BOCA RATON – When Azeez Al-Shaair tried to explain last year that, essentially, when it comes to defenses the more things change the more they stay the same, fellow linebacker Rashad Smith didn’t exactly grasp FAU’s career tackling leader’s point.
As a senior, Smith gets it.
“Azeez told me last year everything is basically the same, it’s just new names for it,” Smith said. “I didn’t see it last year but I see it this year. A lot of this stuff we ran previous years before.”
Glenn Spencer is the third defensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin’s three years in Boca Raton. He’s also Smith’s third different position coach.
Spencer brought with him from Charlotte – and Oklahoma St. before that – a defense based more on a read-and-react scheme as opposed to last season’s ultra-aggressive philosophy.
Under Tony Pecoraro the Owls were supposed to pressure quarterbacks, force turnovers and generally cause chaos. That rarely happened in 2018, a major reason why the Owls followed their 11-3 breakout season in 2017 with a 5-7 thud.
“I feel like we lost that underdog mentality last year,” Smith said. “I feel like we were just too laid back as a defense.”
While the defense as a whole didn’t preform, Smith did, leading the Owls in tackles (86) and interceptions (4).
When the Owls lost Al-Shaair midway through the season to a knee injury and with safety Jalen Young battling injuries of his own throughout the season, Smith became the face of the defense.
With both Al-Shaair and Young having graduated, there will be an even greater focus on the quiet Smith this spring.
“New leaders have got to step up,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to keep the train running.”
Under Spencer the Owls have worked primarily out of the nickel package this spring, with Akileis Leroy in the middle next to Smith.
Like Smith (and Al-Shaair last year, for that matter), Leroy is learning his third defense as a collegian.
“It’s learning the coach the most,” Leroy said. “Learning the defense, that’s what I’m here for. That’s what I signed up for.”
Most of Leroy’s 39 tackles came in the season’s second half, when Al-Shaair’s injury thrust him into action. As the apparent heir to Al-Shaair’s starting spot, this carries major expectations.
“Azeez told me last year, ‘Bro, don’t think if it as big shoes to fill, just think of it as, OK, now I have more to improve on,” Leroy said.