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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 116: Florida Atlantic

Recent Sun Belt coaching moves have gone in the opposite direction. Over the last two years, Arkansas State has hired Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn. In 2010, Western Kentucky hired former Stanford running backs coach Willie Taggart. Louisiana-Lafayette tabbed Mark Hudspeth last winter; Louisiana-Monroe hired Todd Berry prior to the 2010 season. The conference as a whole has shifted towards an offense-first mentality, to often exciting, he-who-has-the-ball-last-wins results. When Howard Schnellenberger announced his intent to retire at the end of last season, the belief was that Florida Atlantic would follow the rest of the Sun Belt’s lead, perhaps nabbing a Freeze-like up-and-coming assistant. The Owls did nothing of the sort. In Carl Pelini, the university hired the sort of nail-chewing, fire-spewing defensive coach who thinks of offense the same way defensive linemen think of their offensive counterparts: with disdain. And in Pelini, the Owls might have hired the orneriest son-of-a-gun in college football. Don’t think for a second that being ornery is a bad thing.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Boca Raton, Fla.

Nickname
Owls

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 106

2011 record
(1-11, 0-8)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 118

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 31
    Wagner
  • Sept. 8
    at M.T.S.U.
  • Sept. 15
    at Georgia
  • Sept. 22
    at Alabama
  • Sept. 29
    North Texas
  • Oct. 13
    at La.-Monroe
  • Oct. 20
    at South Alabama
  • Oct. 27
    Troy
  • Nov. 3
    at Navy
  • Nov. 10
    at W.K.U.
  • Nov. 26
    F.I.U.
  • Dec. 1
    La.-Lafayette

Last year’s prediction

Here’s the big story in 2011: while the rest of the Sun Belt, by and large, is improving, F.A.U. is either treading water or moving backwards. It really depends on your point of view, and your answer should dictate how you feel about the program’s immediate future. If you do think that F.A.U. needs a jolt, both on the sidelines and on the recruiting trail, a changing of the guard sounds appealing; if you think this quick slide towards the bottom of the Sun Belt is merely a speed bump, not a trend, then you likely think that F.A.U. could return to bowl play in 2012 with the coaching staff intact. That’s really not the point: the point is that regardless of the program’s future, this year will be a struggle — thanks to some youth, a lack of depth and inexperience at some very key positions.

2011 recap

In a nutshell An offense this terrible shouldn’t exist in Florida, where even an underdog like F.A.U. should be able to bring enough speed and athleticism to avoid scoring, say, 155 points over 12 games. Overall, only New Mexico averaged fewer points per game than F.A.U., which was shutout three times, scored only a field goal once and only a touchdown twice. The Owls scored 19 touchdowns as a team, one of which came via an interception return. F.A.U. would win once, beating lowly U.A.B., but only once lost by less than 14 points. Only three losses came by less than 17 points. The three other Sun Belt teams that won three games or less during conference play – Louisiana-Monroe, Troy and Middle Tennessee State – beat the Owls by a combined score of 98-21. When you’re the worst team in the Sun Belt by leaps and bounds, well, you’ve had a pretty bad season.

High point The one win. No titans here, just winless F.A.U. against playing-out-the-string U.A.B., but a win is a win. The Owls were very close to being the only winless team in the F.B.S. last fall.

Low point F.A.U. lost to Auburn by 16 points on Sept. 24. Seven of its eight Sun Belt losses would come by 17 or more points. So pick and choose as you’d like, but don’t sleep on the one that got away: F.A.U. lost to Louisiana-Lafayette, 37-34, on a last-second field goal.

Tidbit F.A.U. scored 155 points on the season, as noted, for an average of 12.9 points per game. That ranked the Owls 119th nationally, ahead of only New Mexico. Nearly half of the team’s scoring total came in two games: F.A.U. combined for 72 points against U.A.B. and the Ragin’ Cajuns. Against the 10 remaining teams on their schedule, the Owls averaged 8.3 points per game.

