Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin took over the Owls program in 2017 and had immediate success, winning 11 games that included a Conference USA championship and bowl win. Kiffin was unable to build on that initial success last season, however, as the Owls took a significant step backward in a disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2018.
Heading into 2019, Kiffin will need to replace significant contributors all over the field if the Owls are to get back to competing for conference titles. Before the Owls can focus on the conference, however, they travel to Ohio Stadium this week as significant underdogs to open up the season.
Here is a look at what the Buckeyes will see from the Owls in all three phases.
The Florida Atlantic offense averaged 479 yards and 31 points a game a season ago under the guidance of Kiffin and his offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis Jr. However, much of that production came from three players who are no longer with the program.
Running back Devin Singletary used his 1,348-yard, 22-touchdown performance last season to become a third-round pick by the Buffalo Bills in this year’s NFL Draft. Kerrith Whyte Jr. totaled more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage a year ago and was a seventh-round selection in the draft.
Wide receiver Jovon Durante caught 65 passes for 876 yards and five touchdowns last season before declaring early for the NFL Draft. He went undrafted but was signed as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks.
Despite losing their top three weapons, Florida Atlantic will have the luxury of returning their quarterback from a season ago in redshirt sophomore Chris Robison, an Oklahoma transfer. Robison was suspended in the spring following allegations of sexual battery made by a female student, but he was reinstated in June after the accuser told police the encounter was consensual and following an internal investigation by the school.
A former four-star recruit out of Mesquite, Texas, Robison threw for more than 2,500 yards and 12 touchdowns last season but was also turnover prone, tossing 12 interceptions to match his touchdown total. Robison’s up-and-down first season at FAU included a 471-yard, three-touchdown performance in a win over Air Force and a one-touchdown, three-interception performance in their 56-36 loss over nationally-ranked Central Florida.
Replacing the best running back in school history, albeit a short history, is always a task. Singletary’s 3,268 rushing yards and 54 touchdowns over the past two seasons leaves massive shoes to fill for a returning cast that has essentially no game experience.
Junior James Charles leads the Owls’ running backs in returning experience after receiving three carries last year behind Singletary and Whyte. Kiffin said earlier this month he believes Charles is the starting running back for the Owls, although Kiffin added he thinks the running back position is the deepest and most talented position on the team.
Alabama transfer BJ Emmons has also taken carries with the first-team offense throughout camp and figures to be in the mix with Charles. Larry McCammon, a true freshman out of Hoover, Alabama, could also be in the mix after getting some work with the starters during fall camp.
While he feels he has depth at running back, Kiffin has lamented the lack of depth at the wide receiver position, particularly on the outside. However, that’s not to say Florida Atlantic doesn’t have some weapons in the passing game, despite the loss of Durante.
5-foot-8 junior Willie Wright burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2017, catching 56 passes for 657 yards and six touchdowns. Wright’s production slipped last season, scoring only twice, but he still managed to reel in 46 catches.
Senior Tavaris Harrison would bring some size to the outside at 6-foot-3, something FAU sorely lacks. However, Harrison was limited throughout the fall camp and it remains to be seen whether he will suit up on Saturday.
The same can be said for 6-foot-4 John Mitchell, who suffered a shoulder injury during the team’s Aug. 17 scrimmage. Mitchell returned to practice this past weekend and appears to be on track to play Saturday.
Unquestionably, FAU’s biggest weapon in the passing game comes from the tight end position. At 6-foot-5, senior Harrison Bryant presents a challenging matchup for any defense he lines up against.
Bryant broke out as a sophomore in 2017, catching 32 passes for 408 yards and five touchdowns. He followed that up with a 45-catch, 662-yard season that included four touchdowns a year ago.
Upfront, the Owls lost three of their five starters from a year ago, and Kiffin has been critical of the lack of depth along the offensive line.
That depth was dealt a harsh blow when Calvin Ashley, a former five-star commit to Auburn, transferred to Florida A&M earlier this month. Ashley never practiced this summer but was expected to start at left tackle prior to the announced transfer.
Senior tackle Brandon Walton now flips from right tackle to left tackle and figures to be the leader of the unit after starting for the Owls in each of the past two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Nick Weber was granted a scholarship earlier this month after coming to FAU as a walk-on. He is expected to start at right guard for the Owls.
For the third time in as many seasons, the FAU defense will be operating under the leadership of a new defensive coordinator. Gone is Tony Pecoraro, who was hired ahead of last season to replace Kiffin’s brother, Chris. Pecoraro lasted one season, which saw the Owls give up an average of 420 yards and nearly 32 points per game.
In steps Glenn Spencer, who spent last season as the defensive coordinator at Charolette. Prior to his one-year stint at Charlotte, Spencer was the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State for five seasons before being fired following the 2o17 season.
Spencer will have the returning team leader in tackles, senior linebacker Rashad Smith, to lean on. Smith totaled 83 tackles last season and also added four interceptions. Akileis Leroy was pressed into action last season due to injury and started the final six games for the Owls, recording 39 total tackles. He will return alongside Smith to provide valuable experience in the middle.
Two seniors figure to anchor the Owls’ defensive line. Ray Ellis and Will Davis are expected to start at defensive tackle. Ellis is a sixth-year senior who joined the program in 2014. Texas transfer Noah Jefferson has pushed for playing time throughout fall camp and will likely be in the rotation on Saturday.
Tim Bonner is expected to start at one of the defensive end positions, and Marcel Southall has worked himself into a starting role opposite Bonner. Redshirt junior David Belvin III will play both defensive end and standing up as a linebacker when Spencer utilizes the “Leo,” a hybrid of the two positions. Leighton McCarthy will also play in the hybrid role.
Redshirt senior Damian Horton also figures to be in the rotation at defensive end for the Owls.
The secondary will feature returning experience all throughout the unit, led by cornerback James Pierre. At 6-foot-2-inches tall, Pierre possesses ideal length for the position and is coming off a sophomore season in which he recorded 55 tackles and broke up nine passes.
Pierre will be joined by senior Chris Tooley, who has five career interceptions over the last two seasons.
Junior Zyon Gilbert and senior Da’Von Brown return to lead the safeties. Gilbert will be a three-year starter this season and recorded 51 tackles a season ago. Brown tallied 36 tackles in 2018 and will be tasked with replacing a two-time All-Conference selection in the since-graduated Jalen Young.
Although there should be cohesion within the unit, the group will need to improve on a 2018 season that saw them allow 237 yards per game through the air and 22 passing touchdowns as part of the 74th ranked pass defense in FBS.
Special teams were anything but special for the Owls last season, and they will need better out of their specialist in 2019.
Vladimir Rivas connected on just 10 of his 17 attempts in 2018, his redshirt freshman season, including 9-13 from inside 40 yards and 1-4 from 40-plus. Rivas also missed two extra points last season.
Sebastian Riella was slated to return as the Owls’ punter this season but suffered a knee injury during camp that is expected to keep him sidelined for an extended period of time. Matt Hayball is expected to assume the punting duties in Riella’s absence.
Hayball is an Australian rules football player who comes from Nathan Chapman’s Prokick Australia punting school, which has flooded college football with elite punters for years. He will look to improve on Riella’s 38.3 yards per punt net average a year ago, which ranked 59th in FBS.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.