BOCA RATON – Being the Christmas season and all, we here at OwlAccess.com are in a giving mood. Over the next few days we’ll begin presenting our end of the year awards. The best season in FAU football history provided plenty of deserving candidates. We’ll begin the award process with Newcomer of the Year. With so many transfers into the program, we chose to go with a “newcomer” award as opposed to simply “freshman” of the year to allow for more candidates to be considered.
OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Willie Wright
Three games into the season it appeared as though this would be a two-man race between wide receivers Willie Wright and DeAndre McNeal. Both receivers started fast, catching touchdown passes in their first game as an Owl.
Wright’s 95-yarder was the first FAU touchdown of the season, and would be one of the highlight plays of the year. McNeal’s 62-yarder concluded the scoring against Navy.
Both players battled injuries during the middle of the season, but only Wright rebounded to become a force during the Owls’ late season run to the Conference USA championship. Wright’s four touchdown catches heading into the Boca Raton Bowl were the second most among the Owls. In that season-finale, Wright caught seven passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught a two-point conversion and added 19 rushing yards.
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, Wright led the Owls in receptions (56), receiving yards (657) and receiving touchdowns (6), statistics that earned Wright a selection to Conference USA’s All-Freshman team.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jeremiah Taleni
Unlike the offensive side of the ball, where only three newcomers contributed on a regular basis, FAU’s defense offered multiple possibilities for this award. Zyon Gilbert began the season strong, earning a starting spot before injuries slowed him during the second half of the season. Were this award for the “freshman” of the year, he’d get the nod.
Fellow defensive back Quran Hafiz also made his share of plays, including four tackles for loss and a half a sack. Defensive end Leighton McCarthy earned Conference USA All-Freshman honors, but being a redshirt freshman, he really wasn’t a newcomer to the Owls.
A graduate transfer from Pitt, Taleni kept improving as the season progressed. All five of his sacks came late in the season. He entered the Boca Raton Bowl with a chance to lead the Owls in sacks for the season, and would have tied for the lead had he not sailed over the top of Akron QB Kato Nelson during the first quarter.
Taleni recorded four tackles in the Boca Bowl, ending the season with 32. His arrival solidified the middle of FAU’s defensive line, allowing the linebackers and defensive backs to do what they do best: make tackles and intercept passes.