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1. The unsafe choice, one year in
Judging by the Owls' performance under [interim coach Brian] Wright [in 2013], it would have been understandable if FAU had just given him the full-time keys. His guidance of the program was better than his guidance of the offense, and with solid returning talent, he could have engineered a strong 2014. Granted, he only had a month of experience as FAU's head coach, but he proved quite a bit.
The Owls took a bigger risk, giving the job to 40-year-old Charlie Partridge. A Plantation, Fla., native, Partridge spent the last six years as a Bret Bielema assistant. He is known as an ace recruiter with all sorts of Florida ties, and he has backed up those claims by already locking down two high-profile commitments.
The odds are good that his recruiting ability will help build the Owls into one of the more purely athletic teams in Conference USA. What we don't know yet is whether he'll be able to coach.
In choosing a successor for Carl Pelini, FAU went after a high-ceiling, unknown-floor guy in Charlie Partridge. Brian Wright had engineered four straight wins and a 6-6 finish for the Owls in 2013, but bringing an ace recruiter to a school in Florida sounded like too much of an opportunity to pass up.
One year in, the jury's still out. The offense took a step forward, but the defense regressed, and the product did not match what the Owls were doing in late 2013. FAU was solid at home, whipping Tulsa, knocking off Western Kentucky and narrowly falling to two .500 teams (UAB, ODU). But the Owls were a horror show on the road and finished 3-9 as a result.
Heading into Year 2, Partridge will field a team that could be even more efficient on offense and even shakier on defense. He did sign the best non-Marshall recruiting class in Conference USA, so he lived up to the hype. And that will buy him plenty of time.
2. Scarlett fever
Conceptually, FAU's class was of particular interest because of a theory that began floating around a year ago. A couple of days after Christmas 2013, running back Jordan Scarlett, one of the premier running backs in the class of 2015, committed to Partridge and FAU. The response from recruiting analysts was two-pronged and nearly unanimous: 1) There's no chance Scarlett remains committed to FAU over the 13 months before Signing Day, and 2) this is still fantastic for FAU because Partridge and his staff now have "momentum" in South Florida. Scarlett's commitment could end up helping to secure other FAU commitments even if he eventually decommits.
To me, this felt dissonant. If recruits are taking FAU more seriously because of Scarlett's commitment, should we assume they will continue to take FAU seriously once he decommits? What kind of momentum are we really looking at if the source of the momentum doesn't end up playing in Boca Raton?
Sure enough, Scarlett didn't sign wih the Owls. He decommitted in June, committed to Miami in July, then flipped to Florida. But before Scarlett flipped, FAU scored commitments from three-star prospects Rodrick Archer (safety from Plantation, Fla.), Daniel Parr (quarterback from Palm Beach Gardens), Jaye Miner (linebacker from Wesley Chapel), Azeez Al-Shaair (linebacker from Tampa), Tavaris Harrison (receiver from North Miami Beach), and Tarrick Thomas (lineman from Tallahassee). They remained committed after Scarlett flipped, and FAU then proceeded to add another eight three-star signees, (according to the 247Sports Composite.
At the least, Scarlett's predictable decommitment didn't hurt FAU's efforts. If nothing else, perhaps Scarlett gave others a reason to take a look at FAU, and when they did, they liked what they saw. Partridge signed 247's No. 79 class in the country, one that ranked second in Conference USA and would have placed in the upper half of AAC. Not bad for a school that averaged 3.7 wins per season since 2015's signees entered junior high.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 2-10 | Final F/+ Rk: 100|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|2-Oct||at Florida International||96||10-38||L||13%||-25.8||4%|
|8-Nov||at North Texas||125||10-31||L||6%||-36.2||0%|
|22-Nov||at Middle Tennessee||87||34-35||L||42%||-4.5||37%|
|Points Per Game||24.0||97||34.4||110|
3. No place like Boca Raton
In this year's UMass and Ohio previews, I talked about home-road splits as it pertains to percentile performances. This is still a new concept for me, something I created for this year's series. But it's been interesting to track. Some teams, like UMass (which played some of its games in mostly empty Gillette Stadium) had almost no split between home and road performances. Others, like Ohio, had enormous splits.
