BOCA RATON – Entering fall camp with only one experienced scholarship player at linebacker last season, FAU badly needed at least one as of yet undistinguished player to make an impact that belied his years.
Outside linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair received the most acclaim for his efforts – 94 tackles will do that for a player – but the glue that held that unit, and arguably the entire defense, together may well have been Nate Ozdemir.
A walk-on redshirt sophomore entering camp, Ozdemir started nine games in 2015 and his 61 tackles were the fifth-most among the Owls.
FAU coach Charlie Partridge expects that Ozdemir will be even better this year.
“What surprised us a little in the spring, and nothing appears to have changed this summer, is that he’s doing things athletically that he wasn’t before,” Partridge said. “He’s really developed. He’s bending better. He’s changing directions better.”
Ozdemir now pairs athleticism with an intellect that was never in doubt. An economics major, Ozdemir doesn’t off-the-field personality isn’t fiery, as some might expect a middle linebacker to be, but that doesn’t mean his play lacks emotion.
“He’s emotional but he’s smart enough to keep his emotions in check,” Partridge said.
FAU’s linebacker crew experienced its share of growing pains last season, but that should pay off this fall.
The Owls did lose Freedom Whitfield to graduation and a run of injuries have prematurely ended Robert Relf’s career, but FAU does return four linebackers who started at least one game last season.
FAU is still young at the position, particularly at the outside spot that Relf would have manned, but Partridge and the Owls experience far less anxiety with pondering their linebackers than they did a year ago at this time.
FAUOwlAccess.com Projected Depth Chart
Azeez Al-Shaair (6-2, 220, So.)
Became a USA-Today Freshman All-American selection last season after leading the Owls with 94 tackles. A full year in the Owls’ weight room should make him an even better tackler. Preseason All-Conference USA Selection. “He can make plays and he can affect the entire locker room,” Partridge said.
Jerrad Ward (6-0, 215, Jr.)
Former walk-on earned a scholarship prior to the start of last season, then proceeded to record 23 tackles and start two games. Moved from middle linebacker to the outside during the spring.
Nate Ozdemir (6-2, 230, R-Jr.)
Like Ward, became a scholarship player prior to the start of last season. Earned his pilot’s license during the offseason. According to Partridge, no one on the team gets more out of their natural athletic gifts than Ozdemir. “He’s fulfilling his potential,” Partridge said.
Jacob Douglas (5-10, 220, So.)
Started one game and recorded 16 total tackles in four games as a true freshman. Douglas’ rapid development allowed FAU to move Ward to the outside. He’ll also be a fixture on special teams.
Khantrell Burden (6-1, 210, So)
Played in nine games as a true freshman, earning most of his playing time on special teams. With Relf no longer on the field, Burden ascends to the top spot. He’ll come off the field when FAU deploys its nickel package – used so frequently at times that it could easily be mistaken for the Owls base defense – but will have to mature quickly against teams with pro-style offenses. The Miami game in the second week of the season should be a true test.
Kris Harris (6-2, 225, R-So.)
Hasn’t seen the field much as an Owl, but can play multiple linebacker positions. Partridge likes Harris’ work ethic. He’ll have to work hard to hold off some of the incoming freshmen.
OTHER POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTORS
Jake Stewart (6-0, 220, R-So.)
Played plenty of middle linebacker during the spring, but most of his contributions in the fall are expected to be on special teams.