A Florida Atlantic football program that some felt was headed for disaster just 10 months ago now has a new, more positive direction under first-year coach Charlie Partridge.
FAU was 2-6 on Oct. 30 when athletic director Pat Chun announced that then-coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis had resigned in a drug scandal. Offensive coordinator Brian Wright took over, and the Owls responded by winning their final four games.
That impressed Partridge, a Plantation native and assistant for some of the top programs in the country who was named the fourth coach in FAU history in December.
“They pulled together, won those last four games and showed a pride of being FAU,” Partridge said. “We’ve worked hard to teach our kids the lessons from history, dating back to when the property was used as a military base in 1942.
“It’s a fascinating rise. So why can’t we as a program mirror that fascinating rise?”
Many of the leaders of last season’s turnaround — including quarterback Jaquez Johnson, linebacker Andrae Kirk and cornerback D’Joun Smith — are back with the 2014 Owls, who have their sights set on putting together the program’s first winning record since 2008.
Radio analyst Fred O’Connor, who has worked for three NFL teams and spent seven years on Howard Schnellenberger’s FAU coaching staff, said there’s every reason to believe that can happen.
“If they carry on with the enthusiasm and momentum I’ve seen in training camp, this is a team that can elevate to bowl status,” O’Connor said. “As Charlie says, they have to win the day.”
That reference is to the red T-shirt Partridge wears at every practice that reads “Win Today.”
FAU is widely perceived as a middle-of-the-pack team in its second season in Conference USA, with Marshall — another East school — regarded as the team to beat. The Owls might battle Middle Tennessee for second in the division.
What success the 2013 Owls enjoyed was built on defense. FAU ranked second in the nation in pass defense (161.5 yards per game) and 11th in total defense (326.8). Linebacker Andrae Kirk, who was second-team All-Conference as a junior, said he expects his unit to once again play at a high level despite losing five starters from that team.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who played last year, so it’s not like it’s brand new,” he said. “They’ve been in game situations, fourth quarter. We’re ready to get out there.”
The strength of the unit should be the secondary; cornerback D’Joun Smith led C-USA with seven interceptions last season, and strong safety Damian Parms and nickel back Cre’von LeBlanc also return.
“Our secondary is great,” Kirk said. “I have a lot of trust in them.”
If FAU is to improve, the offense must finish more drives. The Owls lost three conference games last season by a total of 12 points. O’Connor said that starts with the quarterback, a position where Johnson gives the Owls a returning starter for the first time in three years.
“When you talk about skills, about the ‘it’ factor, both he and [backup Greg Hankerson] have them,” O’Connor said.
Johnson, who arrived as a junior college transfer last year, won the job early in the season and emerged as C-USA Newcomer of the Year. He is a run/pass threat, having thrown for 1,876 yards and 12 TDs and run for another 772 yards and 10 TDs.
Senior center Braden Lyons, who moves over from right tackle, is the leader of a line that will likely count on freshman Reggie Bain, who won a state championship at Miami Central, at left tackle.
There’s both experience and depth at running back and wide receiver. Jay Warren and Tony Moore are a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield, and William Dukes and speedy Lucky Whitehead complement sure-handed Jenson Stoshak at wideout.