BOCA RATON – For all the justifiable buzz created by Lane Kiffin’s make-over of FAU’s football roster, the first year head coach primarily relied on players already on the roster to lead the Owls to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2013.
Winners of five consecutive games, the Owls all-but-assured they’ll be playing a postseason game for the first time since 2008 with Friday’s 30-25 victory over Marshall.
With one exception, the stars of Friday’s victory were the same guys who toiled to a 3-9 record last season. Several have been in Boca Raton for all of FAU’s three consecutive 3-9 seasons.
Quarterback Jason Driskel started 11 games last season. His statistics this season haven’t impressed, but the Owls won five of his six starts.
Running back Devin Singletary’s breakout actually began in the second-half of last season and isn’t much of a surprise to observers of last year’s team. Buddy Howell, Singletary’s backfield-mate each of the past two seasons, is averaging 6.6 yards per run this season. In fact, the Owls’ top four rushers are holdovers from last season, with Kerrith Whyte and Driskel joining Singletary and Howell.
The FAU receiving corps received a jolt from true freshman Willie Wright – with a 19-yard touchdown run on Friday, he’s the notable exception – but the Owls really haven’t done much in the receiving game. Early in the season JUCO transfer DeAndre McNeal appeared headed to an All-Conference USA season, but over his past four games McNeal has caught two passes for minus-2 yards.
Sophomore tight end Harrison Bryant is second on the Owls with 26 receptions, and now that Kamrin Solomon and Kalib Woods have worked their ways back into the starting line-up following their suspensions, two of the three starting receivers are veterans.
And then there’s the offensive line, all of whom played last season and four of the five having been with the program for all of those 3-9 seasons. Decimated by injuries last season, FAU’s offensive line probably isn’t getting enough credit for the success of this offense.
The Owls have been trying to work speedy wide receiver John Franklin into the offense, giving him some snaps as a run-first quarterback, and this offense could be completely different had blood clots not kept quarterback De’Andre Johnson out of all but one game. But this record-setting crew is nearly the same group that struggled so mightily last year.
Defensively, Kiffin brought a net-load of players who could make an instant impact. Some have. Pitt transfer Jeremiah Taleni starts at defensive tackle. True freshman Zyon Gilbert is credited with four starts at safety and is fifth in the Owls in tackles with 37, but he is the only newcomer among the top eight in tackles.
Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair remains the heart of the defense. After picking off three passes against Marshall, safety Jalen Young is among the nation’s interception leaders. Cornerbacks Chris Tooley and Shelton Lewis are one behind.
Sophomore Leighton McCarthy leads the Owls with three sacks. Newcomer Ernest Bagner only has eight tackles, but 2.5 of them are sacks.
This isn’t a knock on FAU’s 2017 signing class. There’s reason to believe at least a dozen of them could be the program stars of the future. This is a nod to the veteran Owls who are only now experiencing the rewards for toiling through the lean years.
FAU always had talented players. Many times over the last couple months Kiffin acknowledged the job previous coach Charlie Partridge did stocking the pantry – doing so once again following Friday’s win.
“From the day we’ve got here these guys have done everything we’ve asked,” Kiffin said. “They’ve worked really hard. Credit to coach Partridge for getting some really good kids here.”
Former NFL coach Bum Phillips once complemented Bear Bryant’s coaching ability by saying “Bryant can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.”
Kiffin and his staff are showing Conference USA that he can take your’n and turn them into a bowl team.