Photo Credit: Julia Bonavita
Coming into 2020, the expectations have seldom been higher for the Florida Atlantic Owls.
In 2019, the Owls saw 11 wins, Conference USA and Boca Bowl championships but also the departure of Lane Kiffin, the Owls former head coach. With Kiffin off to Ole Miss, the Owls chose to hire former Florida State head coach Willie Taggart. The spring camp will be the Owls’ first camp under Taggart and his mostly new coaching staff.
Despite the likely hefty expectations going into 2020, FAU is left with question marks to answer before its season opener against Minnesota.
Replacing the receiving production
The Owls go into spring camp with one of the most difficult tasks – replacing most of their receiving talent in one offseason.
Not only is last year’s John Mackey Award winner Harrison Bryant, who accounted for 1,004 of FAU’s 3,956 receiving yards, off to the NFL but the Owls are also tasked with replacing wide receivers Pico Harrison and DeAngelo Antoine. Both graduated at the end of the 2019 season. Last season, the trio combined for 159 receptions, 2,298 yards, and 14 receiving touchdowns.
Wide receiver John Mitchell returns the most output. In his junior season, Mitchell finished with 488 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 38 receptions. Tight end John Raine and wide receiver TJ Chase, a graduate transfer from Clemson, will likely account for most of the remaining receiving production.
Despite limited playing time, slot receiver Willie Wright should make a larger impact in 2020. In 2018, Wright put his name on the map, finishing with 46 receptions for 474 receiving yards and two touchdowns. After the transfer of Antoine from South Florida, Wright finished 2019 with just 186 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
To replace the receiving output lost though, FAU will also have to rely on the rushing attack. The Owls return most of the running backs room, with BJ Emmons and Malcolm Davidson likely leading the way.
Despite missing most of the 2019 season with injury, Emmons finished with 249 yards and six touchdowns on just 51 carries. Emmons’ largest impact came in FAU’s win over UTSA when Emmons finished with 51 rushing yards and two touchdowns in his return from injury.
Davidson finished the season as FAU’s leading rusher with 730 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 102 carries. Davidson, however, also battled some injuries, missing four of 14 games for FAU.
Who is stepping up in the secondary?
FAU is left searching for answers in the secondary after multiple departures to the team’s cornerback room.
Cornerback Meiko Dotson led the nation with nine interceptions but entered the transfer portal at the end of the season. Dotson, who is entering his final college football season, was expected to play a big role in FAU’s secondary after playing 2019 as a rotational cornerback.
Dotson joins graduate Chris Tooley and James Pierre, who declared early for the NFL Draft, as key departures at the position. Both Tooley and Pierre started on the boundary for FAU in 2019.
With the losses of Tooley, Pierre and Dotson, FAU is left with question marks at the cornerback position.
Korel Smith will likely get significant playing time at one of the cornerback positions. Listed at 5-foot-10, Smith has the size to play cornerback at either nickel or boundary and returns some experience to a position room that will need the experience. In 2018, Smith played in 10 games, finishing with three pass deflections and an interception.
Although spring camp likely will not solve all the question marks at the cornerback position, it will allow players to move up into those positions before fall camp.
While Zyon Gilbert commands one of the safety spots, FAU will have to replace Da’Von Brown. Brown played in 13 games for FAU, totaling 76 total tackles, including five tackles for loss. Teja Young, who played in 13 games, will likely start at safety for FAU.
Regardless of who starts at any of the positions, FAU will need people to step up. Last season, it was Meiko Dotson who stepped up at the cornerback position. This season, it will need to be someone else.
Replacing offensive line leaders
With left tackle Brandon Walton and center Junior Diaz off to the NFL Draft, the Owls will have to replace two of their mainstays on the offensive line.
In 2019, Walton and Diaz were FAU’s best offensive linemen. Both Diaz and Walton were all-conference nominees and started most of the Owls’ games. The two combined to provide a lot of early-season experience during the struggles for FAU at the position.
At left tackle, Devin Hayes seems to be the favorite to replace Walton. Hayes played in 11 games for FAU as a rotational offensive tackle. Hayes checks the boxes for size at offensive tackle, measuring at 6-6 and weighing in at 275 pounds.
At center, the situation is a little foggier. The listed backup at the end of last season was Jake Jones. Jones, however, lacks significant game experience. He played in just three games over the last two seasons.
The Owls had previously begun developing Federico Maranges, a redshirt freshman, as the likely future center. Last season, Maranges played in three games and made his debut in FAU’s win over Old Dominion.
With junior college guard Sebastien Dolcine coming to FAU, the possibility of moving one of the returning starting guards to center is not out of the realms of possibility. Guards Nick Weber and Desmond Noel, an all-conference honorable mention, were the main guards last season.