Tidbit (total yardage edition) More on this offense. The Owls finished last nationally in averaging 248.8 yards per game. The Owls were the only team to gain less than 3,000 yards on the season – 2,985 yards, to be exact, 53 yards behind 119th-ranked Kent State. To match the total yardage total gained by Houston, which led the nation with 8,387 yards of offense, last year’s team would have needed to play nearly 34 games.

Tidbit (first-time coaches edition) Six of the 10 teams in the Sun Belt are led by a first-team head coach – a coach who had not held a college head coaching position prior to his current stop. The five are Pelini, Malzahn, Florida International’s Mario Cristobal, Middle Tennessee State’s Rick Stockstill, Troy’s Larry Blakeney and Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart. The four exceptions are Louisiana-Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth, who was formerly the head coach at North Alabama; Louisiana-Monroe’s Todd Berry, formerly of Illinois State and Army; North Texas’ Dan McCarney, who remains the finest coach in Iowa State’s history; and South Alabama’s Joey Jones, the new guy, who was the head coach at Birmingham Southern, a Division III school, from 2006-7.

Former players in the N.F.L.

3 TE Rob Housler (Arizona), WR Lestar Jean (Houston), QB Rusty Smith (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

People named Carl
1. Carl Jung.
2. Carl Linnaeus.
3. Carl Friedrich Gauss.
4. Carl Sagan.
5. Carl Sandburg.

Coaching

Carl Pelini (Youngstown State ’89), entering his first season. After four seasons on his brother’s staff at Nebraska, Pelini was tabbed to be the second coach in Florida Atlantic’s short history. He has a tough road to follow: Howard Schnellenberger might not have been able to recapture his past glory as the Owls’ head coach, but his imprint is on every nook and cranny of the program Pelini inherits. Unfortunately, Schnellenberger didn’t exactly leave Pelini with a roster primed for Sun Belt contention. From here, Pelini will need to rely heavily on the experience he gained under his three coaching mentors: Bill Snyder, Frank Solich and his brother, Bo. After graduating from Youngstown State in 1989, Pelini spent three seasons as a graduate assistant and restricted-earnings assistant under Snyder at Kansas State – and believe me, the situation Snyder inherited in Manhattan in 1989 makes F.A.U. look like Alabama in comparison. After leaving Snyder and Kansas State, Pelini spent a decade on the high school ranks in Kansas and Ohio, spending the last three years, from 2000-2, at Austintown Fitch High School in Austintown, Oh. His first break came in 2003, when Solich hired his brother as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator; Bo, being the way he is, brought Carl along as a graduate assistant. Pelini’s first full-time college assistant job came at Ohio in 2005, when Solich hired him to coach the defensive line. In 2008, his brother, recently named the head coach at Nebraska, hired Pelini as his defensive coordinator. Four years later, Pelini was F.A.U.-bound. Clearly, Pelini’s tie with his brother put his career into orbit. Even with Pelini in the Sun Belt, it’s hard to consider one without the other. Bo and Carl. Carl and Bo. They share more than just parents: Carl, like Bo, is a fiery, determined, disciplined, defense-first coach who will demand accountability. Anything less than 100 effort simply won’t be tolerated.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The most important member of Pelini’s new staff is offensive coordinator Brian Wright, who will face the daunting task of turning a historically bad offense into one that can hang with the rest of the Sun Belt. Formerly of Montana State, Wright will implement an up-tempo offense that will have the Owls rushing in and out of the huddle, which will mark a distinct change from the program’s recent past. Pelini’s first choice as defensive coordinator was former North Carolina and Nebraska assistant Marvin Sanders, but Sanders took the defensive backs position at U.S.C. on Feb. 12. As his replacement, Pelini hired former Miami (Ohio) defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis. The only holdover from Schnellenberger’s staff is tight ends coach Jared Allen, last season’s quarterbacks coach.

