BOCA RATON—The defending Conference USA champion FAU Owls kickoff their annual spring game on Saturday at 4 p.m., closing their spring practice slate. After diligently covering the first 14 spring practices, here’s what our Chuck King and Wajih Al Baroudi will be watching for at Howard Schnellenberger Field.
WHAT DOES THE OFFENSE NEED TO SHOW?
King: Competence. The offense, especially the offensive line, remains a work in progress. On top of that Lane Kiffin already ruled running back Devin Singletary (hamstring) out of the tackling portion of practice and it wouldn’t be surprising if he doesn’t play at all. Defense should rule this game, but the offenses need to line up quickly and in the proper formations, play fast, execute snaps and generally look like they know what they are doing. That starts with quarterbacks De’Andre Johnson and Chris Robison.
Al Baroudi: Ball security. FAU was at its best last season when it leaned on the ground game and received complementary, mistake-free play from the passing game. While it may be difficult to duplicate the 2017 performance of Jason Driskel, who had the No. 1 C-USA pass efficiency rating (149.4), Chris Robison and De’Andre Johnson should look to follow in Driskel’s footsteps by putting the same emphasis he had on taking care of the football.
WHO IS A POTENTIAL BREAKOUT PLAYER ON OFFENSE?
King: Spring games always produce great performances from guys deep on the depth chart who won’t be a factor once the season starts. Receiver Brandon Robinson enjoyed a big game last year, but wasn’t a factor in the fall. Technically John Mitchell already had a bit of a breakout, catching six balls and playing in all 12 games as a freshman, but he missed all of last season following back surgery. Now a redshirt sophomore, he looked better and better as spring practices progressed could be Chris Robison’s favorite target on Saturday. For a true out-of-nowhere pick, tight end Jacob Wilson showed life this spring and FAU’s quarterbacks look for the tight end near the goal line. Maybe Wilson, a rising redshirt senior, catches a touchdown or two.
Al Baroudi: Jovon Durante. The former West Virginia Mountaineer made big plays in each of the last two scrimmages, taking it the distance from midfield on a bubble screen at Carter Park in Fort Lauderdale two weeks ago and hauling in a deep touchdown pass last week at Hadley Park in Miami. With Willie Wright drawing a lot of defensive attention from the slot, the speedy Durante will have opportunities in single coverage to take the top off the defense from the outside.
WHAT DOES THE DEFENSE NEED TO SHOW?
King: Scheme mastery. In recent years simplification improved FAU’s defense. It’s what Jovon DeWitt did under interim coach Brian Wright to help lead the Owls to four consecutive victories and bowl eligibility in 2013. After three 3-9 seasons under Charlie Partridge and defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni, defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin adopted a simplified scheme last season and the Owls flourished. New coordinator Tony Pecoraro’s scheme is complex, loaded with exotic blitzes and unconventional pass coverage responsibilities. With the potential that both offenses will take the field without a scholarship running back, stopping the run shouldn’t be a problem. So far this spring the defense looks dominating, but this will be its biggest stage. The defense will get its sacks, but can they limit explosive plays and produce turnovers?
Al Baroudi: Limiting big passing plays. First-year defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro is not shy about bringing pressure, and his attacking mentality on defense has led to countless sacks this spring. However, the combination of learning a new system and having fewer defenders in coverage because of the added pass rush can lead to possible defensive breakdowns down the field. If the FAU defense can avoid miscommunication in the secondary while bringing heavy pressure it will be extremely difficult for the offense to move the ball.
WHO IS A POTENTIAL BREAKOUT PLAYER ON DEFENSE?
King: Korel Smith. Wajih’s pick below is a lock. He’s arguably been the defensive MVP during the spring. Korel Smith’s move to nickel has gone about as well as could be hoped for, and he could challenge incumbent Herb Miller for starts in the fall. A Pick-6 would be a nice cherry on top of his spring sundae. Andrew Soroh successfully moved from safety to linebacker. He’ll get a couple sacks on Saturday, but that spot will be occupied by injured captain Azeez Al-Shaair once the season begins. And Charles Cameron, a JUCO transfer who arrived this spring, has been dominant as a second team defensive tackle. No reason to think that won’t continue on Saturday. On a side note – look for a defensive lineman to intercept a pass.
Al Baroudi: Ernest Bagner. Though he may be on the second-team, Bagner has been arguably the most impactful defensive lineman this spring. The JUCO transfer has been un-blockable coming off the edge and will look to carry over his strong practice play to FAU Stadium on Saturday.
WHAT ARE YOU WATCHING FOR?
King: QB improvement. The quarterback battle was the biggest story entering spring. It is the biggest story exiting spring. It will be the biggest story when fall camp opens. There’s a strong argument to be made that De’Andre Johnson is the most improved player on the team over the past five weeks. His arm strength and accuracy are returning. Chris Robison can really zip the ball and deserves credit for his ability outside the pocket. On Saturday, set aside the physical skills and watch for which QB shows better command of the offense.
Al Baroudi: The right guard competition between Nick Weber and Will Tuihalamaka. Weber leapfrogged Tuihalamaka on the depth chart earlier this spring but has cooled off recently, putting the San Diego State transfer back into the starting conversation. Whoever finishes strongest this spring will have a head start in vying for a starting job in the fall.