The uncovering of a second-year hidden gem and a pair of graduate transfers could be the answers.
With standouts Jakobi Smith, Roman Fernandez, and Antonyo Woods having exhausted eligibility, the hunt for newfound talent among the interior three began in the spring with a position shuffling – BJ Etienne from tackle to guard – and in a corresponding move, former guard Tarrick Thomas sliding to center.
The 2018 spring was Etienne’s first experience at guard, but the Fort Lauderdale-St. Thomas Aquinas product sure didn’t play like it. He was a natural at his new position, able to use a balance of the quickness and athleticism he possessed from playing tackle with the strength and intricate footwork skills requisite for a guard.
His strong spring performance should be considered more than a flash in the pan considering an interesting roster decision Kiffin made last fall. Etienne earned a late season call up after spending the majority of 2017 on the scout team, suggesting he showed flashes of potential in his freshman season as well.
Graduate transfers Junior Diaz and Antonio Riles are headed to FAU as part of the 2018 recruiting class. The pair of new additions appeared in a combined 34 games over their careers at Tulane and Florida respectively. Kiffin is hoping their experience and veteran savvy will make for a seamless transition for both his two new players, and the offense as a whole.
Left tackle Reggie Bain and right tackle Brandon Walton are the lone carryovers of last season’s talented starting five. The bookends are locked into their respective starting positions heading into the fall and will anchor the pocket of whoever lines up at quarterback for the Owls in 2018.
By filling in at center in the spring, Thomas now has experience at all three interior line positions. The Tallahassee native was solid in holding his blocks at the point of attack but struggled at times to generate push past the line of scrimmage.
He is more than capable of stepping in if called upon however, considering Devin Singletary doesn’t need much space at all to burst through the cracks of the defense and light up the scoreboard. Whether he starts or is a key reserve remains to be seen. Having a versatile player like Thomas on the roster is a benefit to FAU in and of itself.
San Diego State transfer Will Tuihalamaka had the first crack at the starting right guard position in the spring, but his inconsistent play opened the door for walk-on Nick Weber to join the first team in his place.
Weber’s time on the first team was short lived, as by the end of spring ball Tuihalamaka regained his role atop the depth chart.
Depth on the line is not likely to be an issue this year, as Kiffin added a total of eight linemen in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Marcel Southall, Doug Johnson, Dacoda Weaver, Zack Bennett, Devin Hayes and Marquice Robinson round out the class that will be joining Riles and Diaz in Boca Raton this fall.
OwlAccess.com Pre-Camp FAU OL Breakdown
Reggie Bain (6-4, 300, R-Sr.): After an injury sustained from an automobile accident kept him on the sidelines in 2016, Bain responded emphatically with a strong first team All-Conference USA 2017 campaign. His play is an anomaly in a game of football that is filled with uncertainties. No matter the chaos surrounding him on each snap, the blind side he protects seems to always remain clean. Bain is an elite pass protector and is unafraid to bury defenders in the ground game.
Ean Biancardi (6-5, 285, R-So.): A serviceable swing lineman that was able to step in at both tackle spots in the spring. He has decent mobility for his size but needs to add strength and work on lowering his pad level if he hopes to find playing time.
BJ Etienne (6-3, 295, R-Fr.): The decision to convert Etienne to guard looked to be a home run this spring, and he should be even more comfortable at that position now that he has had a full summer of preparation there. Etienne’s footwork improved immensely between the fall and spring semesters of his freshman season, as with each passing rep the game seemed to slow down for the talented young player. If he takes another step forward, he has a great chance at landing the starting left guard job.
Marcel Southall (6-3, 295, R-So.): FAU coach Lane Kiffin didn’t sign a JUCO offensive linemen to sit the bench, but last year the Owls’ coach didn’t hand new players starting positions, either. Southall played mostly on the defensive line last season, so expect an adjustment period. Etienne’s strong spring earned him the right to begin camp as the starter, but Southall should push for a starting spot.
Jake Jones (6-0, 295, R-So.): He worked with the second team offensive line in the spring, but the walk-on from Seminole Ridge lacks the size to consistently keep top level Division I defensive linemen at bay.
Tarrick Thomas (6-4, 280, R-Jr.): A starter in the 2016 season before suffering a season ending injury, Thomas served as a reserve for the Owls last season. He is not a lock for starting duties by any means but is a dependable pass protector and can play up to three positions on the line.
Junior Diaz (6-2, 305, R-Sr.): A starter for the final two seasons of his Green Wave career, Diaz should bring stability and experience to an offense line badly in need of both. As a transfer, it’s unlikely that Diaz will work with the starting unit on Day 1, but he’s expected to quickly climb the depth chart.
Zack Bennett (6-3, 280, Jr.): When Bennett first committed to FAU, he appeared destined to take over as the Owls’ starting center. Then Diaz came on board, muddying Bennett’s status. If both Diaz and Bennett play to their capability, that may free Thomas to move to a different spot on the line.
Will Tuihalamaka (6-5, 315, R-Jr.): The former San Diego State Aztec saw the field sparingly in his first season at FAU in 2017 but was given an opportunity to run with the first team for most of the spring. If he gets his baseball-mitt sized hands on an opposing defensive lineman he will likely maul him into the ground, but that highlight oriented style of play leaves little margin for error. By going for the kill shot on his blocks, Tuihalamaka leaves himself exposed to get beat right off the snap in both the run and pass game. To keep himself in the starting conversation, he needs to work on his balance and break out of the bad habit of playing top heavy and power reliant.
