BOCA RATON – FAU’s defensive line, literally the Owls’ first line of defense, so disappointed last season that by the time spring practice arrived Lane Kiffin had hired a new position coach and defensive coordinator.
The Owls responded positively to coordinator Glenn Spencer and defensive line coach Lance Thompson in the spring.
Of course, the defensive line appeared to be a strength entering last year’s fall camp. Once the season opened, however, the defensive line failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks, preventing the defense as a whole from creating turnovers.
Spencer and Thompson offered a clean slate that allowed some players who’d been buried on the depth chart to flourish in the spring.
Suddenly the Owls once again found their pass rush. The middle of the defense did a better job of plugging running lanes.
While Spencer’s defense is a base 4-3, it most frequently manifests in the nickel formation to counter spread offenses. It also introduced FAU players to the LEO role, which relies on an athletic defensive end who can either rush the passer or drop into coverage.
During the spring Leighton McCarthy and David Belvin most frequently played that role.
The task facing FAU’s defensive line beginning next week is to continue to build on that strong spring. A talented rotation that may well stretch significantly beyond the two-deep should aid that quest.
OwlAccess.com Preseason FAU DL Breakdown
Tim Bonner (6-5, 225, R-Sr.): The former Last Chance U star has yet to live up to his physical talent. Bonner played in all 12 games last season, yet managed only 25 tackles. His seven tackles for loss did tie for the Owls’ lead last season.
Marcel Southall (6-3, 292, R-Jr.): Southall enjoyed a strong spring after dropping 36 pounds and moving from defensive tackle to defensive end. He only recorded three tackles last season – tying him with, among others, Devin Singletary – but appears primed to be a significant contributor this season. He could even move back inside if needed.
Noah Jefferson (6-5, 330, Sr.): The USC transfer possesses the combination of size, strength and speed that aren’t often seen in Conference USA. Jefferson didn’t make much of an impact last year, but was a force early in the spring before Kiffin sidelined him for academic reasons. If Jefferson plays to his potential, he’ll likely have an NFL career.
Ray Ellis (6-1, 285, R-Sr.): How many times can one player appear in a preseason position preview? Ellis has been a fixture in these pre-camp stories for half a decade. A starter as a freshman, knee injuries in successive years robbed Ellis of two years. The NCAA recently granted him an additional year. If Ellis plays like he did in the spring, FAU will benefit greatly.
Will Davis (6-0, 275, Sr.): Davis moves up to take the spot vacated by the academically ineligible Charles Cameron. He played in nine games last season, recording 14 tackles. Davis adapted so well to Spencer’s new defense that FAU named him one of its five most improved defensive players during spring practice.
Jaylen Joyner (6-3, 265, R-Fr.): Joyner came on strong during spring practices to the point that he was one of the defensive standouts during the final two scrimmages. He’ll be a regular part of the defensive rotation in the fall and could push Davis for the starting role.
Leighton McCarthy (6-3, 225, R-Jr.): McCarthy’s athleticism allowed him to thrive in Spencer’s LEO role this spring. An undersized defensive end, McCarthy’s at his best rushing the passer, but he didn’t appear uncomfortable dropping into coverage. He managed only half a sack last season. FAU will need more from McCarthy this year.
Damian Horton (6-3, 250, R-Sr.): A pass-rush specialist in junior college, Horton had yet to show that ability at FAU – until this spring. He recorded five tackles last season but spent much of spring in the offensive backfield. If Horton can continue to build on his spring effort, he’ll make more of an impact this season.
David Belvin (6-3, 260, Sr.): Belvin’s another player who seemed to come out of nowhere this spring. Belvin only played in five games last season, with one of his two tackles being a sack. His ability to play the LEO spot should lead to more playing time.
Marlon Bradley (6-4, 220, Fr.): An athletic defensive end, Bradley chose FAU in part because Kiffin will allow him to also play basketball. Bradley participated in the summer session’s second workouts.
Latrell Jean (6-3, 225, Fr.): FAU took a chance that the Lakeland product would qualify academically and Jean rewarded the Owls’ faith. He’s already on campus. Jean, who will likely play defensive tackle, is a good run stopper with a quick first step.
Dorien Josey (6-2, 230. Fr.): Primarily a basketball player in high school, Josey didn’t switch to football until his senior season. He led Rockledge with five sacks in his lone season, but will likely benefit greatly from a developmental redshirt season.
Travon Thomas (6-3, 230, Fr.): The former Miami commit recorded 15 sacks as a senior at Miami-Edison. He can play either defensive end or outside linebacker, and would seem to fit Spencer’s LEO role perfectly. Thomas could be the first of the newcomers to see the field on Saturdays.
Hunter Snyder: Tall, athletic, but often injured, Snyder was a starter when healthy the past two seasons. Only three of Snyder’s 29 tackles last year were for a loss.
Steven Leggett: A multi-year starter, Leggett recorded 19 tackles, including two for loss, as a senior. His five quarterback hurries tied with Snyder for the team lead.
Charles Cameron: After enjoying a standout 2018 spring Cameron briefly quit the team in fall camp, and even through he returned a few days later he never returned to that spring form. Cameron was once again a dominant force this most recent spring, but he failed out of school.
Earnest Bagner: The Owls’ best pass rusher last season, Bagner led FAU with five sacks.
Jaylen Joyner: The redshirt freshman improved significantly throughout spring. Cameron’s academic ineligibility opens a spot in the defensive tackle two deep that Joyner seems destined to fill. To do so Joyner will have to beat out Kevin McCrary, who has starting experience but did not impress during the spring. Tre Johnson is another player worth watching. He played some LEO during the spring.