BOCA RATON – To argue, as some have, that FAU linebacker Rashad Smith enjoyed his breakout 2018 season largely because fellow starter Azeez Al-Shaair missed the second half of the season with a knee injury isn’t exactly accurate.
Smith’s breakout, if you can even call it that considering the significant role he played the year prior, began in the season’s first game, standing side-by-side with Al-Shaair.
The junior linebacker led the Owls with nine tackles against Oklahoma. He followed that performance with 16 tackles the following week against Air Force.
Smith blossomed into a complete linebacker in 2018, leading the Owls in both tackles, 86, and interceptions, 4.
He’ll enter 2019 as the unquestioned leader of the linebacker unit, and though generally quiet and reserved, one of the defense’s most important leaders.
Those traits will take on greater importance considering the surprising lack of depth at the linebacker position. Akileis Leroy helped fill the void created by Al-Shaair’s injury and generally played well. Leroy built on that experience with a strong spring, and if all goes according to plan this fall he’ll start alongside Smith when the Owls open their season on Aug. 31 at Ohio St.
Beyond those two, the Owls lack depth. Senior Hosea Barnwell started a game in 2017 and played somewhat regularly last season, but he’s the only other FAU linebacker to experience significant playing time at the collegiate level.
FAU attempted to remedy that lack of depth by signing as many as five linebackers (depending on whether Travon Thomas plays linebacker or defensive end) to its 2019 recruiting class. All five arrived on campus no later than the second summer session.
Some will likely have to play as true freshmen.
OwlAccess.com Preseason FAU LB Breakdown
DEPTH CHART (Based on 4-3 set. FAU most often employs the nickel, dropping OLB2)
Rashad Smith (6-2, 220, Sr.): His 86 tackles in 2018 were actually 13 fewer than Smith recorded in 2017, when the Owls played two more games. Smith’s credited with 207 career tackles, including eight sacks. His sack total dropped from six in 2017 to one last year.
Hosea Barnwell (6-0, 220, Sr.): Barnwell recorded 12 tackles while playing in 10 games last season. He will be pushed by either Caliph Brice or one of the true freshman for playing time this season.
Akileis Leroy (5-11, 235, Jr.): Leroy’s 39 tackles last season marked a career high. His eight tackles against Western Kentucky were his most in any single game. Leroy’s a big hitter who finds a way to get to the ball.
Chase Lasater (6-2, 235, R-So.): Lasater began his career at fullback before switching to linebacker last season. He played in five games last season, mostly on special teams, recording two tackles. Teammates praise his effort, but Lasater will have to translate that effort into production or he’ll be surpassed on the depth chart.
Hosea Barnwell (6-0, 220, Sr.): FAU doesn’t employ its base 4-3 all that often this spring – mostly near the goal line – but when the Owls did go to three linebacker sets it was Barnwell who lined up alongside Smith and Leroy.
Caliph Brice (6-2, 235, Jr.): The JUCO product has the size to play inside but prefers the outside, so we’ll tentatively place him here. If Brice starts strong, he could quickly climb to the backup spot at either of the other two linebacker spots.
Diamonte Howard (6-3, 190, Fr.): Howard signed with FAU in December, enrolled in January and participated in spring drills. He played, but didn’t stand out during the spring. Indiana, FIU and Marshall all reportedly pursued Howard out of high school.
Caliph Brice (6-2, 235, Jr.): His JUCO defensive coordinator praised Brice’s ability to take what he learns in the classroom and apply it on the field. The newcomer who learns the playbook the quickest will likely be the first to see the field on Saturdays, and that might be Brice.
Antarrius Moultrie (6-2, 210, Fr.): Moultrie recorded 114 tackles, including 14 for loss, as a high school senior. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown. Moultrie is a big hitter who could move to safety if needed.
Eddie Williams (6-1, 200, Fr.): Like Moultrie, Williams can play either linebacker or safety. He led Palmetto high school to a 27-6 record over three years as a starter. Palmetto coach Mike Manasco called Williams “the best football player I’ve ever coached.”
Azeez Al-Shaair: FAU’s career leader in tackles missed the second half of last season with a torn ACL. The injury likely kept Al-Shaair from being drafted, but he did sign with San Francisco as a free agent. The Owls will miss his leadership as much as his production.
Andrew Soroh: After starting his career as a safety, Soroh moved to linebacker during his junior year and enjoyed a strong second half of the 2018 following Al-Shaair’s injury. He ultimately signed a free agent contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Khantrell Burden: Mostly a special teams performer during his FAU career, Burden recorded 18 tackles last season, including two for loss.
Akileis Leroy: In his first year as a full-time starter, Leroy will have plenty of chances to shine. He’s a big hitter who’s full of energy and seems to put himself in the position to make plays. Of the new players, arriving early gives Howard a leg up on his contemporaries, but he didn’t stand out during the spring. He certainly could come on strong once fall begins. Being a JUCO transfer, Brice seems a logical choice to garner early playing time, but Lane Kiffin hasn’t enjoyed much success with such players in their first year. Coaches were also high on the signing of Moultrie, who they hope will figure prominently in the coming years.