BOCA RATON – Call it the Pelini Effect.
FAU’s 2016 two-deep features more players with game experience than the team the Owls opened with one season ago despite being younger.
Hired 2011 to turn around a program that had slipped to a never-before experienced depth, Carl Pelini opted for the quick fix.
Nine of the 28 players in FAU’s 2012 signing class, Pelini’s first, came from junior college, most of having only two years of eligibility remaining.
To be fair, Pelini experienced some successes with that strategy. JUCO transfers Adarius Glanton and Brandin Bryant signed as part of that class and are currently in NFL camps. Mustafa Johnson, another JUCO signee, anchored the offensive line for his two seasons. Trevon Coley and Cre’von LeBlanc, also currently in NFL camps, were high school signees in that class, too.
Nearly 40 percent of that class, however, never saw the field for the Owls, with another handful contributing almost exclusively on special teams.
With so many players spending an abbreviated time in Boca Raton, Pelini’s recruiting practices set the Owls up for a couple of seasons devoid of senior leadership. Even in 2016, the Owls are still navigating the tumultuous river that is rebuilding.
“Certainly we are a young football team,” Partridge said.
When Partridge arrived at FAU rebuilding the team primarily through the recruitment and development
of high school players became a priority.
“There is no 100 percent way to win in any sport or college football, but the one thing that Charlie knows and I know is, the one proven method that gives you the best chance is you’ve got to recruit high-level student athletes with high character that have goal and want to graduate, and you develop those kids,” FAU athletic director Pat Chun said.
That philosophy appears to have successfully positioned the Owls for future. It also created a drastic shortage of upperclassmen, forcing Partridge to rely heavily on the contributions of freshmen during his first two years.
Last season freshmen like Azeez Al-Shaair, Jalen Young and Ocie Rose made expected youthful mistakes but still managed to turn around what had been, the year prior and even early last season, a porous unit – often doing so in thrilling fashion.
They entered fall camp a year older and presumably a year wiser.
“We’re still young and we still need that growth pattern,” Partridge said. “We can’t have that quote -unquote sophomore slump. Fortunately I’m seeing a hungry group – a group that wants to get better. There’s no doubt that there’s still going to be some mistakes attributed to youth and lack of years of experience and only one spring practice under the belt of a large number of our players.”
The change in program philosophy meant that FAU entered camp with only eight seniors or redshirt seniors on its two deep this season.
Freshman who signed as part of Pelini’s 2012 recruiting class and sat out at least one season during their career, a common practice at established programs because it affords players an extra year to develop, are redshirt seniors in 2016 – a classification that usually denotes a player with experience and maturity.
Center Dillon DeBoer, and defensive tackles Shalom Ogbonda and Denzel Whitfield are the only players who signed in 2012 and remain with the program.
DeBoer became a full-time starter at center last season and is on a path to potentially play on Sundays in the NFL. A role player for much of his career, Ogbonda is showing the intensity and urgency of a player who’s battling for a starting spot under the realization that he’s entering his final year of eligibility. Whitfield will have a role, but is not projected to be as a starter.
Two other the redshirt seniors, tight end Tyler Cameron and offensive tackle Kelly Parfitt, transferred to FAU from other schools.
Of the three true seniors, only running back Jay Warren is certain to receive the opportunity to contribute. Safety Lester Thomas and nickel D. J. Juste both face serious challenges from younger players hoping to wrestle away their second-team spots.
Baring injuries, DeBoer, Parfitt, Cameron and defensive end Trey Hendrickson are the only seniors, redshirt or otherwise, who appear to be locks to start the Owls’ Sept. 3 against Southern Illinois.
If the pre-camp two deep remains true into the season’s opening week – it never does completely, but it will probably be fairly close – there are eight starting spots solidified by juniors or redshirt juniors. Eight more solidified spots are held by sophomores or redshirt sophomores.
The remainder of the positions are too close to call, and some could ultimately provide spots for the newly arrived freshman who comprised Partridge’s third recruiting class.
There are fewer wide open position battles in this year’s camp than in any year since the Howard Schnellenberger era. That’s a sign of a maturing program.
Players atop the FAU depth chart are experienced. They are also young, which adds to the uncertainty of a season that kicks off in less than a month.
“You’re still going to see growth during fall camp and during the season, and we need to be smart how we approach things as coaching staff and how we introduce things,” Partridge said. “But I’m grateful that we were able to get some of that youth some experience last year.”