FACEBOOK PHOTO GALLERY: Thursday’s FAU Practice
BOCA RATON – Never actually small to begin with, FAU’s defensive tackles are sending a message this fall.
They are all grown up.
“We’re getting better ourselves with the young guys pushing us and we’re pushing the young guys and helping them, bringing them along,” senior Steven Leggett said. “That’s what it all comes down to. All of us growing at once.”
This time last year the defensive tackle spot arguably appeared to be the weakest unit on defense – and maybe even the entire team.
In 12 months, coach Lane Kiffin has gone from lamenting the challenges facing his undersized, inexperienced defensive tackles to praising them as potentially being the Owls’ best unit.
A two-year starter returning for his final year, Leggett brings strength – and, most importantly, experience – to the middle of the defensive line. Kevin McCrary played in all 14 games last season, recording 25 tackles, and ended the spring alongside Leggett on the starting unit.
Like McCrary, Will Davis played in both of his first two seasons. And junior college transfer Cameron Charles played like a veteran this spring – his first as an Owl – and continued to be a disruptive force during Thursday’s practice.
“It’s what the really good teams have – the Georgias and Alabamas – they build their fronts with depth so that you can play teams when those snaps get up to 90 snaps a game,” Kiffin said.
The return of Ray Ellis, who’s coming back from knee surgery, and addition of JUCO transfer Marcel Southall to the mix give FAU what Davis called “big depth” at defensive tackle.
“It does feel different,” McCrary said. “The standard is very high now. Either you do your job or someone will keep going without you.”
Going six deep at the defensive tackle spot is rare among Conference USA teams. In Leggett, McCrary, Davis and Cameron, the Owls have four potential starters.
At the moment, Ellis and Southall round out the depth. A former starter, Ellis underwent more knee surgeries, two, than games played, one, over the past two seasons.
He admits feeling a little rusty in camp but expects to be a contributor once the season begins.
“I just love the whole rotation that’s going on right now,” Ellis said.
Southall began his college career at Texas before coming to FAU by way of Tyler Junior College.
His first task upon arriving at FAU? Getting into game shape. He’s dropped from 290 to 270 pounds since arriving in Boca Raton and is now concentrating on learning the playbook.
“I knew I wasn’t probably going to come in and start because I don’t know the playbook and everything,” Southall said. “I’m just like a freshman coming in. I’ve got to develop like everybody else.”
NEW ARM: FAU isn’t wasting any time giving graduate transfer Rafe Peavey a chance to show he can run the offense. On Tuesday, Peavey’s first with the Owls, Kiffin said they gave the newcomer repetitions with the first, second and third teams. On Thursday Peavey led the first drive of the team scrimmage portion of practice, marching the offense into field goal range. Wearing No. 16, it’s easy to see why some players thought Peavey was actually Jason Driskel. Especially from the back, Peavey could be a body double for last year’s starting QB.
Kiffin said he intends to keep rotating Peavey, De’Andre Johnson and Chris Robison through the offensive units. FAU is Peavey’s third college program, having began his career at Arkansas before transferring to SMU.
CATCHING ON: Kiffin praised the play of wide receiver John Mitchell following Tuesday’s practice and Mitchell showed comfort working with all quarterbacks on Thursday. He’s a big target who’s showing good hands. Mitchell played as a true freshman but missed all of last season following back surgery.
MAKING PLAYS: Another player who missed last season with an injury, running back James Charles is healthy and aiming to insert himself into the running back rotation. On Thursday he absolutely bowled over safety Quran Hafiz in the open field. Not long afterward Charles caught a lofted pass 20 yards down the field. There’s a glut of backs capable of backing up Devin Singletary. Charles, a redshirt sophomore, might not climb to be the primary backup, but he could get more touches than expected this season. …James Pierre recorded a pick of Peavey on Thursday. After mostly playing safety last season, Pierre looks comfortable and confident at corner. He could be in store for a breakout season. …Linebacker Khantrell Burden tracked down tight end Logan Peterson at the goal line, forcing a fumble that carried through the end zone for a turnover.