Having concluded our position previews last week, which touched on some of the best FAU position battles heading into fall camp, it’s time to really focus on the groups we’re going to be watching when the Owls take the field on Friday for their first fall camp practices. Below are the Top 6 (or so) position battles the Owls will be hoping to solve before their Sept. 1 opener at Oklahoma.
1. Quarterback: This is the battle everyone will be watching. Oklahoma transfer Chris Robison, a redshirt freshman, and De’Andre Johnson, who began his college career at Florida St., played to a virtual draw during the spring. Johnson is still looking to regain the arm strength he lost to the blood clots, and subsequent surgery, that cost him nearly all of last season. Both players need to do a better job of protecting the ball, or Cordel Littlejohn may work his way into the conversation – especially considering the new redshirt rules that allow players to play in any four games during a season and still claim a redshirt. The player who makes the most big plays during camp won’t necessarily win the battle. The players who minimizes mistakes will likely get the nod.
2. Interior Offensive Line: FAU needs to replace starting center Antonyo Woods and starting guards Roman Fernandez and Jakobi Smith. Spring settled nothing, in part because many of the contenders weren’t even on campus yet. Tarrick Thomas handled snapping duties during the spring, but the Owls signed graduate transfer center Junior Diaz from Tulane to make an immediate impact. B.J. Etienne performed well at one of the guard spots during the spring, but the Owls have since added Florida graduate transfer Antonio Riles and JUCO guard Marcel Southall. At least one of them figures to start, but they’ll have to beat out either Etienne, William Tuihalamaka and Nick Weber.
3. Free Safety: Andrew Soroh started the majority of games at this spot last year, but he moved up to linebacker during the spring. Zyon Gilbert started the games that Soroh didn’t, but by the end of spring Ocie Rose surpassed him on the depth chart. Both Gilbert and Rose are game proven and should see playing time regardless of who wins the spot. Both are big hitters out of the secondary and Rose has demonstrated the ability to take away the ball.
4. The Kickers: These two battles are the biggest wildcards heading into camp. Kicker Greg Joseph and punter Ryan Rickel have moved on, and no one on FAU’s current roster has ever kicked or punted a ball in a college game. If Kiffin can’t find someone he’s comfortable with at either or both spots, he may more fully embrace an already aggressive approach to fourth down decisions.
5. Backup Running Back: Conference USA’s reigning MVP, Devin Singletary, is a lock for the starting spot, but who will get the second-most carries? Last year Buddy Howell thrived in that role, but he’s with the Miami Dolphins now. There’s already been some attrition in this battle, with news that former Alabama back BJ Emmons couldn’t fulfill FAU’s academic transfer requirements. Coach Lane Kiffin has been high on Tyrek Tisdale, who is a bigger back, but the Owls held Tisdale out of contact and most drills during the spring because of a knee injury. Is he healthy? Incoming freshman Malcolm Davidson is a home run hitter. Kerrith Whyte is experienced, but Kiffin seemed to like him more as a third down back. Finally, Gerald Hearns climbed the depleted spring depth chart to the second team. Can he earn carries in the fall?
6. Defensive Tackles: This unit truly improved during the spring. In Will Davis, Kevin McCrary, Steven Leggett and Charles Cameron the Owls have four players battling for two starting spots. Can former starter Ray Ellis, coming off successive seasons ended by knee surgery, force the Owls to employ a five-man rotation? With the way Kiffin and new defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro intend to rotate players along the defensive line, grabbing the starting spot may not matter much. All will play. But this unit was fun to watch in the spring and there’s no reason it won’t continue into the fall.