FAU's split was even larger than Ohio's.
- Average Percentile Performance (away): 19% (record: 0-7)
- Average Percentile Performance (home): 57% (record: 3-2)
At home, FAU played like one of the better teams in Conference USA. Against Tulsa, UTSA, WKU, UAB, and ODU, the Owls averaged 6.6 yards per play and allowed 5.4. They averaged 38.4 points per game and were a bit unlucky to allow 31.6.
On the road, FAU averaged 4.6 yards per play and allowed 6.9. Part of that disparity comes from the schedule, which featured by far the season's three best opponents (Nebraska, Alabama, Marshall) on the road. But the schedule-adjusted percentiles show us FAU was vastly inferior away from Boca Raton.
Maybe this is a sign of youth and a new coaching staff. I plan on diving further into these percentiles at some point, and maybe we'll see correlations among the teams with huge splits. Regardless, FAU was both young and awful outside of its own area code.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||42.0%||59||Succ. Rt. +||98.7||73|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.5||79||Def. FP+||101.0||53|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.9||97||Redzone S&P+||92.6||88|
|Q1 Rk||94||1st Down Rk||97|
|Q2 Rk||109||2nd Down Rk||76|
|Q3 Rk||99||3rd Down Rk||100|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Jaquez Johnson||6'1, 225||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||182||315||2215||17||5||57.8%||15||4.5%||6.5|
|Greg Hankerson||6'0, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826||23||48||163||1||0||47.9%||6||11.1%||2.1|
|Jason Driskel||6'2, 210||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8129|
|Daniel Parr||6'3, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8364|
4. Jaquez vs. consistency
In 2013, Jaquez Johnson seized control of the quarterback job, rushed for 870 non-sack yards and completing 57 percent at an explosive 14.8 yards per completion. FAU's offense was increasingly vertical, and in the Owls' season-ending four-game win streak, they averaged 38 points despite a slow tempo.
Wright remained at FAU as offensive coordinator when Partridge was hired, but the big plays dried up. Explosive stars Jay Warren and William Dukes were held in check, leaving Johnson to move the ball with efficiency. At times he did this.
He got hurt against Nebraska and missed the Alabama game, but in his first three home games he completed 62 of 88 passes (70 percent) for 938 yards, nine touchdowns, and no picks. Against WKU, he threw for 325 yards and rushed for 95. Like the rest of the team, he was mostly awful away from home, but despite an overall lack of big plays, he still increased his per-attempt passing average (from 6.4 to 6.5) while cutting down his sack and interception rates and still rushing efficiently.
Johnson wasn't efficient enough for FAU to put up big numbers when the big plays weren't flowing in. His completion rate was at 64 percent or higher in four of 11 games, but it was 51 percent or lower in five. His senior season will be graded by how well he can maintain form.
Warren returns to the backfield, and there are recent star signees who could do damage at the skill positions. But his receiving corps will be awfully green, and that might make it difficult to improve.
