FIVE QUESTIONS: FAU’s Spring Offense
BOCA RATON – With all the accolades FAU’s offense received in 2017, the Owls’ defensive improvement went underappreciated.
FAU’s defense only ranked No. 63 nationally, but the Owls forced turnovers. They made defensive stops when needed. And the kept improving as the season progressed.
From a personnel standpoint, FAU has much more to work with this spring than it did last year, but there are plenty of questions still requiring answers when the Owls begin their spring practices on Tuesday.
They’ll likely be looking for some of those answers all the way until the April 21 spring game – and maybe beyond.
“It’s exciting to be back there with the guys,” linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said. “We’ll see what 2018, the first step in 2018, and see what we’re all about.”
HOW IS PECORARO’S DEFENSE DIFFERENT?
Chris Kiffin’s unexpected departure to the San Francisco 49ers left a major void in the coaching staff. Lane Kiffin filled that void – as he often does – in surprising fashion. Kiffin hired Tony Pecoraro away from Conference USA foe Southern Miss, where he led the Eagles to the No. 20 overall defense last season.
Pecoraro ran a base 3-4 defense at Southern Miss, but frequently changed the look of the Golden Eagles’ front throughout games. Converting FAU from a 4-3 to a 3-4 seems unlikely, especially considering Peroraro’s late hiring, but it is doable. Starting defensive end Leighton McCarthy could slide back to become a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Kain Daub worked on the defensive line last year, but he began his college career at Florida St. as a linebacker. If he loses the weight he said he intends to lose, Daub could be a hybrid player too.
The Owls could also move a couple players forward from the secondary – Andrew Soroh, Quran Hafiz and, maybe, Zyon Gilbert – to play a nickel/OLB hybrid.
FAU’s roster, as currently configured, is better suited to a 4-3, and the 4-2-5 which derives from it, but Kiffin always seems willing to try new things.
“I trust coach Kiffin to bring the best personnel here for us,” linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said. “I’m going to let him do his job and I’m going to do my job.”
CAN CHARLES CAMERON MAKE AN IMMEDIATE IMPACT?
A 6-foot-2, 305-pound defensive tackle out of Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Cameron is the lone member of the early signing class who will participate in spring practice. He will have an opportunity to fill the void left by Jeremiah Taleni.
If the Owls stick with a four-man front and Cameron shows well, he’ll likely join defensive tackle Steven Leggett, and defensive ends Hunter Snyder and McCarthy, as starters on the defensive line.
Cameron, however, isn’t a lock to nab the position. Sophomores Will Davis and Kevin McCrary both played last season. Ray Ellis, Romero Martin and Chase Hooper are all returning from injuries and their health remains a question. Ellis has starting experience.
WILL ANOTHER LINEBACKER EMERGE?
Azeez Al-Shaair will be there. Rashad Smith is a known quantity.
Will the Owls find a third (and maybe fourth) linebacker to allow them to change from the nickel defense more frequently?
Khantrell Burden has shown flashes during the past two seasons but has yet to show the ability to be a consistent play maker.
Hosea Barnwell and Kris Harris played well at times last season, but neither is going to unseat Al-Shaair as the starting middle linebacker unless the Owls elect to move Al-Shaair to the outside.
Former starter Jacob Douglas didn’t mesh well with Chris Kiffin’s scheme last season. Will he benefit the most form the change in coordinator? And will sophomore Akileis Leroy show he’s more than a special teams performer?
The Owls can’t rely on their recruiting class for linebacker support come summer. They didn’t sign one. This spring could determine whether the Owls will be in the market for one graduate transfer linebacker, or multiple grad transfers.
CAN THE TURNOVERS CONTINUE?
The Owls foreshadowed 2017’s ball hawking ways during fall camp, when safety Jalen Young, and corners Shelton Lewis, Chris Tooley and Raekwon Williams seemed to pick off a couple of passes each practice.
All except Williams are back, and Korel Smith showed after Williams’ injury that he was more than capable in the secondary. The Owls will once again face a couple of unproven quarterbacks during the spring. The defensive line should generate pressure against an offensive line that will be a work in progress.
It’s a recipe that figures to allow the Owls to keep their turnover mojo rolling.
WILL LAST YEAR’S FRESHMEN CONTINUE TO IMPROVE?
Zyon Gilbert’s 53 tackles were fifth most among the Owls last season. Midway through the season, Kiffin declared that the true freshman a future NFL player.
Quran Hafiz’s 36 tackles included four for loss. He delivered big hits from the nickel position.
Former Syracuse signee James Pierre arrived at FAU with little fanfare last summer, but he pushed veterans Soroh and Young for playing time.
Can they take their games to the next level and, if so, what does that look like?
This will also be the first spring practice for JUCO transfers Earnest Bagner and Tim Bonner. Both arrived during the summer and weren’t able to make the kind of impact they’d hoped. They should benefit from a year in Wilson Love’s strength and conditioning program, and the change in coordinator affords a fresh start.
FAU opens spring practice and 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday. The Owls will practice Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for the next five weeks. The spring game is scheduled for April 21.