After winning their first Conference USA title in 2017, the Owls slumped to a 5-7 record last season in Year 2 under coach Lane Kiffin.
That 2017 dream season included an 11-3 record — 8-0 in league play and a 50-3 bowl-game rout over Akron. Last season, the Owls were just 1-5 on the road and 3-5 in league play, although they did rout rival FIU.
Now, the Owls must replace several stars, including running back Devin Singletary, who was drafted in the third round by the Buffalo Bills. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, FAU’s career leader in tackles, signed as a free agent with the San Francisco 49ers, running back Kerrith White was drafted in the seventh round by the Chicago Bears, and Jovon Durante is also gone after leading the team in receptions (65), receiving yards (873) and receiving touchdowns (five).
Those losses in personnel have forced Kiffin to approach this season differently even as the Owls prepare for a brutal season-opening game at Ohio State on Aug. 31.
“I don’t think we are as strong at the top of our roster as we had been the past two years,” Kiffin said at an FAU news conference before the start of fall camp. “But I think we may be stronger at the back of our roster.”
FAU’s top player on offense this year is senior tight end Harrison Bryant, who caught 45 passes for 662 yards and four touchdowns last season, making first-team All-Conference.
Willie Wright, a 5-8, 160-pound junior, is the leading returning wide receiver after making 46 catches for 474 yards and three scores.
DeAngelo Antoine, a 5-10 graduate transfer from the South Florida Bulls, will compete at the other receiver spots with 6-4 senior John Mitchell and 6-3 senior Tavaris Harrison.
At running back, the Owls are hoping that Alabama transfer BJ Emmons can be one of the answers. Emmons, who rushed for 173 yards on 35 carries in 2016 at Alabama, sat out last season because of academics. The last time he played was in 2017, rushing for 694 yards and a 4.6 average at Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College.
Even Kiffin doesn’t sound optimistic that he has another Singletary on his hands.
“It’s going to be hard to match the past two seasons of what [Singletary and White] did in the running game,” said Kiffin, who returns three starting offensive linemen. “I don’t think one guy is going to do that — it’s going to take everybody doing better.”
Quarterback, however, might be the biggest question on offense. The returning starter is sophomore Chris Robison, who was intercepted a league-high 12 times. He passed for 2,540 yards and 12 TDs but was suspended this past spring, opening the door for sophomore Nick Tronti and junior Justin Agner to challenge.
Robison, who was reinstated in June, seems focused on fixing his turnover problem.
“A lot of times last year I was real late throwing the ball,” Robison said, “and that would result in a pick.”
Defensively, the Owls will be led by linebacker Rashad Smith, formerly of Homestead High. He produced 86 tackles and four interceptions last year.
The other returning starters on the unit include three members of the secondary — James Pierre, Zyon Gilbert and Quran Hafiz — as well as defensive end Leighton McCarthy. Junior linebacker Akileis Leroy is also back after posting 39 tackles as a reserve last year.
Defensive tackle Noah Jefferson, a transfer from Southern Cal, should help. And it’s up to new defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer — who arrived this year after coaching at Conference USA rival Charlotte — to put it all together.