Players to watch

When running at full capacity, Wright’s offense will flow primarily through the quarterback position. This will be the case when F.A.U. recruits a quarterback capable of shouldering the load; for now, with a JUCO transfer on the way, the offense will shift towards the running game. Basically, what you see offensively in 2012 should not resemble what you will see in 2013 and beyond. Wright’s offense will be far more plodding and pedestrian, far less explosive and dynamic, while the pieces are put into place over the next 12 months. He deserves, and will get, at least a one-year pass.

The concern over quarterback play is tempered somewhat by strong depth at running back, though the Owls must replace Alfred Morris, last year’s leading rusher – not to mention the Owls’ only offensive player of consequence. The new offense will shift away from Morris-like runners, however, leaning more towards smaller, shiftier, big-play options rather than more bruising, move-the-chains backs. That seems to diminish the role converted fullback Xavier Stinson should hold on an every-down basis, though Stinson will be a valuable weapon in short-yardage situations. Junior Jonathan Wallace was the star of the spring, impressing the new staff with his quickness and power, which should leave him in the mix for carries. It’s likely that the emphasis on the running game will have F.A.U. leaning on several backs, so look for Wallace, Stinson, Damian Fortner and JUCO transfer Martese Jackson to work by committee.

This is a receiver corps largely devoid of big-play ability. Add this fact to the troubling quarterback situation and you begin to understand why this offense will hit a steep learning curve in its first season in Wright’s system. The team’s most experienced receiver, senior DeAndre Richardson (32 catches for 269 yards last fall), suffered an ankle injury in early April, though he should back in time for camp in August. Senior Paul Moore, the projected starter in the slot, also missed a portion of the spring due to injury. While injuries happen during the spring, F.A.U. really can’t afford to dig too deep down the depth chart at the position; there’s little proven production altogether, and even less as you work your way down the roster.

When the season does begin, look for Richardson, Moore and sophomores William Dukes, Marcus Cunningham (18 receptions for 257 yards) and Derek Moise (10 for 119) to factor prominently in the passing game. The tight end will also figure into the mix on the intermediate level, which should mean more looks for junior Nexon Dorvilus (21 for 238) and sophomore Alex DeLeon; after a nice sophomore year, Dorvilus is an all-conference candidate. The biggest issue: Even if F.A.U. had a standout receiver corps, there’s no quarterback currently on the roster capable of delivering the football with consistency. Then again, this is a thin, untested and rather ordinary receiver corps.

Senior Troy Niblack was moved to the defensive line after starting spring ball as the starting left tackle, which likely means that sophomore DeAndre Williams will protect the blind side come September. Left tackle is one of two spots where F.A.U. must replace a starter lost to graduation, joining right guard. What we know: the Owls will head into the fall with Andy Czuprynski at left guard and Joe Bailey at right tackle. What we think we know: Jimmie Colley will start at center. It’ll be either Colley, a two-year starter, or junior Jordan Sessa, who started two games in Colley’s stead last fall. F.A.U. has options at right guard, like Erik Hansen, Ricaldo Henry and Mike Marsaille. Here’s hoping the Owls find a spot for former Minnesota transfer Johnathan Ragoo: at 6’8, 400 pounds, Ragoo can block out the sun, if not opposing defensive linemen.

There will be night-and-day changes on defense, alterations that go beyond the move from the 3-4 to a 4-3 base set. This defense won’t be reactive, but rather aggressively proactive – the defense will bring the heat to the opposition, not vice versa. While playing out of a 4-3, look for Pelini to treat this defense the same way he and his brother treated the defense at Nebraska: there will be a base set, but looks and formations will change on almost a down-by-down basis in an attempt to confuse and delay opposing offenses. When Pelini’s system is in place, the Owls’ defense will be the only one of its kind in the Sun Belt. When he has his pieces, Pelini will put together the league’s best defense.

