BOCA RATON – FAU football players officially report to campus today with the first practice of fall camp kicking off Thursday. The Owls begin preparation for their Sept. 1 season-opener against Navy facing more questions than usual. With new coach Lane Kiffin, almost an entirely new staff from last season and more than 20 new additions to the roster since the completion of spring practices, there will be plenty of variables when that first whistle blows.
Here’s a quick overview of what we’ll be watching during the next month.
QB Battle Part II: May as well get this one out of the way. Quarterback battles always draw interest and that interest is only being stoked by the second-season release of Netflix’s hit docu-series Last Chance U earlier this week. Judging by the reaction throughout the Twittersphere the nation expects De’Andre Johnson to be a program-changing quarterback at FAU. That didn’t materialize in the spring, as incumbent Jason Driskel more than held his own in new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ Baylor offense. Toss Daniel Parr, who missed all of spring while recovering from foot surgery, into the mix and perhaps even Steven Frank, and the FAU quarterback battle stands to be twice as good as it was last fall.
New Faces: Start with the wide receivers, where the Owls need a replacement for Kalib Woods and, likely, Kamrin Solomon. DeAndre McNeal is familiar with the offensive system from his days at Texas. He has arrived in Boca Raton and on Wednesday morning was in the process of completing his paperwork. Fellow wide receivers D’Anfernee McGriff and Willie Wright have drawn raves during summer workouts. William Tuihalamaka figures to work his way into one of the starting guard spots. As of late last week linebacker Carson Lydon hadn’t completed his academic requirements, but if he finishes his work Lydon should press for a starting spot. And JUCO transfer Rodney Washington is listed as a safety but also played linebacker at Contra Costa College. He, too, had academic requirements to complete, but when officially enrolled Washington could play immediately. How’s that for a start?
Even Newer Faces: FAU signed 25 players in February and added Tuihalamaka during the summer. At Conference USA media days last week Kiffin said the Owls intend to add some graduate transfers to the roster in hopes of bolstering weaknesses that declared during the spring. So, yes, there figures to be at least a player or two not previously associated with FAU who appears on the Oxley Center practice fields in the coming days.
On the way Out: An overabundance of newcomers leaves FAU with a math problem. NCAA rules only allow for 85 football players to be on scholarship at any given time. As many as eight players currently on scholarship figure to lose their free rides in the coming months. Who will suddenly need pay their own way to remain a member of the FAU football team. Look for players who have attended FAU for at least two years but have yet to see the field. Also, players who have already received their undergraduate degrees will be an option. And then there are those who simply didn’t cut it during summer workouts.
Base Defense: Kiffin has repeatedly said he prefers a base 4-3, but without enough healthy linebackers during the spring new defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin primarily employed a 4-2-5, which was what his former school, Mississippi, ran most of last season. In Herb Miller, Ocie Rose and newcomer Quran Hafiz, FAU has three players who are comfortable at nickel, so that may be the way the Owls go. “Just because a guy is called a nickel and is called an outside backer, it’s really the same position,” Lane Kiffin said. “We’ll find the best guys and get them out there.”
The Navy Effect: The Midshipmen run a ground-heavy attack that would seemingly be better defended by having more linebackers on the field. If FAU decides that a base 4-2-5 is the best option for the year, at what point – if at all – do the Owls change course to the 4-3, if only to prepare for the season opener against Navy?
O-Line Infirmary: Health in the trenches has been a concern for about a year now. Four contributors along last year’s offensive line missed spring drills while recovering from surgeries. Reggie Bain is still working his way back from his motor scooter accident. Throughout the spring and into early summer Kiffin had been saying that all the injured players were expected to be cleared for fall camp. At media days, though, he tweaked that a little, saying he expected everyone to be ready for the season opener. With all the experience returning, there’s plenty of reason for optimism where the line is concerned. But remember, last year the problems along the line didn’t really begin until the week before the start of the season, when Bain’s scooter was hit by a car.
Off-field Focus: Both Owls’ coordinators will be coaching under an NCAA cloud. Chris Kiffin is accused of violating NCAA regulations while at Ole Miss – admitting to some minor violations while flatly denying the major ones. Could NCAA sanctions be headed his way? Briles’ name keeps surfacing as part of the Baylor sexual abuse scandal that took place when his father, Art, was the Bears’ head coach. Will the NCAA act on any new information that may surface out of Baylor? Any action on either front would, at the very least, be a distraction.
The Lane Train: Even program founder Howard Schnellenberger didn’t draw the kind of media obsession that Kiffin does. Sure, Kiffin does his best to court that attention. This summer alone he offered a scholarship to a sixth grader and began following Ole Miss athletic department officials upon news that Hugh Freeze had resigned as the Rebels coach. Led by Kiffin, Florida Atlantic will open camp as a national curiosity. How will the Owls respond to the extra media scrutiny? We’re about to find out.