BOCA RATON – Seconds after the snap, FAU linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair recognized his mistake.
Already out of position, that moment didn’t leave much time for thought.
“Damn,” Al-Shaair said to himself.
Less than 4 minutes into Saturday’s loss at Marshall, Al-Shaair’s film study told him that, facing a third and 3, the Tundering Herd’s formation denoted that what the Owls call a “Y High” blocking scheme was coming.
After all, the only other option was Pin and Pull, and the Thundering Herd had already run that play.
“I was sitting there and I was waiting on the Y High and all my keys were reading something different,” Al-Shaair said. “It almost went to playing sloppy football, just not looking at my keys and assuming what the play was going to be because of down and distance.”
By the time Shaair realized his mistake, Marshall running back Keion Davis was already on his way to a 30-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7.
“I wasn’t reading my keys,” Al-Shaair said. “If I was still reading my keys during that play it would have never happened.”
Little misses like that don’t seem like much, but those kinds of problems highlight both the negatives and, oddly, the positives about FAU’s season.
On the one hand, small mistakes are constantly leading to big problems for FAU. On the other hand, those problems are easiest to fix with experience – and many of the Owls have plenty of years remaining in Boca Raton to grow.
Al-Shaair returned to the sideline and immediately after the touchdown and told defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni that he recognized the mistake. Then Al-Shaair got his head back in the football game.
“All these things that are going on emotionally and mentally, you just have to overcome it,” Al-Shaair said. “That one touchdown, in my head, I’m just like, that’s nothing. I’m just going back out there to play football.”
There have been plenty of moments for Al-Shaair and the rest of the 1-6 Owls to overcome this season. While fans and the media – present publication included – probe and prod players and coaches for the reasons behind the struggles, Al-Shaair offers a philosophical and well-reasoned interpretation of the first seven games.
“This season in general taught me so much more than probably any season I’ve ever had in my entire life,” the sophomore said.
“This taught me so much more about, really, just being mentally tough and just overcoming any obstacles. With everything that’s going on, whether it’s the media or fans, it’s not about that. It’s really about us sticking together as a family, as a team when tough times come, because they are going to come regardless of what situation you are in. You just have to learn to overcome.”
Al-Shaair has seen tougher times. His family was, at one point, homeless. Food wasn’t always readily available.
Football provided Al-Shaair with a way to improve his life, but he offers a different perspective on the importance of the game – one that’s simultaneously grounded and uplifting.
“You can’t beat yourself up over (a loss) because there’s so much in life that’s going on outside of this game of football that’s so much more important than to lose a game,” Al-Shaair explained. “And that hurts as a team, but like I said, you can have 12 opportunities. In life people get one chance, maybe two – you never know when it’s your last time doing anything. Just to learn that I have 12 games to play and regardless of whatever the outcome is there’s another week, that’s the positive side of it. You can always get better.”
Al-Shaair no longer feels the need to explain the Owls’ internal issues to friends.
“Last year I felt like I was trying so hard to please other people and make other people happy by trying to explain to people, Yeah, it’s this or it’s that,” Al-Shaair said. “It just comes down to, man it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day this family, this football family, we have each other. I’ve got to have his back. It’s more important than me explaining to anybody about, Oh this is why or this is why. Forget it. You’ve just got to play football.”
Listening to the complaints, Al-Shaair came to the conclusion that to truly understand the ins and outs of every play, of every success and failure, the person has to be a part of the team.
He does, though, understand the temptation to question plays, schemes and decisions. Sometimes he finds it hard to keep himself from asking the same kinds of questions when watching NFL games.
“At any level you are on, when you are not a part of that team, you don’t know,” Al-Shaair said.
A USA Today Freshman All-American last season, Al-Shaair is currently second on the Owls with 59 tackles. Despite guessing incorrectly on Marshall’s first touchdown, Al-Shaair still managed 15 tackles against the Thundering Herd.
“Me and coach Roc talk about it all the time – just finding that balance of play recognition and guessing,” Al-Shaair said.
Bellantoni called the Marshall game “probably his best game of the year.”
But that game is in the past. And a bye week is not the time to relax.
“There’s things that everybody has to work on,” Al-Shaair said. “Trey Hendrickson, best player on our team, he has things he has to work on. Me, one of the best players, I still have things I have to work on. It’s never perfect for anybody. I don’t care who you are, you never have a perfect game. So it’s never a point where I could be like, well I did what I had to do. I’m fine. I’m good. It’s never that moment for me. I feel like as long everybody understands that you’re not perfect – we all make bad decisions, we all aren’t always going to do the right thing as far as in the game – I think we’ll be alright. The second that people start to think, well, it wasn’t my fault or point the finger at each other, that’s when this whole thing is just going to fall apart.”