That time lies in the future; in 2012, F.A.U. won’t have the best defense in the Sun Belt. But the Owls will certainly be more aggressive, from the most basic steps – tackling as a group – to big-picture themes like getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing turnovers. In my mind, being active in the backfield will be very hard for this new-look front seven to achieve from day one. The lack of pure edge rushers is one reason behind Pelini’s decision to move outside linebacker Cory Henry (39 tackles, 6.5 for loss) down to end, where he stands as the Owls’ best hope of bringing consistent pressure on the quarterback. Cory Henry, Robinson Eugene, Joe Henry and Nicardo Henry – Henry, Henry and yes, Henry – are the options at end. Don’t forget your program.

The starting lineup at tackle is set: Jimmie Jean (28 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and David Baptiste (23 tackles). An end in the 3-4 look, Baptiste will move inside despite his lack of prototypical size – at about 260 pounds, he doesn’t seem big enough to stand up on clear running downs. If Baptiste falters on first and second down, the Owls could shift Nicardo Henry inside; at about 290 pounds, he has hole-clogging size. Outside of Jean and Henry, F.A.U. doesn’t have many big-boned interior linemen. Either Baptiste needs to get low, or younger tackles like Andrew Stryffeler and Matt Chaney need to be ready to take significant snaps. Again, moving Nicardo Henry into the interior rotation makes sense.

You won’t see too much movement at linebacker. Cory Henry’s move down to end leaves the spot open for junior Martin Wright (34 tackles), who started three of the last four games on the weak side in 2011. Last year’s leading tackler, David Hinds (101 tackles), returns in the middle. You feel a bit for Hinds, who is now on the third defensive coordinator of his career; however, as a battle-tested senior, the Owls will need his experience, leadership and production in 2012. He and junior strong side linebacker Randell Johnson (92 tackles, 14.5 for loss, team-best 5 sacks) form one of the top one-two linebacker combinations in the Sun Belt. Both should be excited to play in Pelini’s system, even if Hinds only gets one year under the new head coach before exhausting his eligibility. The Owls must also find a spot for sophomore Andrae Kirk (89 tackles), who is too promising to keep off the field. Could Johnson move over to the weak side, where he could put his ability to get to the quarterback to good use, and cede strong side duties to Kirk?

No group will be impacted more greatly by Pelini’s hire than the secondary. Forget all that you saw from the F.A.U. defensive backs last fall: everything will change, even if the results are slow to catch up. As with the defense as a whole, the secondary will be aggressive, both in terms of playing receivers’ routes and in certain blitz schemes. Whether Pelini and Rekstis feel comfortable bringing defensive backs into blitz packages hinges primarily on the play of cornerbacks like Keith Reaser, Treon Howard and D.J. Frye-Smith; if this trio – the leaders at the position during the spring – show an ability to cover Sun Belt receivers one-on-one, that will allow the defense to bring pressure from safeties Brentley Harstad and Demetrius Williamson.

The only starter that must be replaced off of last year’s secondary is free safety Marcus Bartels, who tied Howard and Reaser for the team lead with two interceptions. Williamson moves over from strong safety to fill Bartels’ shoes, while Harstad, last year’s nickel back, moves in for Williamson. That’s as of today: things might change by September, when the Owls add three JUCO transfers into the mix. While the trio – Tony Grimes, Adrian Burton and Jeremy McKnight – will likely start at cornerback, their arrival might have a domino effect throughout the secondary.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Start with the number seven, which is how many quarterbacks Wright and Pelini have at their disposal. Cut the number down to five, eliminating true freshmen Grant Flessner and Colton Kane. You can even go down to three; it doesn’t seem as if senior David Kool – a one-game starter last fall – or sophomore Nick Bracewell is being strongly considered for the starting role. And then there were three: senior Graham Wilbert, sophomore Stephen Curtis and JUCO transfer Melvin German III. With German a summer arrival, Wilbert and Curtis went toe-to-toe for the starting job during the spring.

