But Spencer’s emphasis on communication and a read-and-react system has the Owls’ defense ready to rebound after a disappointing 2018 performance.
“He’s commanding, he’s about business,” linebacker Rashad Smith said of Spencer, who came to FAU after being Charlotte’s defensive coordinator last season. “If he says something, he’s going to stick to what he said.”
Smith isn’t alone in that view.
Cornerback Chris Tooley says Spencer is “strict,” while linebacker Hosea Barnwell called Spencer a “tough guy.”
“He’s done a great job with the coaches and the players, and he’s very old school, tough on them, but he loves them up, too, so he’s doing a good job.” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said.
Spencer’s rugged personality is a much needed one for a unit that was anything but a year prior.
Last season Tony Pecoraro, fired after his lone season in Boca Raton, led an Owls defense that allowed 31.8 points per game – fourth worst in Conference USA. That output was a far cry from 2017 when Chris Kiffin, now a 49ers’ assistant, coordinated FAU into C-USA’s third best scoring defense (22.7 points). Kiffin’s unit also led the conference with 38 sacks and 20 interceptions.
Defensive tackle Kevin McCrary believes last year’s drop-off wasn’t from a lack of talent, but from a lack of urgency.
“We were living through the year before,” McCrary said.
FAU’s defensive personnel didn’t change much from 2017 to 2018 but its style of play did. Pecoraro implemented an aggressive system that valued big plays over down-to-down consistency. That approach looks great when the big plays are hitting, but head scratching when it isn’t.
Linebacker Akileis Leroy said players need to “buy into” a style of play like that for it to work, as it relies on everybody on the field using their individual instincts to produce as a collective. But it gets harder to trust those instincts and easier to point fingers every time an opponent finds the end zone.
Spencer’s defense, however, requires its players to read the offense’s formations and keys, and communicate them across all three levels – line, linebackers and secondary – before anyone takes off. Leroy thinks the new approach is a better fit for his game, and the unit as a whole.
“You can’t gain yards on it,” Leroy said. “Our defense is basically unstoppable when everybody knows what they have to do.”
That, however, didn’t prove to be the case during Saturday’s first spring scrimmage when a depleted FAU offense continuously struck for explosive plays.
Charlotte owned C-USA’s worst total defense in 2017, when it allowed 454.6 yards per game. It took Spencer only one year to improve it to third (337.3).
FAU’s defense has a lot more talent on paper than either of those teams. And Spencer’s track record suggests he’ll make the most of it.
“He wants the best out of you,” Smith said. “And he’s going to get it.”