the primary backup at multiple offensive line positions.
Calvin Ashley (6-6, 322, R-So.): Placing Ashley atop the depth chart is a bit of a jump on two fronts. For starters, Kiffin doesn’t usually hand the starting spot to a newcomer prior to the first practice. Second, while the Owls believe the NCAA will waive the normally mandatory year of ineligibility for transfers, that hasn’t happened yet. Should the NCAA not side with Ashley and the Owls, it would be a huge blow to this line.
Marquice Robinson (6-3, 315, R-Fr.): The former two-time Class 6A All-State selection in Alabama played well in spurts during spring. If the NCAA denies Ashley’s appeal, Robison moves to the top of the depth chart.
Calvin Ashley (6-6, 322, R-So.): After two years at Auburn, Ashley made the trip south to Boca Raton. He didn’t play much as a Tiger, but that’ll surely change this season if he’s granted immediate eligibility. There aren’t many SEC-caliber linemen in Conference USA. Getting Ashley to be one of them was a slam-dunk move by Kiffin and his staff.
Federico Maranges (6-4, 285, Fr.): A native Puerto Rican, Maranges survived Hurricane Maria before moving to Miami in 2017. The Miami-Columbus alum will likely redshirt this year to hone his technique.
Deshawn Richardson (6-4, 290, Fr.): Richardson’s another touted local product joining the Owls’ line this year. The Pahokee guard mulled an offer from FIU before signing.
Adarius Tolliver (6-5, 333, Fr.): He already has elite size, but Tolliver, a state of Alabama product, must prove he has the technique to match in camp. FAU coaches considered Tolliver choosing FAU over Indiana on Signing Day to be one of their biggest recruiting wins.
Reggie Bain: Bain was a stalwart at left tackle for four seasons. While his road-grading presence in the run game will be missed, Walton can fill the void admirably.
Antonio Riles: The Florida transfer was fine but not irreplaceable for FAU last season. Weber, then a year younger, outplayed him, and should be even better in his second season.
Tarrick Thomas: He didn’t play much, but Thomas’ multi-positional versatility was important for FAU to have in case injuries arose. Losing Thomas means FAU’s left with little experienced interior depth.
Lavante Epson: The junior college product joined FAU in January, but when he didn’t manage to climb to the top of the depth chart during the spring Epson elected to transfer to another school.
Nick Weber: Weber missed most of spring practice with a staph infection, so he’ll have to catch up to speed in camp. But there’s no question he has the ability to do exactly that – and a lot more. There aren’t many walk-ons taking playing time from SEC-level talent like Weber did last season. That’s a testament to his ability and coaches’ trust in him. Epson’s decision to transfer opens the door even further for more playing time. Now that Weber has a chance to build a rhythm through full games rather than spurts, his flashes of brilliance will turn into consistencies.