Antonio Riles ((6-4, 328, R-Sr.): Riles has one season of eligibility remaining, and he didn’t come to FAU use that year on the bench. Knee injuries were an issue at Florida, but players who started games in the SEC don’t often fall into FAU’s lap. With the Owls clearly looking for more than what they’ve seen from Tuihalamaka, expect a rapid depth chart ascent from Riles.
Nick Weber (6-3, 295, R-Fr.): The second-year walk-on’s performance was one of FAU’s pleasant surprises early this spring, but as camp rolled on it seemed physical fatigue got the best of him. A former basketball and lacrosse player, Weber is a high-level athlete who moves extremely well in the run game, especially in getting to the second level. A summer of strength training likely aided Weber in his ability to withstand the labors of a long collegiate season. He will look to carry over the progress he made this offseason into fall camp.
Brandon Walton (6-5, 300, Jr.): With his large frame, physicality, and improved patience in pass protection, Walton is the total package when it comes to offensive linemen. This time last year he was fighting for a starting guard position, but for his and the team’s sake, he found a home at right tackle. The Largo native went under the radar in a prized 2017 unit, but Kiffin said earlier this spring that Walton was as good any lineman he had last season.
Robert Hawkins (6-6, 335, R-Fr.): A true mammoth of a man, there is no questioning whether Hawkins has the size to play at the Division I level. The rest of his game needs to match up to that physical prowess if he hopes to see the field this season. He needs to improve his mobility and conditioning, but his size and youth give him one of the highest ceilings on the unit should he put it all together.
Junior Diaz (6-2, 300, R-Sr.): Diaz becomes an Owl after spending three years at Tulane, and will push for the starting center position early in fall camp. The Miami Central High School alumnus is reunited with his high school teammate Reggie Bain this season.
Antonio Riles (6-4, 328, R-Sr.): Riles leaves Gainesville, Florida with a total of 19 games played, but that number would have been higher if not for a season ending he suffered in the fall camp of his 2016 season. The former Gator has four years of experience in college football’s most physical conference, and if his body can hold up, he will likely be a day one starter at guard in the absence of Roman Fernandez and Jakobi Smith.
Marcell Southall (6-3, 292, R-So.): Southall began his career as a Texas Longhorn. He played defensive tackle in junior college, but FAU believes he could be the guy to pave the way for Conference USA MVP Devin Singletary.
Zach Bennett (6-3, 280, Jr.): The JUCO transfer will at least add depth to FAU’s offensive line. He’ll be given the opportunity to compete for the starting spot, but appears to be starting camp on the outside looking in. Kansas and UCLA showed late interest in Bennett during the recruiting process.
Doug Johnson (6-7, 320, Fr.): Johnson started at tackle during all four years at Fort White. He certainly has the size to make an immediate impact at FAU, but is the conditioning there? The Owls have two strong starting tackles, but with the lack game-tested players behind them, Johnson could show he belongs on the two-deep.
Dacoda Weaver (6-5, 320, Fr.): FAU made a late, ultimately successful, push to sign Weaver, out of Lakeland. He’s on campus, and those who don’t know better might take one look at his body and think Weaver is an upper classman. He has a bright future at FAU.
Marquice Robinson (6-2, 315, Fr.): Teams the caliber of Auburn and Mississippi St. showed recruiting interest in Robinson before backing away because of academic concerns. Robinson fixed those issues and is currently on campus. He’s likely a guard but can play tackle. A redshirt 2018 season is probably in order for Robinson, but with his size and pedigree, along with the new rules governing redshirts, Robinson could be the rare true freshman who sees playing time on the offensive line.
Devin Hayes (6-6, 250, Fr.): Hayes can play either offensive tackle or defensive end. He’s expected to begin his Owls’ career on the offensive side of the ball, but could switch size depending on need. Hayes has yet to grow into his 6-foot-6 frame and would benefit from a redshirt year in the Owls strength program.
Antonyo Woods: While serving as FAU’s man in the middle last season, Woods earned All-Conference USA honors and graded out as one of Pro Football Focus’ top centers in the country. His graduation is undeniably a big blow to the FAU offense, but Kiffin is counting on the experienced Diaz to soften it as best as he can.
Roman Fernandez: What Fernandez may have lacked in height, he certainly brought in effort and sheer strength. An All-Conference USA selection like his counterpart Woods, the powerful two-year starter helped his team build one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the college football.
Jakobi Smith: He may have been the least heralded of the three seniors up front while in college, but it was Smith who made it the closest to NFL Sundays. Smith attended minicamps for both the Seattle Seahawks and the Cincinnati Bengals but is currently a free agent.
Marcel Southall: FAU’s highest touted recruit took a leap of faith on National Signing Day. A four-star defensive lineman and Texas signee coming out of high school, Southall is converting to the offensive line at FAU after transferring from Tyler J.C. Southall is clearly not short on talent but has yet to prove if the traits that make him a great defensive lineman will translate to the offensive side of the ball. The saying goes “everything is bigger in Texas”, and if that reigns true in Southall’s skills he has a chance to be a major impact player on the Owls’ offensive line going forward.
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