BOCA RATON – The trail that leads to the biggest surprise of FAU football’s spring practices doesn’t wind much – leading almost directly to the linebacker position.
Once there, though, choosing the fork that leads to either Hosea Barnwell or Kris Harris requires some off-the-map skill.
Barnwell, who came to FAU intent on leaving as soon as possible, isn’t even listed on most maps.
The Hialeah-American product committed to Buffalo, then de-committed with the intention to play for Syracuse. That plan disintegrated when the Orange dismissed coach Scott Shafer near the end of the 2015 season.
Without an obvious landing spot, Barnwell enrolled at FAU for the fall semester of 2016 but elected not to try out for the football team. He kept a line of communication open with a UCF assistant coach who had been recruiting him and intended to transfer to Central Florida to play football, but when Lane Kiffin hired that coach, Kevin Smith, to be FAU’s running backs coach Barnwell no longer felt the need to leave.
“Even though I didn’t play last year, we always stayed in contact,” Barnwell said of Smith. “Coach [Smith] always believed in me.”
Once he joined the team for the spring semester Barnwell quickly rose through an FAU linebacker depth chart depleted by the injuries to Azeez Al-Shaair and Khantrell Burden, two potential starters sitting out the spring as they recover from offseason injuries, and the decision by starting middle linebacker Nate Ozdemir to give up football.
His rapid ascent prompted Kiffin to refer to Barnwell “a really good story.”
Now Barnwell finds himself vying with fellow linebacker Kris Harris for the title of Spring’s Most Pleasant Surprise.
An afterthought during his first three years at FAU, Harris, a rising redshirt junior, was forced into action by Burden’s injury during last season’s finale at Middle Tennessee. Harris recorded seven tackles that Saturday, but he spent much of the evening chasing ballcarriers who took advantage of his poor positioning or indirect path to the ball in 77-56 loss to the Blue Raiders.
No one has benefitted more from FAU’s coaching change than Harris, who has spent most of this spring as the starting middle linebacker.
“He had his best day when it was live Saturday down in Fort Lauderdale,” Kiffin said. “You never really know guys, especially defensive players, until you get in those situations. Some guys play better, some guys play worse. He definitely played better than he does in practice.”
In Harris, teammates see a player who is studying more film, asking better questions in team meetings and understands the defensive.
“He’s honestly stepped up to the plate,” Al-Shaair said. “He’s surprised a lot of people.”
Perhaps even more surprising, Harris points to that MTSU debacle as being essential to his development as a player.
“It gave me a chance to get my feet wet,” Harris said. “There’s a difference between playing behind this Oxley [Center] and playing inside of a game and starting. It just gave me the opportunity to get motivation going into this next season.”
Harris and Barnwell should be featured prominently in FAU’s April 22 spring game. Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, one, if not both, will almost certainly work with the first team.
With Al-Shaair and Burden scheduled to return for fall camp and JUCO transfer Carson Lydon expected to have enrolled by then, the two-deep is likely to look drastically different than it does for the spring.
At the very least, Harris and Barnwell will provide depth at a position of need for the Owls next season – making their spring journeys trails worth the travel.