BOCA RATON – It’s not often a player who led his team in tackles the two previous seasons needs to prove he deserves a spot in the starting line-up the following fall camp.
That’s the position FAU linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair will find himself in later this week.
Al-Shaair recorded 113 tackles last season but sat out all of spring following off-season labrum surgery – the first time he’s missed any significant action dating back to youth football.
“It was tough for me,” said Al-Shaair, who has 207 tackles in his two seasons at FAU. “It helped me a lot to study the game more, learn the game more.”
Studying video is important, but gaining the confidence of a coach is a necessity. By missing spring practice, Al-Shaair remains somewhat of an unknown to new coach Lane Kiffin and his staff.
Complicating matters even more for Al-Shaair is that he’s being asked to move from outside to middle linebacker this season.
Weighing 230 pounds entering camp, Al-Shaair says he shouldn’t be considered undersized in the middle. To him, it’s speed, not bulk, that matters most.
“The game is completely different from how it used to be – 250 pounds for a Mike linebacker is not going to cut it any more,” Al-Shaair said.
A move to the middle increases the chances that Al-Shaair will remain a starter. With the Owls lacking healthy linebackers during the spring their base defense featured a two-linebacker set. Outside linebacker Rashad Smith, a starter last season, enjoyed the best spring of any of the linebackers and appears a lock to begin the spring as the starter in that spot.
Even if FAU elects to stick with a base 4-2-5 formation for the season – one employed by Ole Miss, where new FAU defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin was the defensive line coach last season – the Owls may have to put those plans on hold for Week 1 against Navy, when a third linebacker would likely prove advantageous while trying to slow what is annually one of the best ground attacks in the nation.
“Even though Ole Miss primarily used that 4-2-5, if we find we have three linebackers that are better than our next nickel/safety, then we’ll play that more,” Kiffin said.
OWLACCESS.COM PRE-CAMP DEPTH CHART
Rashad Smith, 6-2, 210, So. Smith started three games as a true freshman and recorded 22 tackles on the season. One of the few healthy, experienced linebackers during the spring, Smith could be positioned for a breakout 2017 season.
Hosea Barnwell, 6-0, 215, So. A walk-on, no one took more advantage of their opportunity for playing time in the spring than Barnwell did. He’s a true middle linebacker, but is athletic enough to move outside if the Owls need someone to spell Smith.
Azeez Al-Shaair, 6-2, 230, Jr. Al-Shaair is excited to move to the middle because he feels that he’ll have more opportunities to make plays. The talent level of JUCO linebacker Carson Lydon may prompt FAU to move Al-Shaair back to the outside. Al-Shaair is a smart enough football player to master both positions.
Kris Harris 6-0, 225, R-Jr. Harris is another player who made great strides in the spring, spending most of those practices as the starting middle linebacker. Should Harris falter, Barnwell could easily claim this spot.
Carson Lydon, 6-2, 245, Jr. Played at Virginia Tech as a freshman before transferring to Los Angeles Valley Community College. C.J. Clayborne, his position coach there, called Lydon fast and “overtly physical.” Lydon can play either outside or in the middle, but he has to complete one final class before arrive at FAU. He’s expected on campus this week.
Khantrell Burden, 6-1, 220, Jr. Like Al-Shaair, Burden missed all of spring and will have to prove his worth to a new coaching staff. He recorded 14 tackles last season and may see most of his game action on special teams this season.
Nate Ozdemir – The Owls’ starting middle linebacker last season, Ozdemir quit football during the spring to pursue a career in the military. Ozdemir’s 53 tackles last season were third-most among Owls.
Jerrad Ward – Kiffin elected not to renew Ward’s scholarship for this season. A starter as a walk-on in 2014, Ward managed only nine tackles last season.
Akileis Leroy, 5-11, 230, Fr. Lydon has the best chance of any of the incoming linebackers to make an immediate impact, but with the position being so thin, everyone may have a chance to contribute.
Jesse Howanitz, 6-4, 215, R-Fr. After beginning his career on the offensive side of the ball, Howanitz switched to linebacker during the spring. He could use some more development time in the weight room, but Howanitz exited spring as a second-teamer on the depth chart.
Chase Lasater, 6-2, 232, Fr. He will start camp as a fullback/H-back, but the Owls could decide Lasater is more valuable as a linebacker – a position he also played in high school.
PREVIOUS POSITION PRIMERS
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Quarterbacks
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Offensive Line
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Running Backs
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Tight Ends
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Wide Receivers
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Defensive Line
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Linebackers
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Defensive Backs
FAU FOOTBALL CAMP PREVIEW: Special Teams