|Jay Warren||RB||6'0, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8356||121||571||2||4.7||4.8||35.5%||4||2|
|Jaquez Johnson||QB||6'1, 225||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||105||599||7||5.7||4.8||44.8%||4||3|
|Greg Howell||RB||6'1, 205||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8233||50||253||1||5.1||3.3||44.0%||2||1|
|Jeremy Gaskins||RB||5'10, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7564||19||55||0||2.9||2.5||31.6%||0||0|
|Greg Hankerson||QB||6'0, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826||7||41||0||5.9||4.9||42.9%||0||0|
|Henry Bussey||RB||5'9, 180||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7556||7||29||0||4.1||1.1||71.4%||1||0|
|Trey Rodriguez||RB||5'10, 185||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8566|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Jenson Stoshak||WR-X||6'1, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||65||38||511||58.5%||18.3%||76.9%||7.9||43||8.5||66.4|
|Kalib Woods||WR-Z||6'3, 182||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8300||31||16||223||51.6%||8.7%||67.7%||7.2||21||6.6||28.9|
|Derek Moise||WR||6'2, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7600||21||10||74||47.6%||5.9%||52.4%||3.5||-55||3.8||9.6|
|Nate Terry||TE||6'6, 210||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||9||3||55||33.3%||2.5%||33.3%||6.1||12||8.1||7.1|
|Jay Warren||RB||6'0, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8356||8||4||26||50.0%||2.2%||25.0%||3.3||-25||2.5||3.4|
|Henry Bussey||RB||5'9, 180||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7556||6||4||88||66.7%||1.7%||16.7%||14.7||40||7.0||11.4|
|Kamrin Solomon||WR||6'2, 196||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7882||3||2||28||66.7%||0.8%||66.7%||9.3||4||9.7||3.6|
|Michael Harrop||TE||6'3, 220||Sr.||NR||NR||2||1||12||50.0%||0.6%||50.0%||6.0||-1||6.9||1.6|
|Dustin Bowens||TE||6'5, 255||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7900|
|Bobby Mitchell||WR||6'2, 175||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8156|
|Chandler Dexter||TE||6'5, 255||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7600|
|Ralph Leonard||WR||6'2, 182||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8256|
|Tavaris Harrison||WR||6'3, 166||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8169|
|Ladante Harris||WR||5'10, 160||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7932|
5. Find some receivers (and hold onto the damn ball)
Because of sacks, most quarterbacks end up fumbling at least four or five times per season. So Johnson's four gaffes weren't too bad. But Jay Warren fumbled once every 30 carries, and leading receiver Lucky Whitehead managed to fumble five times in 97 catches/carries. And they didn't back those mistakes up with nearly enough big plays.
Whitehead will still be missed after a stellar season as a possession man; he caught 19 passes for 227 yards against WKU and Marshall, and he provided a needed efficiency option: while his catch rate was a lovely 72 percent, the next seven targets combined for a catch rate of 50.0 percent, and that includes two tight ends and a running back.
Johnson will be without Whitehead, leading tight end Alex Deleon, and all-or-nothing receiver William Dukes. He does get back last year's most successful per-target receiver, Jenson Stoshak. But after Stoshak comes a cavalcade of high-ceiling guys who have yet to prove much: sophomore Kalib Woods, redshirt freshman Bobby Mitchell, true freshmen Ralph Leonard and Tavaris Harrison.
Athleticism won't be an issue, and if those touching the ball can hold onto it, that would be great.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Dillon DeBoer||RG||6'6, 295||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||18|
|Mikingson Marsaille||LG||6'6, 320||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7600||14|
|Reggie Bain||LT||6'4, 286||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7856||12|
|Joe Gold||C||6'3, 270||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8056||6|
|Jakobi Smith||RG||6'3, 300||So.||NR||0.7500||1|
|Arthur Crouse||LT||6'6, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||0|
|Roman Fernandez||LG||6'0, 305||So.||NR||NR||0|
|Antonyo Woods||RG||6'3, 285||So.||NR||NR||0|
|Austin Bland||OL||6'3, 265||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8407||0|
|Siffo Pierre||OL||6'4, 325||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000|
|Kelly Parfitt (UCF)||OL||6'6, 313||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8044|
|Tarrick Thomas||OL||6'4, 270||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8503|
|Bryan Beck||OL||6'5, 275||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7583|
6. An underrated front
The running game didn't produce nearly as many big plays in 2014 (12 rushes of 20-plus yards, 96th in FBS) as 2013 (20, 45th). But it was able to consistently gain four to five yards. The line played a role, and it helped in keeping Johnson's sack rates pretty low despite his dual-threat nature. (Dual-threats tend to have higher sack rates because they trust their legs to make too many plays.)
