BOCA RATON -- The focus has shifted in the football coach’s office at Florida Atlantic University.
No longer is Carl Pelini spending the majority of his days pushing papers or working on overhauling his program. In Year II, Pelini can totally immerse himself into doing what he came here to do: Teach and coach.
“I felt last year sometimes more an administrator than a football coach,” Pelini said. “It seemed like I couldn’t get into the film room because there was always something to be dealt with and now I don’t feel that way.”
Pelini’s stamp has been applied on a program that sunk to the bottom of college football’s upper division in Howard Schnellenberger’s final years. After a year of restructuring everything from study hall to the offense, Pelini is more comfortable as the Owls start yet another chapter in their 13-year history with their move into Conference USA.
FAU’s 3-9 record in Pelini’s first season was just a glimpse into the progress the program made from its one-win season in 2011. The Owls won two of their final five games, which included a competitive loss at Navy and a victory at Western Kentucky.
Now, instead of coaching how to practice Pelini and his staff can coach how to win.
“It is night and day in what you see in the culture of the program,” athletic director Pat Chun said. “They spent last year working on leadership, accountability. Now it is a progressive, modern-day FBS program. Practice is about getting work down, finishing drills, giving effort. Last year, that all was a foreign language.”
FAU returns six players on offense with significant starting experience and eight on defense. Both sides of the ball remain works in progress with the offense still learning about the spread and the defense getting comfortable handling the responsibilities of multiple sets. The Owls spent much of last season in a basic defense.
“Now we have a pretty good feel for the system,” senior receiver Daniel McKinney said. “We know what we are supposed to be doing and we can play fast and focus on the fundamentals.”
Senior Mustafa Johnson put enough faith in Pelini to journey across the country from his hometown of Corona, Ca., to join the Owls after two years in community college. Johnson started 11 games at center and now is the leader and anchor of the offensive line.
“There’s a different comfort level,” Johnson said. “Understanding the coaches and what they expect. Guys have had two years together. We know tendencies. You can get comfortable with one another.”
Pelini was forced to go with pocket passer Graham Wilbert as his starting quarterback last season. The offense made strides, improving from 13 points per game in the first half of the season to close to 28 points the second half.
Wilbert was one of those seniors who Pelini credits for making sure his first season was not a washout.
“My biggest fear last year was losing the team when you started off rough but my players bailed me out,” Pelini said. “I met with my seniors and said, ‘you know where we are and probably the fruits of your labor aren’t going to be realized for a year or two after you’re gone. But I’m asking you to buy in and I’m asking you to lead this team for 12 games,’ ” he said. “And they did. Their commitment overwhelmed me.”
For Pelini, who spent four years working for his brother, Bo, as the defensive coordinator at Nebraska, it was one of his prouder moments.
Now, the offense can take advantage of a mobile, dual-threat quarterback, no matter who Pelini and offensive coordinator Brian Wright choose among the four — senior Melvin German, sophomore Jaquez Johnson and freshmen Greg Hankerson and DJ Juste — who competed during camp.
The quarterback has weapons like leading rushers Jonathan Wallace and Damian Fortner and leading receivers William Dukes and Daniel McKinney to help with the transition.
“Last year things were broken pretty bad,” Chun said. “A losing program results in losing habits.
“This isn’t going to be easy but I feel a lot better about this team heading into this schedule with these coaches than I did last year.”