Herb Miller moved from cornerback to nickel this season, but FAU also has packages where he’ll play linebacker.
Leighton McCarthy is a 205-pound defensive end who, at times, drops into pass coverage.
Starting safety Andrew Soroh began a conversion to linebacker this season.
When it comes to defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin’s defense, what you see from FAU often isn’t what you get.
“That was part of the reason behind hiring (Chris) and (co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Corey Batoon), that I thought they gave people problems at Ole Miss – a lot of times with some lesser talent in some areas than teams they were playing,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said. “Very multiple. I let them do everything and then I step in more personnel-wise from time-to-time – play this guy this many snaps, or stuff like that. Not as much scheme.”
Chris Kiffin and Batoon came to FAU after serving as the defensive line coach and defensive backs coach, respectively for the Rebels. During their four years together at Ole Miss, the Rebels led the nation in scoring defense in 2014, a year in which they beat No. 3 Alabama and No. Mississippi St. The following year Mississippi defeated No. 2 Alabama and the Rebels knocked off No. 8 Texas A&M and No. 12 Georgia last season.
The FAU defensive statistics during their first year are a bit skewed from playing run-heavy offenses Navy and Wisconsin during the opening weeks, but during their five game winning streak to start Conference USA play the Owls are only allowing 136.2 rushing yards per game, third best in C-USA play.
The variation in FAU’s defensive varies more from week to week than at any time in program history.
“I think it’s exciting because you are learning so much and you’ll be able to take it with you wherever you go,” said linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, the Owls leading tackler. “Obviously, playing different types of defense creates great problems for other teams. Being able to line up with any team in any different formation, any different play call, and being able to execute, I think is really exciting.”
Against Middle Tennessee the Owls loaded up on run-stuffing personnel to limit a Blue Raiders offense that ran for 495 yards a year prior to only 65 yards on the ground.
The following week FAU starters limited a potent North Texas offense averaging 476.7 yards per game to 145 yards and seven points through the first half of play, at which time the Owls already built an insurmountable 41-7 lead.
Facing another potent offense in Marshall last week, the Owls eschewed traditional theory that stressed pressuring quarterback Chase Litton, opting instead to drop eight players into coverage, forcing Litton to thread some needles.
FAU picked off Litton four times, part of a nation-high 18 interceptions on the season.
“A lot of our third down plan was, these guys were No. 1 in the country in least sacks,” Lane Kiffin said following the game. “You don’t sack them, so instead of blitzing, because he gets the ball off so well and they’ve got really good receivers, our plan was to drop more so he’d have to hold it and we’d get some incompletions in that.”
While teaching the base 4-3 defensive scheme during the spring and fall camp FAU tinkered with different wrinkles. Most of the week-to-week difference in the Owls’ defense first hit the field during the preseason.
That’s when FAU experimented with Nagel on the inside, discovering his ability to use his hands and quickness to mount a pass rush from the inside. Against Marshall the Owls elected to slide Nagel inside as part of a three-man front.
“I think (playing multiple positions) is fun but it takes a lot of preparation because each position has a different role and a different task on each play,” Nagel said. “You just kind of get in the play book a lot.”
After losing his starting spot to freshman Quran Hafiz for the MTSU game, Miller is back in the starting lineup, responding with some of his best play in recent weeks.
Two weeks ago Miller enjoyed his best game as an Owl, recording seven tackles, with 1.5 going for a loss, and intercepting a pass in the win over reigning C-USA champ Western Kentucky.
His stats weren’t as impressive against Marshall, four tackles and a pass breakup, but he lined up all over the field and undoubtedly caused some of Litton’s confusion.
“He’s really smart,” Lane Kiffin said. “We tell the guys all the time, the more you can do the more you can play.”
On Saturday at Louisiana Tech FAU may need all those multiple defensive looks to return home with its sixth-consecutive victory.
In J’Mar Smith, the Bulldogs feature a quarterback who can throw and run. Running back Boston Scott averages 5.7 yards per carry.
And while the 4-5 Bulldogs are in the midst of what appears to be a down year, last season under coach Skip Holtz – one that included a Conference USA championship game appearance – La. Tech averaged 516.1 yards and 44.0 points per game.
“I like watching them scheme-wise,” Lane Kiffin said. “Coach Holtz does a good job, always has, of giving people problems.”