Back when Nebraska scheduled Florida Atlantic to open the 2014 football season, the expectation was that this was going to be the Pelini Bowl, as Carl returned to Lincoln to face off against little brother Bo, in exchange for a big paycheck. All that went out the window in late October when Carl Pelini abruptly resigned amid allegations of drug use. Over the next few months, the story evolved from a resignation over drugs into a firing over failure to report conduct of a member of his staff.
Whatever happened off-the-field to create such a soap opera at Florida Atlantic, on the field, SBN's Bill Connelly says that Pelini had the Owls on an upswing. The record didn't necessarily show it at the time of his dismissal, but the stats say otherwise. The four-game winning streak by the Owls after Pelini's departure probably had more to do with the opponents (New Mexico State, Southern Miss, and Florida International) than an upgrade in coaching. While it appears that Pelini upped the talent level, he took criticism for not recruiting South Florida harder. That's something that new head coach Charlie Partridge is changing; Partridge has a reputation of being a solid recruiter and already has five verbals for 2015 from the Miami area, including a four-star running back.
But that's the future. What about 2014? Offensively, look for some continuity as Partridge retained Brian Wright, who was offensive coordinator under Pelini, then became interim head coach for the final four games. The Owls return six starters, with the key being junior quarterback Jaquez Johnson. At the start of the 2013 season, Johnson split snaps with Greg Hankerson, but as the season went along, more and more snaps went to Johnson. The 6'2" 225 pound Johnson is a dual threat quarterback who also led the Owls in rushing with 870 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 5.7 yards a carry. As the season progressed, Wright allowed Johnson to throw downfield more. For the season, Johnson completed 58.2% of his passes for 1,866 yards and 12 touchdowns, with eight interceptions.
Sophomore running back Jay Warren (6'0" 195 lbs.) is the leading returning running back for FAU; he rushed for 340 yards and two touchdowns last season. If spring practice is any indications, Partridge and Wright want to use a three-back committee, employing seniors Tony Moore (5'11" 220 lbs) and Martese Jackson (5'6" 178 lbs.) alongside Warren. But considering Johnson's production on the ground, you have to expect that Johnson will continue to be a significant part of the Owls' rushing attack.
When Johnson does go back to throw, his favorite target is senior William Dukes (6'4" 190 lbs.), who caught 35 passes for 553 yards and six touchdowns. Dukes' biggest downside? Johnson threw his way 77 times last season, meaning that Dukes only made the catch 46% of the time...but when he made the catch, it was usually a big play. Junior Jenson Stoshak (6'1" 176 lbs) should be the other starter, he's a possession receiver who'll be a nice counterpoint to Dukes. Off the bench last season, he caught 23 passes for 293 yards. Last year, FAU's tight ends caught 42 passes, which might mean that senior tight end Alex Deleon (6'4" 210 lbs) will take a bigger role than his seven catches last year might indicate.
Florida Atlantic's offensive line is a little undersized by modern standards, but effective enough to run the ball last season. This year will be more of a challenge, as they lose their top two offensive linemen. The only for-sure starter is 6'5" 295 pound senior Braden Lyons, who is moving from right tackle to center. After that, FAU isn't sure who will be where. Sophomores Isaac Edwards (6'4" 280 lbs) and Dillon DeBoer (6'5" 265 lbs) seem likely to see playing time, likely at guard. 6'6" 320 pound junior Mike Marsaille stands out with his size compared to the rest.
Florida Atlantic's success last season started on defense, as the Owls led Conference USA in total defense, and with leaders returning at each level of the defense, expectations are to build on last season. The interior of the defensive line is set with juniors Brandin Bryant (6'2" 280 lbs) and Trevon Cooley (6'2" 270 lbs). Bryant's 51 tackles tied for fourth on the defense, and his six quarterback hurries led the Owls to earn the Omaha North graduate honorable mention all-conference honors. The question up front is at defensive end, where Florida Atlantic has to replace a couple of record-setters in Martin Wright and Cory Henry. The likely candidates are junior Robinson Eugene (6'5" 275 lbs) and sophomore Trey Henrickson, who impressed this spring despite being undersized at 6'4" and 225 pounds.
Last year's leading tackler, senior middle linebacker Andrae Kirk (6'2" 225 lbs) returns after a second-team all-conference season in 2013. But on the edges, FAU will have to turn to lightly used reserves. Which reserves it will be wasn't clear after spring practice. Junior Freedom Whitfield (6'2" 200 lbs.) and sophomore Robert Relf (6'3" 200 lbs.) might have a slim lead on their positions going into this season.
The secondary is the strength of the Owls' defense, which is lead by senior cornerback D'Joun Smith (5'11" 175 lbs.) and senior safety Damian Parms (6'2" 195 lbs.). Smith intercepted seven passes last season and defended 20 passes (both second nationally), which earned him all-conference honors last season. Parms was second on the team in tackles with 78 last season. Senior safety Christian Milstead (5'10" 170 lbs.) started nine games last season on a secondary that SBN's Bill Connelly says might be the best in the mid-majors. On passing downs, the Owls defense was nationally ranked (10th in Passing S&P+, 15th in third down stops, and 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate) so avoiding third and long is the key.
Problem with Florida Atlantic is that you could run on 'em. Opponents averaged 4.4 yards a rush last season, and teams like Middle Tennessee State and Rice were able to rush for over 200 yards in defeating the Owls last season. And considering rushing the ball is going to be Nebraska's offensive strength in 2014, that makes this a bad matchup for Florida Atlantic.