“I remember at one point we put [nickel back] DJ Juste and a whole bunch of DBs – [safety] Da’Von Brown was playing linebacker next to me,” Al-Shaair said. “There were some guys that had no business up there playing linebacker that we had to throw in there because of injuries and stuff like that.”
Azeez prefers not to think about that night – one of the worst in FAU program history.
The Owls surrendered 77 points and 495 rushing yards to a Middle Tennessee team that played most of the game without a true quarterback.
FAU ended the season with that 77-56 loss to MTSU, and one day later began looking for a new coach.
Injuries to the linebacker unit rendered Owls nearly helpless against the Blue Raiders’ wildcat formation. By the game’s second half, Al-Shaair was the only healthy linebacker on the Owls’ roster to have record a tackle prior to that game.
For redshirt-sophomore Kris Harris, that game provided his first extended game action.
“I’m not really trying to dwell on that game from the past but I did learn from that game to make sure that I learn from all my mistakes and that I need to make sure I get the defense on the same page so that we can come out with a victory,” Harris said.
Harris recorded the first seven tackles of his career that night, making him the Owls’ third leading tackler of Blue Raiders.
He used that game as a stepping stone, gaining more confidence and, in turn, practice repetitions during the spring as the Owls looked for a middle linebacker following Nick Ozdemir’s decision to give up football and while waiting for Khantrell Burden and Al-Shaair to return from offseason surgery.
Al-Shaair and Burden returned for the start of the season, pushing Harris down the depth chart, but Harris is performing well enough that he’s found a place in FAU’s linebacker rotation. With Al-Shaair sidelined by injury last week at Buffalo, Harris made two tackles, raising his season total to 11.
“[He’s a] kid that was kind of down the list when we got here,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said. “Has worked really hard, doesn’t have tremendous size but he plays really had – really physical. More of an in-the-box guy but he went in and did some good things.”
Last year’s Middle Tennessee loss provides a bittersweet memory for Harris. Statistically, it remains the best game of his college career.
But he also used the word “embarrassing” to describe the Owls’ overall play in that game.
FAU gets another shot at Middle Tennessee on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Al-Shaair says he expects to play. If he does, that will give FAU its full complement of linebackers to employ against MTSU – which alone should make huge difference compared to the previous meeting. FAU also features a deeper defensive line unit and a secondary that is buoyed by the play of true freshman Zyon Gilbert.
Harris understands what a strong defensive performance 10 months later against that same Blue Raiders squad that, literally, ran wild against them would mean for the psyche of this year’s defense.
“We’ve got a lot to prove,” Harris said. “We’re just coming out to work this year to let people know this is a new team – a new FAU Owls.”