When Carl Pelini arrived at Florida Atlantic straight from being the defensive coordinator at Nebraska — a program that had the top-ranked defense in the nation during his tenure — he wasn’t concerned about being a college football head coach for the first time.
Nor was Pelini worried about stepping into the cleats of legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger, who started the Owls program and retained the head coaching position for a decade.
“We wear different shoe sizes, so I’m not wearing his shoes,” the 46-year-old Pelini said. “I don’t think at all about that. We’re different people, and we coach different ways. I just do things as good as I think I can do it.”
It didn’t take Pelini long to have a first impression of the Owls. He quickly saw the need to change the culture of the team.
Pelini’s first mission: Turn the team into a band of brothers. At the start of preseason practice this summer, Pelini saw a group of guys who loved football but were missing that all-for-one mentality required for success.
“I got the feel when I got here that it was almost a commuter program,” Pelini said. “Guys would come in, practice, and they were gone. We’ve been able to develop some pretty good chemistry on this team, and I see it coming together.”
The players, who are determined to improve from a disheartening 1-11 season last year, immediately responded to Pelini’s style of coaching.
When asked the biggest difference between last year and this year coming out of preseason camp, senior linebacker David Hinds — who played for Miami Edison High and led the Owls in tackles last season (110) — immediately brought up team morale.
“We’re family,” Hinds said. “The bond that the team and coaches have, the whole team as a group: We laugh together, we talk together. We have a fellowship with each other and have each other’s back. We’re always hanging together, and we used to have a lot of individuals.”
Another change that players repeat like a mantra is that Pelini’s preseason camp was far more strenuous and demanding than anything they’ve experienced in the past. Pelini has pushed them to make everything on the field happen at a faster pace.
The offense is moving the ball quicker and working toward reaching the end zone more efficiently. The defense is transitioning back to a 4-3 defense after a failed tryout of a 3-4 scheme in 2011.
Fifth year senior defensive tackle Jimmy Jean from Northeast High in Fort Lauderdale has taken a leadership role in making that change seamless.
“Way big difference,” Jean said about the pace this year. “A lot of speed. A lot of tackling. Fast tempo. Carl Pelini sets a standard that we have to live up to. That’s all he pounds on us: toughness, speed.”
Pelini was hoping to have a preliminary depth chart by Aug. 20 but he said that changes were going to be made almost up until the first game against Wagner in Staten Island, N.Y., on Aug. 31.
One position Pelini was still referring to as “a good competition” at the end of preseason camp was starting quarterback. Last year’s starter, senior Graham Wilbert, and backup, sophomore Stephen Curtis, have different strengths to bring the Owls.
Transfer junior Melvin German has yet to be cleared to play by the NCAA, but also could be in the mix.
“I think Graham Wilbert operates the offense very efficiently, and he’ll get us out of bad situations; he always makes the right checks,” Pelini said. “I think Stephen Curtis is getting much better in that respect and yet Stephen has an opportunity with his legs to get you out of a bad play — maybe by not making the best check every time but breaking on a scramble and running for 10 yards. And Melvin is still learning and I think he’s really progressed and has a beautiful throwing motion, is a tremendous runner and has a great feel for the pocket.”
The Owls are hoping to translate their preseason improvement into results during the season.
If they achieve their goal, they could become a serious factor in the Sun Belt Conference.
“We do everything around a standard and I expect that standard for everything we do,” Pelini said.