And neither impressed. Wilbert, the incumbent, might be farther ahead than Curtis with grasping the nuts and bolts of the offense, but his inability to throw the ball with consistency should eventually make him a reserve, not the starter. Wilbert threw for 132.6 yards per game over his 11 starts last fall, completing 52.4 percent of his attempts with more than twice as many interceptions, 15, as touchdowns, 7. While the coaching staff has said that it will tailor the system to fit its personnel in 2012, it’s hard to see this offense taking a step forward with Wilbert serving as the starter. Unfortunately, neither is Curtis the sort of passer Wright’s looking for; while he has the higher ceiling of the pair, Curtis’ time as the Owls’ starter might lie another year or two down the road. For now, the duo should be viewed as co-starters. But that should change in August: German, a dual-threat quarterback out of Mississippi, is viewed as a recruit who could step right in and start in the Sun Belt. If German’s not all he’s cracked up to be, F.A.U. is in some serious trouble at quarterback.

Game(s) to watch

The Owls need to make a move early, because the conference schedule takes a tough turn near the end of October and through November. But it starts smooth, with Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama. If the Owls can take three of four – or four of four, maybe – and get by Wagner in the season opener, a bowl berth is within striking distance down the stretch.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The worst issue that Pelini inherits is this team’s inexplicable malaise. What reason in the world does the returning roster have for not hitting the field with unbridled enthusiasm, especially with nearly every single spot on the depth chart open to competition? That Pelini has complained at times of his team’s lackluster energy doesn’t reflect poorly on the new coaching staff; it reflects very poorly on the players, however. A good idea, free of charge: pick up the pace. Not merely because Pelini’s patience only runs so far, but because F.A.U. will suffer another double-digit loss season if it doesn’t hit the ground running in September. If the Owls are 1-6 after South Alabama, with the lone win coming over Wagner, this team will again go 1-11. If F.A.U. can return to the practice field in August with some tenacity and a sense of urgency, it’s possible that the Owls could win four games — which, given this roster, would be pretty good. That’s the best-case scenario: F.A.U. plays with a chip on its shoulder, starts playing defense in the Pelini mold and offsets a dreadful quarterback situation with a powerful running game. If that happens, the Owls could be a nice story. It’s more likely that F.A.U., dealing with a new voice for the first time — the voice after The Voice — painfully strolls through a rebuilding season.

Dream season Wright’s offense does just enough to get by, but the Owls’ burst back into bowl play comes on the back of a hard-nosed, physical defense. F.A.U. suffers a late slide, losing three of four to end the season, but wins six games for the first time since 2008.

Nightmare season F.A.U. beats Wagner, which is good, but doesn’t win again the rest of the way. As in 2011, the Owls go 1-11, 0-8 in Sun Belt play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Florida Atlantic fans congregate? Florida Atlantic might be a young program, but fans have two great independent options to choose from in The Owl’s Nest and F.A.U. Owl Access, each of which alternates between football coverage in the fall and baseball chatter in the spring. More recruiting-focused coverage can be found at Owls Burrow. Of course, any discussion of the best places to find Florida Atlantic football coverage must include Ted Hutton’s F.A.U. blog on the Web site of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Florida Atlantic’s all-name nominee OT Carlton Falconer.

Word Count

Through nine teams 29,443.

Up Next

Who is No. 115? The last time tomorrow’s program opened with four or more straight games at home to begin the season, it added seven wins to the previous season’s total.

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Comments

  1. Joel says:

    Kansas?

  2. M Meyer says:

    UNLV is next.

  3. Ezra says:

    it was very interesting to watch UNLV develop a decent rush attack in 2010-11. They’ve done that, but still have the same problem as before– half an offense, and zero defense. THey’re the pre-2011 Baylor of the non-BCS.

  4. FAU fan says:

    Looks as if you we’re wrong about the QBs at fau. Wilbert took it and ran, Bracewell was right there and Curtis is a bust and has been with tight ends for weeks. German is just plan dumb and will never make grades and if he does there should be an investigation, not to mention he is not the player that anyone thought he was. MGIII has been put to rest!

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