The return of five players with starting experience (51 career starts) is unquestionably a good thing. The line did its job despite three freshmen getting starting experience, and adding UCF transfer Kelly Parfitt to the rotation, along with (perhaps) star recruit Tarrick Thomas, should create one of the conference's best lines. And if you have a good line, an exciting quarterback, and an experienced starting running back, you can move the ball.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||45.9%||109||Succ. Rt. +||92.3||101|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.7||77||Off. FP+||98.0||88|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.9||114||Redzone S&P+||88.1||112|
|Q1 Rk||119||1st Down Rk||94|
|Q2 Rk||89||2nd Down Rk||102|
|Q3 Rk||68||3rd Down Rk||105|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Trevon Coley||DT||6'2, 300||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8125||12||37.0||5.3%||6.5||4.0||1||1||0||0|
|Trey Hendrickson||DE||6'4, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956||12||24.5||3.5%||8.5||5.0||0||1||1||0|
|Robinson Eugene||DE||6'5, 266||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||12||18.5||2.7%||3.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Haiden Nagel||DE||6'4, 230||So.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||11||16.0||2.3%||2.0||2.0||0||1||0||0|
|Shalom Ogbonda||DE||6'4, 290||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8157||11||14.0||2.0%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Denzel Whitfield||DT||6'5, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||12.0||1.7%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ray Ellis||DT||6'1, 260||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7444||6||11.0||1.6%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandin Bryant||DT||6'3, 290||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||5||9.5||1.4%||2.5||2.0||0||0||1||0|
|Josh Ballesteros||DE||6'2, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7751||5||5.0||0.7%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Josh Kendall||DT||6'2, 269||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593|
7. Dreadful against the run
A shaky front seven can threaten even the best secondary; if there's a minimal pass rush, or if the front is getting gashed for seven yards per carry, the defensive backs won't get many opportunities to dominate. But with competence up front, the FAU secondary could be just as effective as it was in 2013 in this 4-2-5 structure. [...]
This is one of the best defensive backfields in mid-major football. It might be the best.
To say the least, I was bullish on FAU's secondary last year, and I had reason for it. Despite horrific rush defense and a mediocre pass rush, FAU managed a No. 54 ranking in Passing S&P+. That says wonderful things about the defensive backs.
But my caveat -- "with competence up front..." -- rang true. FAU ranked 114th in Rushing S&P+, 113th in Adj. Line Yards, and 127th in Stuff Rate (run stops at or behind the line). A good pass defense only matters if you can pretend to stop the run.
Because experience so frequently leads to good play, it is frequently the case that teams return players from weak units while replacing key pieces from good units. Such is life for FAU: eight of the top nine tacklers from last year's line return, while three of the top five in the secondary are gone.
