Photo Credit: JC Ridley

In a season filled with uncertainty because of COVID-19, it was Florida Atlantic’s defense that arguably faced the most uncertainty.

Eight starters from last season’s Conference USA Championship had to be replaced, including four players in the secondary. In FAU’s 21-17 opening victory against Charlotte on Saturday, the defense saw seven players make their first start, including one true freshman.

It wasn’t the new starters that made the largest impact, however. Instead, the experienced duo of redshirt senior outside linebacker Leighton McCarthy and redshirt junior Ahman Ross made some of the biggest impacts for an inexperienced FAU defense.

McCarthy made his living in the Charlotte backfield on Saturday, totaling 10 tackles (four tackles for loss) and three sacks. The native of Apopka’s biggest play came late in the third quarter, when McCarthy stripped Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds to give the Owls the ball in the red zone. On the very next play, Tronti connected with TJ Chase for what would stand as the game-winning touchdown.

“Honestly, I just saw my opportunity and I took advantage of it,” McCarthy said following the game. “It wasn’t really anything special I did.”

Ross’ impact didn’t come on the form of box score stats. On most plays, Ross was all over the field and around the ball at all times. Ross finished the night with five total tackles (0.5 tackles for loss) and a pass breakup. Ross earned a Pro Football Focus grade of 70.6, including a 72.3 grade in coverage.

The journey to game day had not always been easy for Ross. The defensive captain was out of training camp at different sports due to COVID-19 contact tracing. According to head coach Willie Taggart, Ross ended up missing up to 28 days of camp because of quarantine.

“I’m not going to lie. It was definitely tough at first,” Ross said during fall camp. “Just getting that news, that I would have to be quarantined. Staying with the guys, they kept me involved with Zoom meetings. I didn’t miss a meeting. I didn’t get the physical part and the reps, but I was still taking notes and was still part of every meeting. The guys were checking up on me — guys on offense, guys on defense and special teams.”

Starting alongside Ross at middle linebacker was first-time starter Chase Lasater. The redshirt junior had battled injuries during his FAU career, but in his first start, put out a strong showing. Lasater finished the night with a team-high 11 tackles, four of which were solo tackles.

“It’s a dream come true, honestly,” Lasater said about making his first start. “It’s been years in the making because I’ve been waiting and everything fell in place finally.”

The Owls also saw major production from some young defensive players who made critical impacts. Redshirt sophomore Jaylen Joyner came up with a crucial third down sack on Charlotte’s final drive, while freshman Chris Jones totaled 1.5 sacks on 10 pass rushing snaps.

Throughout the game, the defense was most critical when the offense struggled.

In the second and third quarters, FAU’s swarming defense held Charlotte scoreless. In the middle quarters, Charlotte spent most of its offensive possessions either punting the football or turning it over. Only twice did Charlotte get past the FAU 40-yard-line in those quarters, both times ending in missed field goals for the Charlotte offense.

The defensive play was critical for the FAU offense. Despite early struggles on the offensive side of the football, the Owls entered halftime down just 10-0 and were able to take the lead in the third quarter, thanks to timely stops by defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s group.

“That’s huge, that’s very important. Those defensive guys, they’re great,” running back James Charles said. “A lot of three-and-outs. They had a huge drive where they [Charlotte] was going down, they end up stopping it, gave up a field goal. They had great stops where Charlotte missed two field goals. It’s a great thing to have, we can rely on those boys and it helps us out. Sometimes we might start slow but they do a great job of holding their end.”