No. 87 Florida Atlantic
Is Florida Atlantic the best-kept secret in the Group of Five?
Many people chuckled when Kiffin left his coordinator post at Alabama for a non-Power Five job — or even elite Group of Five job — but the oft-criticized former head coach may have picked an ideal landing spot at a program flush with offensive talent and enough on defense to make some noise in 2017.
2016 Record: 3-9 (2-6, Conference USA)
For the fourth time in five seasons, Florida Atlantic won three games and head coach Charlie Partridge was fired one day after a season-ending loss to Middle Tennessee in which the Owls yielded 77 points.
Though they endured a seven-game losing streak and didn't give up fewer than 25 points in a game, Florida Atlantic did lose four-straight games by a combined 17 points and had some nice offensive performances, including 56 in that 77-point defensive debacle against the Blue Raiders.
Head Coach: Lane Kiffin (1st year)
Florida Atlantic has never been nationally relevant since the program joined the FBS in 2005. That changed immediately with the hiring of Lane Kiffin.
Just 42 years old, Kiffin already has three college and NFL head coaching jobs under his belt and two high-profile coordinator gigs. And he's ready to turn the corner.
“I was so young as a head coach that I was just figuring things out one day at a time instead of having a plan,” Kiffin said during his introductory press conference. “Coach [Pete] Carroll said he’s been fired twice, and then he figured it out, and he stopped trying to be someone else.
Kiffin is a modest 35-21 as a college coach but is still revered as a brilliant offensive mind (along with offensive coordinator Kendall Briles) and will bring attention to a program in dire need of a jumpstart.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Jason Driskel, RB Devin Singletary, RB Buddy Howell, WR Kalib Woods, WR Tavaris Harrison, WR Kerrith Whyte, OT Matthew Weiner, OT Reggie Bain, G Roman Fernandez, C Antonyo Woods
It's been assumed that junior quarterback Jason Driskel will yield the starting job to JUCO transfer De'Andre Johnson. However, the "open competition," as Kiffin described it, was unexpectedly close in the spring, and if Johnson continues inconsistent decision-making, Driskel could emerge as the winner.
“It takes a long time and goes back and forth,” Kiffin said of evaluating quarterbacks. “It’s not an exact science. We’ve missed it before. Other people have missed it. They miss it in the draft every year in the first round. A lot of times, it’s the hardest position to figure out until they really play, which is scrimmage format and then eventually games.”
The winner will rely on receivers Kalib Woods and Tavaris Harrison and return man Kerrith Whyte, whose 1,002 kickoff return yards ranked fourth nationally.
Tackle Reggie Bain missed all of 2016 with injuries suffered in a car accident last August and returns to anchor a line loaded with veterans. They'll pave the way for two superb running backs who combined for 25 touchdowns last year, Devin Singletary and Buddy Howell. Singletary exploded in the second half of his freshman campaign, averaging 6.7 yards per carry and recording two 200-yard games, including 257 against Rice.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Steven Leggett, DE Haiden Nagel, LB Azeez Al-Shaair, LB Rashad Smith, CB Raekwon Williams, CB Shelton Lewis, S Jalen Young
Lane Kiffin's brother Chris Kiffin (coordinator) and father Monte Kiffin (consultant) will be tasked with turning around a unit that ranked in the botttom quarter of the country in all notable categories, including scoring average (39.8). Kiffin called the defensive line their "most concerning position." That's no slight to returnees Steven Leggett or Haiden Nagel (combined for 67 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss), but more a nod to losing one of the country's elite pass-rushers in Trey Hendrickson.
Azeez Al-Shaair (No. 2 below) is the defensive leader. A freshman starter in 2015, he already has 206 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and three sacks in his career. The junior missed spring ball following January shoulder surgery but is expected to be ready for fall camp. Rashad Smith, a 6-foot-2, 203-pounder who played sparingly as a freshman, has earned the praise of coaches.
“I always look at guys in the workouts and stuff, and say ‘Those guys look like guys we’re used to coaching,’” Kiffin said of Smith. “He’s kind of one of those guys. You can see movement-wise, that would be like guys that we’re used to.”
Jalen Young returns after a 100-tackle season and will lead a secondary that features two seasoned corners in Raekwon Williams and Shelton Lewis, both of whom could earn all-conference honors.
Notable Player Losses
OT Dillon DeBoer, WR Tavaris Harrison, DT Shalom Ogbonda, DE Trey Hendrickson
Defensive end Trey Hendrickson earned a third-round selection in the NFL Draft after dominating the last two years. He had 30 tackles for loss and 23 sacks in 2014 and 2015, and his 29.5 career sacks rank first in program history. Disruptive tackle Shalom Ogbonda is also gone.
The offense lost an all-conference tackle in Dillon DeBoer, who stabilized the left side of the for a unit that averaged nearly 400 yards per game.
Notable Player Additions
QB De'Andre Johnson, WR DeAndre McNeal, OT Joey Palmer, DE Damian Horton, DE Ernest Bagner, DE Tim Bonner, LB Carson Lydon
Kiffin loaded up on JUCO transfers in his first recruiting class. Quarterback De'Andre Johnson of East Mississippi Community College drew the most attention. The former Florida State prospect was dismissed by the Seminoles in 2015 for punching a woman at a Tallahassee bar. Johnson's position coach from EMCC, Clint Trickett, was also added to the Owls' staff.
Elsewhere, DeAndre McNeal could catch a few balls; Joey Palmer will battle for a starting job; Damian Horton, Ernest Bagner and Tim Bonner provide depth and competition following the departure of Hendrickson; and Carson Lydon will benefit from a thin group of linebackers.
Lane Kiffin is welcomed back to head coaching with an opener against two of the most stable programs in the nation, one of whom might compete for a playoff spot.
The Owls open at home vs. Navy before traveling to Wisconsin. Though they get a reprieve in Week 3 vs. Bethune-Cookman, the conference slate is laced with tricky matchups, including trips to Old Dominion, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech.
|Friday, Sept. 1||vs. Navy|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Wisconsin|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Bethune-Cookman|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Buffalo|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Middle Tennessee|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Old Dominion|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. North Texas|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Western Kentucky|
|Friday, Nov. 3||vs. Marshall|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Louisiana Tech|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. FIU|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Charlotte|