Outside of Trevon Coley, FAU couldn't figure out its tackle situation, so if another year helps to set a rotation, that can only help. But the Owls had only one disruptive presence against the run (linebacker Andrae Kirk), and he's the player FAU has to replace. Improvement isn't guaranteed.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Robert Relf||LB||6'3, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7991||11||44.5||6.4%||1.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jerrad Ward||LB||6'0, 215||So.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||10||20.5||2.9%||1.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Nate Ozdemir||LB||6'2, 230||So.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||10||11.0||1.6%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Freedom Whitfield||LB||6'2, 200||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7600||9||9.0||1.3%||1.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kris Harris||LB||6'0, 225||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8322|
|Jaye Miner||LB||6'3, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8438|
|Azeez Al-Shaair||LB||6'1, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8005|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Cre'von LeBlanc||CB||5'11, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8157||12||63.0||9.1%||1||0||2||6||0||0|
|Sharrod Neasman||NB||6'0, 198||Sr.||NR||NR||12||46.0||6.6%||3||0||2||3||1||0|
|Raekwon Williams||CB||5'11, 174||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||24.0||3.4%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Anthony Hamilton||DB||5'10, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||11||17.5||2.5%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Reggie Brown||CB||5'11, 170||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7906||2||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ron Henderson||DB||5'10, 180||Sr.||NR||NR||2||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Lester Thomas||DB||5'10, 165||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7759||7||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Marquese Dudley-Gordon||S||6'0, 188||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8423|
|Jake Stoshak||DB||6'0, 180||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8006|
|Jalen Young||S||5'11, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8423|
|Rodrick Archer||S||6'1, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8342|
|Gerald Robinson Jr.||CB||5'11, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8282|
|Richie Kittles Jr.||S||5'11, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8134|
|Ocie Rose||S||6'0, 167||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8220|
|Shelton Lewis||CB||6'0, 171||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8217|
|Kemar Downer||DB||5'11, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8173|
|Herbert Miller||S||6'1, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8061|
8. Building a 1-1-9 defense
FAU signed a load of three-star recruits, which can only mean good things. But there was a bit too much repetition in terms of positioning. Of the 10 incoming freshman defenders given a three-star designation by 247Sports, eight are defensive backs. For a team that operates out of a nickel, that's not as disproportionate as it may sound ... but it's still disproportionate.
Losing both safeties and cornerback D'Joun Smith will almost certainly lead to regression. But between corner Cre'von LeBlanc, nickel back Sharrod Neasman, and sophomore Raekwon Williams, there's reason to hope the dropoff is minimal. And with two three-star redshirt freshmen joining the eight three-star trues, there's reason to assume FAU will soon have one of the league's best secondaries for years.
If defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni can figure out how to fix the front of the defense, the back should be fine ... eventually.
|Dalton Schomp||6'1, 215||Jr.||50||45.4||1||12||8||40.0%|
|Ryan Rickel||6'0, 170||Jr.||17||36.1||4||7||10||100.0%|
|Greg Joseph||6'1, 205||Jr.||57||60.5||22||0||38.6%|
|Greg Joseph||6'1, 205||Jr.||34-35||10-13||76.9%||4-7||57.1%|
|Cre'von LeBlanc||PR||5'11, 175||Sr.||3||2.7||0|
|Special Teams F/+||48|
|Field Goal Efficiency||84|
|Punt Return Efficiency||31|
|Kick Return Efficiency||84|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||109|
9. Lucky was a hell of a return man
Despite the fumble issues, Lucky Whitehead's punt returns made him one of FAU's most dangerous weapons. Losing him might hurt the special teams unit more than it hurts the offense. His returns and the punting duo of Dalton Schomp and Ryan Rickel propped FAU's special teams ratings. The punters are back, but regression in the return game could hurt.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|7-Nov||at Western Kentucky||50|
|28-Nov||at Old Dominion||108|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-30.1% (118)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||82 / 94|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-3 / -1.2|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||-0.7|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||14 (7, 7)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||4.0 (-1.0)|
10. Start strong
FAU will be experienced at quarterback and in the trenches and young as hell at receiver and defensive back. Considering how important pass defense was to the Owls' 2014 success (such as it was), that might mean that improvement is minimal, though I would assume this is destined to be a team much better in November than it is in September.
The wins could come in September, though. FAU plays four teams that ranked 108th or worse in F/+ last season, but three pop up in the first four games of the year (and two are on the road). If the Owls start slow or play as poorly away from home as they did last year, they might be destined for another 3-9 campaign.
But if an experienced backbone means FAU is ready to do early damage, the Owls could threaten for six wins despite playing one of the league's tougher schedules. That makes the very first game of the season, a trip to Tulsa, important and telling.
As long as Partridge recruits like this, he'll be given plenty of leeway. But without eventual results, recruiting gets difficult. It's hard to produce one without the other.