BOCA RATON – Three weeks ago, back when FAU players first reported to fall camp, we posted a list of five aspects of camp we’d be watching closely. On Tuesday the Owls’ concluded fall camp, hitting the practice field on Wednesday to focus on the Sept. 1 season opener at Oklahoma. Seems like a good time to look back on those original five topics to see what we learned.
1. The relationship between coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Widely considered an offensive guru, Kiffin spent nearly all of his time during camp on the offensive side of the field, allowing first-year defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro to teach the defense. The dynamic between Kiffin and Weis appears to still be a work in development. This offense is a hybrid of many influences, but it’s mostly Kiffin’s. Neither Kiffin nor Weis have stated firmly who will be calling plays during games. Though only 25, Weis certainly knows what he’s talking about on the practice field, but Kiffin is always there providing reinforcement. Part of that might be because Kiffin understands the pressures young offensive coordinators face. He was in a similar position years ago. But unlike last season, when Kiffin was trying to learn then-offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ offense, Kiffin has been more hands on this year, and there’s no reason to expect that to stop once the season starts.
2. De’Andre Johnson’s arm strength. At the end of spring Johnson said he felt about 80 percent recovered from the blood clot surgery that ended his year last season. Johnson’s arm appeared stronger during fall camp, though he does exhibit an unnerving tendency to, at random moments, throw balls that flutter into the grasp of defenders. As for the QB battle, a case can be made for any of the three participants to start. Johnson’s best plays seem to come in conjunction with his feet, either moving outside the pocket or tucking the ball away and running. One defender called Johnson the “Alpha” of the QB unit. Chris Robison is coming off his best week of camp. He’s shown the ability to make dazzling plays. As he grows more consistent, Robison will gain more playing time. Defenders rave about newcomer Rafe Peavey’s accuracy and arm strength. He looks comfortable with the plays, but could still use some time developing relationships with the wide receivers. On Tuesday Kiffin said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of playing two quarterbacks against Oklahoma. Really, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he plays all three. And it would not be shocking at all if the quarterback who starts behind center in Norman and the one who starts in the Conference USA opener four weeks later are two different people.
3. FAU’s kicking plan. FAU will kick at some point. Of that we’re almost certain. FAU spent at least one portion of every camp practice working on special teams, but it wasn’t always the same facet. Kiffin praised Vladimir Rojas on Tuesday after the redshirt freshman nailed a 50-yard field goal. True freshman Jesse Williams appears to have the stronger leg, but his accuracy hasn’t been as consistent, which could make him better suited to handling kickoffs. The punting plan may come down to “punt as infrequently as possible” – which is kind of always the approach, right? Kiffin showed last season that he isn’t afraid to gamble. True freshman Sebastian Riella looks like he could get the first shot at punting duties.
4. The defense’s level of aggression. Quite simply, the defensive performance this camp was off-the-charts good. While the quarterback competition proved intriguing and, at times, confounding, the defensive play was simply entertaining. Perhaps most surprising, a defense that appeared stacked heading into camp grew even stronger exiting. It’s super deep. Coaches praised the improvement of second string defensive end Tim Bonner during the spring and some in the fall, but Kain Daub surged and appeared to supplant him in the defensive rotation. Ray Ellis has returned from successive seasons ended by knee surgery to claim a spot in the defensive tackle rotation. A safety for most of his first three seasons, Andrew Soroh looks like he’s been playing linebacker all his life. Fellow backup linebacker Khantrell Burden always seems to be near the ball, usually delivering a message when he gets to a ball carrier. The overall rotation is so deep, the Owls may be even more aggressive defensively than we thought they would be.
5. The Owls’ health. Unlike previous seasons, FAU emerged from fall camp without any major injuries. Projected starting wide receivers Willie Wright, Jovon Durante and DeAndre McNeal all missed some time during camp, but are expected to be ready for Oklahoma. Those injuries, however, hampered the unit as a whole as well as the quarterback battle, because it couldn’t offer consistency. Heisman hopeful Devin Singletary hasn’t been tackled much of camp, even during scrimmages, and that’s been by design. Kiffin and company know what they have in the back everyone calls “Motor.” One area of concern might be the offensive line. The first unit came together well, but the Owls lack depth there. Surgery to repair a broken thumb will force second-string tackle Ean Biancardi to miss at least the opening weeks of the season. That’s left true freshmen Marquice Robinson and Doug Johnson as the second string tackles. If push came to shove and the Owls needed to replace either Reggie Bain or Brandon Walton at tackle, FAU would likely promote Tarrick Thomas to the first team and have him either play tackle or place him at guard and slide Antonio Riles or B. J. Etienne to tackle.